Staying Afloat in Multi-Site Ministry
4 Key Commitments for Long-Term Health
Multi-site church leadership is risky. Enough funding, attendance, and facilities for a site launch provide a great start. But for a new worship location and community to survive and thrive long-term, more is needed.
The multi-site church movement—wherein a single team manages the operations and shepherding of multiple co-branded churches—hit a major stride in the US just 25 years ago. So multi-sites are not yet old enough to assess their long-term impact on American Christianity. But lead teams are swimming in deep enough waters to have learned some key factors crucial to sustainability.
On November 20, Vision New England brought together 38 current and aspiring multi-site leaders from across New England for a Multi-Site Consultation at LifeSong Church in Sutton, MA. The full-day event provided a space for peers to share insights, successes and failures, and a few dirty little secrets of the multi-site experience.
Based on small group report-backs and participant surveys, Vision New England and EGC’s Applied Research & Consulting team discovered four key insights multi-site leaders repeatedly shared. We believe their insights clarify—both for leaders exploring the multi-site option and for current multi-site staff facing vexing challenges to sustainability—the need for four life-preserving team commitments.
1. Connect with Other Multi-Site Teams
Opportunities are rare to talk openly and honestly about the unique challenges of multi-site ministry. But regular connection to peers in the multi-site experience is make-or-break crucial for team health and practical insights.
Actionable ministry team learning and development happens best with others in the multi-site boat. Other church structures—church plants, missional communities, denominational leadership—are not comparable. The multi-site situation involves logistical challenges not relevant to other leadership experiences.
Furthermore, spending time with multi-site peers means the conversation won’t shrink away from addressing real-world hazards or the ugly side of multi-site. “Hearing from others and their success and failures” added value in the table discussions.
According to a 2014 Generis report surveying 535 multi-site leaders from around the world, multi-sites also grow faster than single churches or church plants. To stay ahead of the whirlwind, multi-site leaders acknowledge the wisdom of ongoing relationships with others who are currently leading a multi-site or exploring it as an option.
2. Clarify Your Multi-Site Approach & Leadership Structure
Org charts aren’t sexy, and little to no attention is devoted to organizational strategy in seminary training. But a prayerfully and carefully constructed chain of team responsibility and support can mean the difference between a failed experiment and a thriving multi-site community.
“Getting a grasp on different models of multi-site ministry was tremendous," reflected one participant. Lack of clarity on multi-site approach and leadership structure was the most commonly cited ministry challenge by both current and in-process leaders.
In plenary session, Pastor Rex Keener clarified that multi-site is not a single organizational approach, but three: franchise, localized, or church-plant style (with multi-site governance). For leaders to thrive, they need to be clear about which multi-site approach they’ve chosen. Asking and agreeing upfront, “What are we going to standardize?” avoids unnecessary community stress.
In Pastor Rex’s experience, asking leaders to adjust, for example, from a more controlled role towards more autonomy is usually not difficult. But asking leaders to adjust mid-stream from more autonomy to less can be painful and demoralizing.
In addition, different multi-site approaches require different gifts and skills. Intentionally choosing your church’s approach from the start allows your team to avoid squandering your leaders’ gifts in the wrong role.
For example, sustainable franchise leaders tend to excel in interpersonal skills for partner-, leader-, and community building, whereas effective church plant pastors require strong communication gifts for regular preaching.
But more than any other topic, leaders cited the leadership org chart conversation as the most helpful and impactful part of the day. There Pastor Rex shared multiple, legitimate options for chains of authority and leader support.
For example, in some multi-sites the senior leader directly supervises the campus pastors as well as other key leaders. In other multi-sites, the senior leader supervises another pastor who oversees and supports the campus pastors. Pastor Rex recommended the latter structure especially for churches with more than two sites, because it tends to be more readily scalable—adding a fourth or fifth site will not require a lead team restructure.
3. Go Deeper on Timeline, Location & Real Cost
Participants agreed that not enough conversation has been happening around the logistical challenges of multi-sites. According to one participant, “The conversation around the way to think through location, timeline, and budgeting were helpful in that they didn’t offer what to think but how to think.”
The financial realities of multi-sites were of particular interest. The most impactful topic of the day was, as one leader put it, “the budget stuff—NO ONE has written a book about that yet!” Published estimates for the first-year cost of launching a multi-site vary wildly. Participants in the room shared estimates ranging from $250,000 to $1 million. In the Generis survey of 535 multi-site churches, first-year estimates ranged from $46,000 to $1.4 million.
The budget discussion raised a number of factors responsible for the wide range of estimates, including: the number of staff; the combined attendance at all sites; whether the site is buying, leasing, or renting property; and the leadership structure.
The leaders broadly appreciated the time devoted to this level of logistical detail, and expressed a desire for more opportunities for such practical deep dives.
4. Prepare to Face Hard Realities
The idea of launching a multi-site in some ways can feel to a church community like a reward for a job well done. When a church community multiplies beyond its capacity, it must expand or risk crowding people out—Yay, growth!
But leaders can hold an unconscious assumption that multi-site ministry will “just flow”—that the “repeat performance” will be easier than the sweat and spiritual labor that went into the original. Similarly, churches struggling to address the needs of a community bursting at the seams may assume that the multi-site launch will bring relief for overworked ministers.
The reality can often be the opposite of these assumptions, and churches considering a multi-site need to enter such a commitment with eyes wide open. D’Angelo and Stigile warn,
Multi-site creates more problems than it solves—it multiplies exactly who you are today, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not only the good that grows, it has a way of expanding everything in your church…Going multi-site fixes nothing, it only multiplies everything.
For example, despite its efficiencies multi-sites require substantially more—not less— leadership development. Multi-sites boast a higher average level of lay participation that individual churches. Wise lead teams plan to exercise intensive leadership development as a given duty, and prepare for even higher levels of leadership skill and maturity themselves.
Pastor Rex candidly shared the pain with which his church learned the need to restructure their lead team. As the senior pastor, he had been overseeing each campus pastor directly. But he was spread too thin and ministry quality visibly suffered.
His church has now taken the hard transition to a model where he supervises another leader who oversees the campus pastors. This mid-stream shift has involved significant growing pains. Pastor Rex hoped with his radical candor to spare other church communities of this kind of potentially avoidable team stress.
As a reality check for those exploring multi-site, or those bewildered by their multi-site experience, consider how the participants in this conference honestly describe multi-site leadership:
Experienced leaders agree that leading a multi-site is not trivial—it’s a hard upward calling. But take heart—leaders also shared measured words of wisdom and hope:
Vision New England unifies, encourages, and equips the diverse Body of Christ in New England for intentional evangelism. VNE recently convened the Multisite Consultation to create an opportunity for peer fellowship, support, and shared insights among multi-site church teams in New England. Bob Atherton, VNE's Vice President of Member Services, would be happy to connect you with other local multi-site leaders.