Aspects of Leadership and Their Effects on the Growth and Vitality of North American Churches

Recent leadership research metrics may shed light on old questions regarding the value and spiritual quality of church growth, particularly in megachurches in the United States and Canada. This article examines two different leadership types‚ÄĒpaternalistic and encouraging, the first of which has not been without its share of controversy. Both leadership styles and their accompanying characteristics are still exhibited in varying degrees by senior pastors of North American churches. We measured such factors using instruments the Paternalistic Leadership Scale (PLS) and the Encouraging Leadership Index (ELI).1 These scales revealed highly significant statistical correlations when compared with their churches‚Äô growth rates and other spiritual vitality indicators. At predominantly mainline churches, higher growth rates and more spiritually healthy congregations were noted when the PLS score increased; we found ELI scores to moderate the associations between PLS and growth rates. Although scoring higher overall on both leadership indicators and having more spiritually vibrant congregations, we observed only weak or no correlations for evangelicals.

Definition of Leadership Styles

For this research study, we defined the paternalistic leadership style to be both autocratic and nurturing in the exercise of hierarchical authority, providing parent-like care and guidance, whether in one’s professional or personal life; followers of paternalistic leaders often demonstrate unwavering loyalty to their leaders (Aycan, Schyns, Sun, Felfe, & Saher, 2010). While paternalistic leadership is often frowned upon in the West, it is much more prevalent and accepted in non-Western cultures.

Encouraging leaders go further to inspire followers to reach beyond self-interested limitations or perceptions of themselves. Such leaders compel followers to higher levels of achievement and the pursuit of more ambitious collective goals. They employ strategies to describe such goals, convince followers of their merits, and encourage their accomplishment. Encouraging leaders show empathy, inspire self-reliance, foster solidarity, role-model, and support followers in their pursuit of goals (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman, & Fetter, 1990).

Background

Accommodating one‚Äôs culture‚ÄĒrather than confronting and transforming it‚ÄĒhas always been problematic for the church. In fact, the challenge to bring equilibrium between the church‚Äôs confrontational role and her ability to identify with surrounding culture has been on the forefront of the evangelical impetus ever since the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:22‚Äď34) (Keller, 2012). While presenting the Gospel requires some accommodation, balancing that with the Gospel‚Äôs power to confront without diluting its message is challenging.

Western cultural values are informed by the enlightenment ideology. Reading the Bible through that lens hinders its potential for spiritual transformation. Adopting the surrounding culture’s values will affect both one’s practice of Christianity and understanding of the Bible. Some claim the Western church model needs to have a radically paradigmatic change in its self-perception (Reed, 2017). However, the existing Western institutional church model is not likely to accommodate too great a break with its own traditions.

Rodney Stark (2012) claims that as much as 70% of the population attends church (p. 7). However, such statistics can easily lead to false assurances and complacency. A Pew Research poll conducted in October 2019 indicated a 12% decline in American adults self-identifying as Christian over the previous decade (from 77% in 2009 to 65% in 2019), with the bulk of defections occurring among those of millennial age and younger.

While we could debate these statistics, Jesus exhorts us to use a completely different standard to measure our impact as Christians‚ÄĒsaltiness. When we align with Western society’s mores, this trait suffers; without saltiness, we are of no value to the Kingdom (Matt. 5:13). I am not suggesting that if a church lacks numerical growth, it is unfaithful to its mandate. However, a church‚Äôs overall rate of growth shows its spiritual vitality. If the church in America is not growing, then something is wrong.

Jesus declared He would build His church (Matt. 16:18). Indeed, Christ‚Äôs understanding of what it meant to ‚Äúmake disciples‚ÄĚ reflected the values of His culture. Even today, we see that values upheld in thriving churches to have a closer approximation, on average, to those values which were operative in first-century Judea.

