Can a church be too big to fail? by William Vanderbloemen

No matter what you think of the personalities involved in the latest headlines, they highlight the need for leaders thinking about transition.

“True leadership is measured by what happens after you die.” – Dr. Myles Munroe

By William Vanderbloemen • The Washington Post

Mars Hill Church, then led by Mark Driscoll, held its Easter service at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wash. on April 24, 2011. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Greg Gilbert)
Mars Hill Church, then led by Mark Driscoll, held its Easter service at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wash. on April 24, 2011. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Greg Gilbert)

The designation “Too Big to Fail” usually makes us think of large banks, propped up by taxpayer funds during the 2008 financial crisis. But the central questions it raises—When do we have a responsibility to save an institution? And who should be on the hook to save it?—apply beyond the finance industry. Each of us has our own ideas and interpretations of which institutions are the most valuable to society, and what the possible failure of an institution would mean in our daily lives.

For me, that resonates nowhere more profoundly than with our country’s churches. Megachurches, those with over 2,000 regular attendees, are a large piece of the American religious landscape. And as the big get bigger, they also have farther to fall.

Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of megachurches in the United States. According to Hartford Institute, now there are 1,300 churches in America with more than 2,000 weekend worshippers, and 50 churches with more than 10,000 weekend worshippers. Those numbers appear to only be growing.

We recently got a sense of their massive influence by witnessing the reaction when two major pulpits were vacated. Dr. Myles Munroe from the Bahamas Faith Ministries International died recently in a tragic plane accident. And Mark Driscoll, who led the multi-site megachurch Mars Hill, resigned over a leadership controversy—leaving behind a weekly attendance of over 12,000 people.

So what happens when these charismatic pastors, who galvanized their congregations’ growth, disappear?

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William Vanderbloemen is the author of Next: Pastoral Succession That Works and President and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.