A Lean Ministry is a Smart Ministry

No one local church can do every ministry. The question then becomes which ministries and how many? How do you decide? How many is too many?

It’s like a local church to continue to add ministries. It is also like a local church to resist eliminating a ministry, regardless of its effectiveness.

Most churches are busy to the point of significant fatigue. Yet, all that activity doesn’t necessarily translate to vibrant and healthy growing churches.

So, what is the best leadership move?


Let me offer a frame of reference for the conversation.

  1. When your ministries are allowed to follow their own course, (without change and pruning), they will become more complicated and less effective over time.
  2. The larger a church becomes, the ratio of energy-to-results yields decreasing returns. Fewer ministries allow you to refocus your energy for greater results.
  3. The more complex a church becomes, the less the leaders believe simplicity can be achieved.
  4. The larger and/or older a church becomes, increasing pressure is felt from the congregation for the church to provide more ministries.

Assuming we agree that no one local church can or should attempt to do every possible ministry, then the smart approach is one that is spiritually strategic. That is, to pray, seek God on the matter, and choose only the ministries He has in mind for your church.

Why fewer rather than more?

  1. A lean ministry model helps to create the margin that allows you to get better at the ministries you do offer. Focused effort on fewer ministries increases the impact of each ministry, and that results in more life change.
  1. A lean ministry model approach helps to create margin for your congregation to pursue God personally, and build healthier families. By having fewer ministry programs to attend, families can be at home with more time together. Your congregation, in general, has more time to meet and invite new friends to church.
  1. A lean ministry model will help you create the margin that increases your ability to respond to Holy Spirit prompts. Lean ministry does not squelch the Holy Spirit; it creates more space for Him to move. When you are so busy you can barely catch your breath; it’s hard to listen and respond to God prompts. I’ll admit that in most churches who practice a lean model, it doesn’t always “feel” like there is much more time, but that’s because they work so much harder and deeper making what they do better. But, that in turn, is how they reach more people.

In other words, rather than doing the same things with the same people over and over again, you are more closely connected to the mission of the church to reach more people for Jesus and help them mature in their faith.

The tension will never go away.

People are passionate for their chosen ministries, and all those ministries are good. That’s why the decisions are difficult. But, when the well-meaning volunteer decides to move on, or change ministries, you now own what they started. You don’t have to do that for many years, or even months, to end up with way too much to do. Much of which is not truly effective. At least not when you compare energy invested to (life change) results.

When I started out in ministry in the early 80’s having “many ministries” was the strategy. The more, the better! It was the way to empower your church and get people connected and involved. The concept of Ephesians 4:11-12 hasn’t changed, (equip your people for ministry), but the culture has. Time compression has squeezed out the ability for people to do more. They are already maxed out in their daily lives. I’m not suggesting the solution is to dumb-down the vision of your church. Not at all, but merely to lean out the approach. Less is more.

Let me offer a detailed plan to help you change to a lean approach. This process is in a specific order.

How To Change To A Lean Approach

1) Teach the principle of “The Divine Thumbprint.”

No one church can do everything. So the decisions should not be based on popularity, size of personality, politics or emotion. Be spiritually strategic. Pray to discover the specific ministries God wants your church to offer.

2) Communicate the role of the Holy Spirit.

Lean ministry does not limit the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit breathes life and power into the ministries you do select.

3) Lean into the idea of margin.

As I’ve mentioned, use your time wisely. Lean ministry isn’t about doing or working less; it’s about getting better. Work on your ministries. Innovate and improve.

4) Get buy-in with your staff and leaders before you cast vision from the platform.

It’s not wise to read this post and then announce to your church that you are leaning out the ministries! Your leaders will cheer and call you blessed, until you start discussing their ministry! Then things will get messy in a hurry.

5) Stop adding any new ministries.

As you teach and discuss the “why” with your leaders, and earn buy-in, simply let them know that for a season, (a long season), you won’t be adding any further ministries. And if you do, for every add, one must be eliminated.

6) Conduct a thorough ministry audit.

Make a list of every ministry you do. No matter how big or small. The possibilities are nearly endless such as: camp, baby dedication, men’s ministry, divorce care, recovery groups, student leadership, small groups, foreign missions (in detail), pre-marital, counseling, a local food co-op. Everything. Then rate the effectiveness of each one. Which ones are working well, and which ones are not? Yes, this can be subjective, but you will intuitively know right away for most. Begin to think about which ministries are less effective and not needed.

7) Identify your irreducible minimums.

List the ministries you must have. This is the leanest list of ministries, functions, and programs without which your church would not operate. For example, ushers, nursery, children’s, worship team, production, and tech, etc. Whatever you truly believe you must have for your church to function. Note, the list is surprisingly short. (Think church plant.)

8) Identify the additional ministries that makes your church unique.

This is the “Divine Thumbprint” idea. What ministries are not absolutely needed, but make your church uniquely you? These are the ministries that contribute to and help inspire the vision. Caution: add slowly and prayerfully.

9) Eliminate ministries slowly.

Now that you know your irreducible minimums, and the ministries that God purposes uniquely for your church, it’s time to make a list of the ministries to eliminate. Go slowly. Honor the leaders who have served well.

10) Remind your people they can do any ministry they desire, on their own.

There are dozens of great ministries, and again that doesn’t mean your church does them all. But there is no reason that two or three people in your church can’t do something on their own. But it must be on their own. No announcements from the stage, no meetings, it’s not in the bulletin, and you don’t fund it. Just empower them to go for it!

11) You can add new ministries, but be intentional.

Of course you can add new ministries. But be tough in your decision-making. And a great rule of thumb is that every time you start one, eliminate one. This is not a law, but it’s a good guideline. For example, we would add very little to nothing internally. Our additions would be outside the church, from local compassion and justice to global endeavors. And in all these cases we create partnerships with organizations already doing it. We don’t recreate and own it ourselves.

12) Keep casting vision and tell stories of life change.

Coupled with ongoing evaluation, cast vision and tell stories so your congregation often hears about the lives that are changed by your ministry efforts.

10 thoughts on “A Lean Ministry is a Smart Ministry”

  1. This principle on it’s own could prevent many church leaders and volunteers from burning out. It’s tempting to try and be all things to all people, but it’s just not practical (or realistic). Love the steps you outlined on how to put this into practice.

      1. I haven’t read Simple Church, I am aware of it, though, as it is one of the source material for Lean Ministry, and it was also recommended to me by one of my pastor friend when I approached him trying to promote Lean Ministry . I spotted the book in a local bookstore, quite widely available. Thanks!

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