The traditional North American church model needs to be reevaluated. For this study, we used biblical criteria to evaluate church health and vitality. We then looked for correlations in churches‚Äô leader values. Leadership values correlating strongly with spiritually vibrant, biblically healthy churches were then assessed. While not relying solely on our findings to determine preferred values, we can still ask how values derived from the biblical standards versus cultural mores‚ÄĒand thus possibly display some confirmation biases (Nickerson, 1998)‚ÄĒare reinforced by Western ideologies.

The Research Problem

For this study, the research questions focused on two main areas: (1) does church growth rate correspond to church vitality (where church vitality is an assessment of the numerical ratios of the baptisms, membership levels, church plants, giving, and missionaries supported to their current attendance)? If so, (2) does church growth rate correlate with the PLS and ELI scores (i.e., leadership style) of their pastors? Do either of these correlations depend on church size? Is the association between PLS and the church growth rate mediated by any other factor? If so, a mediating factor between the independent and dependent variables may explain why such a relationship exists. Here, the predominant candidate for being such a mediator is church tradition‚ÄĒwas the church mainline or evangelical? Finally, (3) is the association between PLS and the church growth rate moderated by the ELI? A moderating variable is a separate/third variable that influences the relationship between an independent and dependent variable. Here, PLS scores were assumed to be the independent variable, and church growth rate and vitality were the dependent variables. We also asked if the strength of their relationship depended upon certain limits of the range of ELI.

Three primary hypotheses were tested initially and subsequently validated:

Hypothesis 1: There is a significant positive correlation between the church growth rate and church vitality.

Hypothesis 2: There is a positive correlation between the PLS of the pastor and church growth rate.

Hypothesis 3: The correlation of the PLS with the church growth rate is moderated by the ELI.

Methodology

This observational study analyzed data from Christian churches evenly distributed across North America. The population came from a database of over 2,000 predominantly Protestant churches in the United States and Canada, ranging in attendance from 10 to 30,000. The sample was then stratified into three separate cohorts: small to medium churches (with 10 to 500 attendees), medium to large churches (501 to 2000 attendees), and megachurches (2001+ attendees). We randomly selected 900 churches from these cohorts and sent emails to their pastors, inviting them to take an online survey (via Survey Monkey). A $30 donation was offered to participating churches as an expression of gratitude.

The survey requested information on attendance, membership, congregational age, baptisms, deaths, births, transfers, church plants/closings, and missionary support over the previous five years. The pastor also completed a leadership inventory. These data were used to profile church growth rates and vitality and two indices of their pastoral leadership: Paternalistic Leadership Scale (PLS) and Encouraging Leadership Index (ELI).

We applied quantitative and correlative analysis using a survey instrument comprising: (1) six items of the ELI, (2) a ten-item version of Aycan’s PLS, and (3) questions on the demographics of the churches and their pastors. Of the 900 churches surveyed in the fall of 2012, 240 gave adequate responses2 by spring 2013. By inviting 112 more megachurches, we increased our number of adequate responses to 274. Fully complete responses3 (to measure vitality) remained at 156.

Data Analysis We used SPSS software (2012, Version 21) to perform bivariate regression analysis of the PLS and the ELI, with the respective church growth rates. We then used an Excel spreadsheet to compute the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor (CCGVF), an estimate of church vitality that considered all the congregational demographic records collected from 2007 through 2012. A simple vitality factor (VF) was then deduced: VF = CCGVF ‚Äď CGR.

Findings and Application

The Correlations: CGR with CCGVF and Vf The strong positive correlation between the church growth and the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor indicated that about 86% of the variance in the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor could be accounted for by church growth. That suggests that the church growth rate is a valid measure of actual vital church growth instead of merely a reflection of congregational transfers or due only to more charismatic leaders’ popularity. That allowed us to use the church growth rate, with more responses, than the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor to measure correlations with the leadership style. About 10% of the vitality factor variance was attributed to church growth, and a 3.7% annual increase in attendance was found in churches with more paternalistic leaders. A similarly strong positive correlation found between the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor and PLS supports the case that PLS positively influences healthy church growth.

