Moxie — 1. vigor; verve; pep, 2. courage and aggressiveness, 3. skill; know-how. Moxie is an American slang word, coined from a depression-era soda pop (that tastes a little like carbonated shoe-polish…). It came to be a term of admiration — someone with Moxie was brash, bold, eccentric, impressive and generally got things done. I use the term to describe what I believe are the qualities and characteristics needed to launch high-growth potential congregations. I have a reputation for not liking large and mega-churches, which is not true. My position, consistently, is that our largest churches are not our healthiest churches, they are incredibly difficult to create and sustain in a healthy manner, they require a very rare skill set (moxie), they are not a good model to lift up for others to follow, and they have generated a mythology based in wishful thinking rather than reality. And yet, we have some, and they do a lot of good work. Yet, a truly healthy congregation never depends upon the lead/senior pastor for their long-term effectiveness. Take the pastor out of the equation and the whole formula comes apart. So, I don’t equate size with health, numeric growth with systemic growth, or popularity with effectiveness (and this often gets me in trouble).
But I cannot (and do not) deny the success and prowess of a handful of United Methodist pastors. I have nothing but admiration for the results Adam Hamilton has produced — I simply don’t think you can remove Adam from his results. Doing what Hamilton does won’t produce the same results. The same is true for a Slaughter, Rasmus, Caldwell, Gordon, etc. These pastors all possess moxie — innate qualities and drives that are foreign to many of us. I personally am not an ambitious person, nor am I an entrepreneur. I’m visionary, but not patient. I am a good critical thinker, but I am not overly self-confident. I would be a poor church-growth pastor for a variety of reasons. So what are the rare variables that make for a great founder/savior/turn-around large church pastor? I offer five — in Scrabble order — that add up to “moxie.”
E is for entrepreneur — to build something, to grow something, to create something — this is a key drive for new launch pastors who can generate large/mega-churches. There is a strong streak of the salesman/saleswoman in effective entrepreneurs — as well as marketing pitch and spin. Not everyone can do this, and not everyone can learn this, but for those who are born with it the question is never “can we?” but merely “HOW can we?” Where there is a will, there is a way, and may entrepreneurial pastors pursue both their will as well as the will of God. For the most deeply committed, this makes them a veritable unstoppable force. This, of course can be both a great strength and a glaring weakness. Talking to pastors about the church they lead produces a very different story than that of many who are led. During my Vital Signs research an interesting correlation emerged: the larger the church, the larger the disparity between the story that the pastor and key leaders tell and that of the people in the pew. It often sounds like two completely different churches. But I believe entrepreneurs do not live in the realm of the “what is,” but in the realm of the “what I am trying to create.”
I is for innovation — effective launch/turn-around pastors are leaders, not followers. They don’t buy books by other pastors to see what they are doing. They don’t attend leadership academies hosted by other successful pastors. They are innovators, not imitators. They are constantly looking at their setting and asking what’s missing? Where is the next new thing we can do or offer that adds value to the people we serve (or those we want to serve). There is very little copy-catting in the most enduring large churches. You may get away with following the herd for a short time, but in the end church growth is just like any other growth industry — if you don’t establish a competitive advantage, then reinvent it constantly, you won’t lead for long. Doing a new thing, even a risky thing — and doing it well — is a hallmark of moxie.
M is for mission — I have yet to meet a successful pastor of a large, growing congregation who was not trying to create a large, growing congregation. Big church pastors are pursuing a big church mission. They see mega-church as their raison d’etre. They have a missional objective to lead a large church. The gospel compels them to reach as many people as they can with the good news. However, like the apostle Paul, often they pursue their own mission to the detriment of the empowerment of the whole body of Christ. Bottom line focus and results driven program often lead to representational ministry — where a handful of leaders (many paid) do the ministry for the whole church. It creates a passive complacency among most of the members (however, this phenomenon is not limited to large churches. We have found creative ways to allow passive pew-sitting to define us as a church in congregations of all sizes…) where attenders are “proud” of the ministries of their church, though they never do more than give a buck or two for others to do the ministry for them. It is stunning to interview members of some of our largest churches and realize how very little they know about or are connected to in their own church. Many of our pastors are mission driven, but this drive does not trickle down throughout the whole congregation. Yet, it contributes to the” irresistible force” nature of many successful pastors.
