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Church Growth Series

Three Key Staffing Hurdles That Churches Face

As churches grow, they encounter at least three major inflection points in staffing and leadership complexity.
Three Key Staffing Hurdles That Churches Face
Image: Image: Illustration by Vasil Nazar and Aaron Hill / Source Images: Boris Zhitkov / Get

Every church encounters growing pains—points where major staffing and organizational changes hinder growth. But are these hurdles predictable?

Experience and wisdom alone can identify several potential organizational hurdles. For example, Thom Raineridentifies 350 people as a crucial transition point that nine out of ten churches never surpass. Others have identified 200 people as a key barrier. Carey Neiuwohf (as well as Rainer) believe that the biggest growth hurdle for churches is moving beyond 150-350 people. Senior Pastor Central argues that 400 is “a slippery slope,” at which point churches either grow to 450 or slump back into the 330s.

What can the data tell us?

ChurchSalary’s own internal analysis points toward at least three key complexity hurdles. To grow past these hurdles the church will need to hire additional staff and change its leadership structure.

Hurdle #1—From 35, to 50, to 100 (based on giving)

Data on per person giving indicates that a major shift occurs as very small churches transition from less than 35, to 50, and eventually 100 people. During this initial growth stage, the ratio of money to people changes quickly as the church transitions from a core group of families to a large group to a small church.

As churches approach and surpass 100 people, as per person giving decreases, churches must begin to hire part-time employees or recruit highly dedicated volunteers. Success in this stage hinges on choosing the right people for the right positions and building a ministry infrastructure of lay leaders and paid employees (often part-time), as well as defining a formal process for delegation and oversight.

ChurchSalary’s data-based conclusion about this first hurdle is further supported by academic research by the American Society for Church Growth. A 2008 research paper by Bill M. Sullivan, based on church size, indicates that one the key obstacles in this earliest stage is growing past 50 people.

Hurdle #2—From 250 to 450 (based on senior pastor salary)

When ChurchSalary analyzes compensation for senior/solo pastors based on either size or budget a logarithmic or power trendline emerges. Early in the life cycle of a church, the pastor’s salary grows rapidly as the church’s attendance and giving increase. At a certain point, salary growth for the senior pastor slows down relative to church growth.

This shift occurs because churches are forced to hire more employees and start new ministries in order to sustain and generate growth. As complexity increases every additional budget dollar must be divided between more and more employees and expenses. As a result, a smaller and smaller fraction of each budget dollar is available to increase the senior pastor’s salary.

It is hard to assign a specific number for this pivot point as it shifts depending on which data points you analyze.

  • Relative to budget, the shift occurs somewhere in the $675,000-$825,000 range. At this point, churches tend to have around 250-350 people.
  • Relative to attendance, the shift occurs between 350 and 450 people. At this point, average church income ranges between $875,000 and $1.13 million.
  • As this shift occurs, senior pastor compensation (minus benefits) increases from around $85,000 to $95,000—with a midpoint around $91,000.
  • Several of the formulas that model the relationship between average budget and attendance intersect as attendance reaches 416 people or $1.16 million.

What are we to make of all these figures?

First, the two overlapping attendance ranges indicate there is probably one giant complexity gauntlet as churches try to grow from less than 250 to 350 and from 350 to over 450 people. Second, it indicates that some churches begin this transition and start hiring full-time staff sooner (or later) than others (and they do so with different budgets). Finally, as Thom Rainer and other church growth experts note from experience, 350 people appears to be a key inflection point from an organizational standpoint as well—i.e., in terms of both staffing and church leadership structures.

Hurdle #3: From 755 to over 900 (based on staff and church size)

As the chart below visualizes, churches hire different types of pastors as they grow. Associate pastors that can wear multiple hats along with music pastors tend to get hired first, followed by dedicated youth and children’s pastors. Eventually churches hire dedicated adult education and/or executive pastors to lead both adults and the growing number of church employees.

Several sources validate that a staffing shift occurs in the 750 to 1,000 person range. First, historical data from Church Law & Tax Compensation Handbooks (dating back to 1992) reveals that staff size growth appears to deviate from attendance growth as churches transition from 750 to 1,000 people—on average, at or around 850 people. This hurdle also appears if you also evaluate the frequency of churches based on size. There is a marked decrease in the number of churches that grow beyond 750 to 1,000 people. Finally, this shift is visible in attendance-to-staff (FTE) ratios when you compare churches based on size.

All this evidence indicates that a shift in hiring, staff complexity, and potentially facility requirements combine in the 750-1,000-person range to create a significant complexity hurdle for churches. To grow past this stage, churches may need to spend upwards of 60 percent of their total budget on payroll in order to hire additional pastors and support staff.

Three Distinct Stages of Staffing

1. Multiple Employees

The first key staffing hurdle that churches face is their second employee—especially their second full-time employee or pastor. At this point, the lead pastor must shift from being a solo pastor who leads a team of volunteers to a senior pastor who leads multiple employees.

2. Leading a Team

The second organizational hurdle that churches face is hiring a team of pastors and staff members. These employees need to be self-motivated, responsible people who can execute the leader’s vision without constant supervision.

To move past the second hurdle, the senior pastor must effectively add a layer of staff in between himself and some of the leaders at the church. Practically speaking, this means that lay leaders will report to the pastor who leads their specific ministry before the issue is elevated to the senior pastor. This loss of unfettered access to the senior pastor in the past, the addition of what feels like a layer of bureaucracy, will almost certainly create controversy.

3. Becoming a Team of Leaders

The third and final staffing hurdle is hiring employees that senior staff members can lead. Each ministry or program will need to become its own team. For example, as churches grow past the third hurdle, the worship pastor will be given the funds and authority to hire a dedicated AV employee who operates under their supervision, rather than relying solely on volunteers. To lead past this hurdle the senior pastor must delegate even further. Often an executive pastor or administrator is needed to oversee this staff expansion.

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Lilly Endowment

ChurchSalary is made possible through funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. As part of Lilly's "National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders," ChurchSalary—and our parent, Church Law & Tax—is committed to helping church leaders and pastors develop an atmosphere of healthy financial stewardship, especially in the area of church staff compensation.