ELI as a Moderator of the Correlation Between the PLS and Church Growth

This correlation showed that there was about a 99.4% probability that 8% of the variance in PLS was attributable to ELI. Hence, we did a path analysis of PLS and ELI‚Äôs correlations with Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor, church vitality, and the church growth rate. Path analysis can test a potential theoretical model. Here, we are assuming a direct influence is exerted on these variables (PLS and church growth) by force, in this case outside of those under consideration, i.e., ELI, that is causal, linear, additive, and measurable on a linear scale. Since causal relationships are directional in character, they may be plotted or represented graphically, hence the term ‚Äúpath analysis‚ÄĚ (Dodge, Cox, Commenges, Davison, Solomon, & Wilson, 2006, p. 304).

We then found that for high ELI, the correlations of PLS with Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor were weak; for low ELI, PLS correlated strongly with the vitality factor and the Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor. At low ELI, a positive regression of PLS to Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor showed with 97.7% probability that about a 6.5% increase of Comprehensive Church Growth/Vitality Factor could be achieved with higher PLS. Still, there was a very high risk (99.9%) of suffering as much as a 10% decline in vitality due to the strongly negative correlation vitality had with PLS. That meant that ELI negatively moderated the correlation of PLS to church growth. It also presented a cause for concern for the churches of pastors exhibiting a low ELI.

Therefore, when pastors fail to encourage (low ELI), growth in attendances may still occur with more paternalistic leadership (high PLS), but at the same time VF will decline. But when more encouragement is given, higher PLS is not needed for higher growth rates. Although PLS and ELI have a strong positive correlation, a high ELI is still possible with a low PLS. In such cases although CGR may not be adversely affected by a low PLS, it raises the question of the quality of the growth that occurs. Therefore, we also correlated VF with CGR for such cases. We found a significant positive correlation indicating with greater than 95% likelihood that a 10% increase in the vitality factor will occur along with a comparable rise in church growth when ELI is high, but PLS is low. That finding emphasizes the crucial importance of encouraging leadership for vital church growth (1 Cor. 14:3; Heb. 10:25).

The strongly negative correlation found between the vitality factor and PLS at low ELI scores is also a clear danger sign indicating that paternalistic leadership was not always the preferred style, even though whatever growth in attendances may be attained. We suspect this may be more characteristic of leadership found in some peripheral sects or cults more popular in high power distance cultures, which would make for a very interesting subject of further research. Previously noted strong correlations between high power distance orientation cultures and the rapid rise of megachurches may shed light on the high PLS correlation with church growth; we found this in our own megachurches since we know PLS is characteristic of those cultures (Waddell, 2005). It reinforces our understanding of the need for higher ELI scores. The encouraging function of the pastor is not optional in the development of spiritual maturity of the church. While paternalistic leadership may bring numerical growth, real church vitality and full spiritual maturity need strong encouragement from strong leaders.

Congregation Age Versus CGr

Given the mean age of the church attendees within our sample, there was a 99.9% likelihood that as the mean age of the congregation increased there would be a comparable decrease in its church growth rate of about 6% per year. Based on past research this was no surprise. A rising median age of congregants has always been a danger sign for church growth, (Reeves & Jensen, 1984, p. 50; Colson & Vaughn 1994, p. 43). However, we also noticed that the effect congregation age had on church growth disappeared once the mean age reached 40 years, with no further declines occurring when the mean age was above that level. Thus, you could expect to find about twice that effect or closer to a 12% per year decline in church growth with an increasing mean age in churches where the congregation mean age had yet to exceed the range of 18 to 40 years of age.

PLS Correlations

Biblical leaders both exert authority and practice love. The PLS measures the efforts of each. Western attitudes typically have an aversion to this leadership style (e.g., Mandryk, 2010, p. 342; Tippet, 2013, p. 190; Barnett, 1953, p.65‚Äď68; Allen, 1962, p. 29‚Äď30; Kraft, 2005, p. 83). Unfortunately, the term ‚Äúpaternalism‚ÄĚ is stigmatized and considered pejorative; the concept has negative associations with imperialism and slavery linked to it. While paternalistic practices cannot justify such exploitations, neither do they need to be condemned along with them. In his autobiography, No Continuing City, Alan Tippett (2013) discusses Western Colonial era missionaries‚Äô tendency to be overly paternalistic. I believe that the primary detrimental effects to which he alluded were due more to ethnocentrism than paternalism.