O is for obsession — single-mindedness and clarity of focus characterizes our large church pastors. Regardless of what they write in their biographies, it is a little overwhelming to see how tightly aligned everything is to their ministry and work in real life. Even when not “on-the-job,” they are on the job, their minds moving a million miles an hour with details big and small on where they want to go next. I find it amusing trying to have a conversation with some of our lead pastors about anything but ministry. Every conversation comes back to the church. It’s inescapable. This total immersion in all things church-success related may take a toll in family and other relationships, but pays big dividends on the church development end of things. For large church pastors, church growth is the Promised Land and they are willing to do whatever they must to get there. Here is another place where pastors tell a different story than others — this time their own families. During my research for Vital Signs, I found that most successful large/mega-church pastors feel they do an excellent job juggling work and while family members report that they understand the sacrifices that must be made, but they only rate the juggling act as “fair” at best. For this reason, successful church growth pastors require the loving support of a family willing to make necessary sacrifices so that the whole family fulfills the call to ministry of the pastoral head.
X is for x-factor — here is where I often get my head handed to me — over the intangibles. There is an x-factor in successful large and mega-church pastors. Rarely are they the most handsome, charismatic, charming, eloquent or smooth. Most have rough edges and noticeable flaws. They are far from perfect… and it doesn’t matter one bit. The books they write are not the best books published on their respective subjects. Their seminars are rarely deeply profound or unique. Almost everything they do, someone else is doing better somewhere else… and it doesn’t matter. There is just something about them that works. They are greater than the sum of their gifts, knowledge, experience, skills, and competencies. This is not to say that aren’t gifted and exceptionally skilled. It is to say that there are many people out there with every bit as much to offer, but who function in relative obscurity in comparison. It isn’t an issue of “fair,” it just is. Some people are able to take what they have and maximize it beyond its apparent potential, and the danger then becomes setting such exceptional performance as a standard or norm for others to emulate.
Take the E, I, M, O, X — shake ’em up, toss ’em out, rearrange ’em, and you got MOXIE — the building blocks for successful church growth pastors. At least, these are the qualities and characteristics I have found to be at the heart of our brightest and biggest. Add a lead pastor with these characteristics to a good location and some adequate resources and you have the foundation in place to grow a big church. This is the good news. The bad news? There simply aren’t that many people with this unique blend working for them. Even if we could clone them (and our Social Principles aren’t likely to approve cloning any time soon…) it probably wouldn’t make any difference. History shows us that large/mega-church success is a one-time occurrence for 4-out-of-5 lead pastors. It’s those pesky intangibles again.
I close sharing two things I have said many times in the past. I have nothing against large churches, though I am a bit more leery and cautious about mega-churches. It is simply that with quantity, quality trade-offs are made. There is ample evidence that ten healthy 300 members churches are more effective than one 3,000 member church. The only measurable advantage the big church has over the smaller churches is less overhead (one 3,000 member church costs much less to run than ten 300 member churches). Usually, large and mega-church proponents compare a healthy 3,000 member (or 10,000) to a handful of small, struggling churches… where there is really no comparison at all. The second thing I offer is that Christian seekers who are currently unaffiliated with an organized church overwhelmingly state that they would prefer intimacy and engagement with a community of faith, and wouldn’t be interested in a church with more than 100-200 members. And our successful large churches actually figured this out, which is why so many are designed around “cells” or small groups — trying to be a large church of small churches.
Last word? One size does not fit all. No church, based on size, is going to be the standard (or the salvation) for the future. Quality — health, vitality, engagement and impact on community and world — are much more important indicators of “success” and “effectiveness” than size, prominence, or popularity. There is a place for everyone, and opportunity enough to go around. It might take moxie to make a church huge, but it only takes God’s Holy Spirit to make it bear fruit — fruit that will last.