Because of this sordid past, disciple-making may be considered exploitive wherever a paternal nature is evident. Our society’s radical individualism exacerbates this perception (Krauthammer, 2013, p. 164). Teaching requires some condescension on behalf of the teacher, and learning requires the learner’s dependency upon the instructor. Thus, negative attributions, by default, can be attached to the attitudes or motivations involved. Edward Said’s work Orientalism likely capitalized on this trend as much as contributing to it (Said, 1979). Post-modernists bolster it (Colella & Garcia, 2004).

Max Weber (1946) argued that paternalism would become obsolete as organizations rely more on rules rather than the whims and dictates of authoritarian figures. He thought a paternalistic leader’s status, alone, demanded obedience, hence denoting an elementary form of traditional domination. He favored a shift from traditional to ration-legal forms of authority (Weber, 1968).

In other cultures, however, paternalistic leadership has always been widespread, if informal. Policy in most regions of the world carries some aspects of paternalism and holds no such negative connotations. The Chinese practice it, with the three primary elements of authoritarianism, benevolence, and moral leadership (Westwood, 1997; Cheng, Chou, Wu, Huang, & Farh, 2004, p. 91). The authoritarian element is rooted in Confucianism and legalism. In this tradition, the father is supreme‚ÄĒunquestioned, unqualified, and absolute authority. Yet, the ‚ÄúConfucian ideal of the five cardinal relationships and the norm of reciprocity‚ÄĚ inspires its benevolent aspect (Cheng et al., 2004). Those relationships are the ruler-servant, the father-son, the husband-wife, the elder brotheryounger brother, and the kind elder-deferent junior. In each case, the senior partner‚Äôs benevolence inculcates a reciprocal indebtedness and deference by the junior. Their highly extolled virtues of moral leadership are gratitude, loyalty, obedience, and compliance, ensuring a governance system that relies more on personal duty than rules or law.

Paternalistic leadership is also rooted in the ‚Äúindigenous psychologies‚ÄĚ of the cultures of Latin America and the Middle East (Aycan, 2006, p. 445). Hence, it is well represented and wholly exemplified within the biblical text pages: fulfilling a human need for nurturing relationships over time to develop spiritual maturity. This has been shown to be crucial to understanding the meaning and the impact of many of Jesus‚Äôs parables, including ‚ÄúThe Prodigal Son‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe Unjust Steward‚ÄĚ (Luke 15:11‚Äď32; 16:1‚Äď9) (Yap, 2016). Western culture‚Äôs individualistic values tend to shorten these developmental time frames.

Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, James and the author of Hebrews employ the idea of paternalism (Nicolaides, 2013, p. 164). Our contemporary understanding of ‚Äúdisciple‚ÄĚ has changed radically since the first century. If ‚Äúdisciple‚ÄĚ meant only student, manthano, translated as ‚ÄúI learn,‚ÄĚ would have sufficed, with 24 New Testament occurrences. But mathetes, ‚Äúa disciple,‚ÄĚ found 266 times in the New Testament, had already been used for centuries previously. This word means one who is a totally devoted follower of their spiritual leader, not unlike a child with his father, imitating their master in every respect. When Christ first called John and James to follow Him, they were with their father mending fishing nets. They left their father, Zebedee, with his hired men to follow Jesus (Matt. 4:22, Mark 1:20). Clearly, Jesus was now adopting the role previously assumed by their father. With these positive, Christ-like attributes and connotations in mind, we expected the PLS of pastors to correlate positively with church growth and vitality.

ELI Correlations

If PLS meets all these biblical criteria, why add ELI to it? Implied in the definition of ‚Äúdisciple‚ÄĚ is the expectation that s/he will eventually become a disciple-maker. Healthy churches do not merely produce disciples. They make disciple-makers with the goal of releasing disciples from previous allegiances implied in the paternalistic model. They must build the confidence needed for disciples to assume more responsibility and take greater risks in their own discipling endeavors. The aim is to instill enough courage into disciples to assume the risks of making disciples themselves. This requires encouragement and is one focus of Kouzes and Posner‚Äôs Leadership Practices Inventory, which has been validated for over twenty years in the contexts of Western business management studies while stimulating some 500 academic studies (Leadership Challenge, 2013). Other correlations have linked the encouraging aspect of the Leadership Practices Inventory to Power Distance Orientation (PDO) (Ergeneli, Gohar, & Timirbekova, 2007). Hofstede (2001) writes:

Power distance is a term that describes how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships‚ÄĒsuperior/subordinate relationships‚ÄĒbetween people, including the degree that people not in power accept that power is spread unequally. Individuals in cultures demonstrating a high-power distance are very deferential to figures of authority and generally accept an unequal distribution of power, while individuals in cultures demonstrating a low power distance readily question authority and expect to participate in decisions that affect them. (n.p.)

High power distance orientation is a trait long associated with paternalistic culture and practice. Therefore, we included the encouraging aspect of the Leadership Practices Inventory here as the Encouraging Leadership Index (ELI). ELI, which moderates the correlation between PLS and church growth, has been described by its ‚Äúindividualized consideration.‚ÄĚ We associate this characteristic with the individualized care of the benevolent leadership characteristic of PLS. Superiors who respect their subordinates both care for them and try to meet felt needs but give the appropriate support, including encouragement.

In Western culture, individualized consideration implies a relative degree of equality of respect, treatment, and rights accorded to both superiors and subordinates alike. It goes beyond magnanimity displayed on the job to an interest in a subordinate‚Äôs personal well-being. In Eastern, Middle Eastern, African, or Latin American cultures, benevolent leadership means ‚Äúfavor granting‚ÄĚ to subordinates, where there is a large difference in authority between superior and subordinate, with constant reminders of that distance being invoked.

This understanding may explain the absence of any directly significant correlation found between ELI and church growth. While ELI does not correlate directly to church growth, it can affect it indirectly by strengthening the ministry and increasing leadership endurance. This may explain its direct correlation to church vitality. That would mean that while both PLS and ELI play significant roles in church growth, they build up the church members at various stages of their development. While many people directly associate Paul with the immediate growth of the church in Acts, Barnabas was working behind the scenes to provide encouragement (Acts 4:36: 9; see chapters 11; 12; 13; 14; 15; 1 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 2:1, 9, 13; Col. 4:10). This ministry of encouragement is vital for the continued health of the church. Without it, the church would be inclined to schism, dissipation, and inward focus. While more encouraging leaders may not directly influence numerical growth, they can do so indirectly through their ministry to others. They directly impact church vitality, which is believed to be another indicator of spiritual health.

The very strong correlation between PLS and ELI shows that these two constructs hold certain biblical elements in common with each other (1 Thess. 2:11‚Äď12). Being paternalistic and encouraging are complementary leadership traits. A paternalistic leader is likely to be an encourager, and an encourager is likely to have paternalistic instincts. When pastoral ELI is sufficiently high, as might be expected, the correlation between their PLS scores and numerical growth rates disappears.

Mega-churches and Denominational Affiliations

We found a dramatic difference in PLS and church growth rate correlations on the first three cohorts instead of those correlations when only 28 megachurches were included. The first regression had a correlation indicating a 98.8% probability of gaining a 2.7% increase in annual church growth rate with higher PLS. When combining the groups, the regression increased to a 99.8% probability of achieving a 3.9% increase in church growth overall with higher PLS. For so few churches to have this great of an impact upon the overall correlation, their own correlation had to be very high. We found a 99.5% probability that adjusting for PLS in these 28 churches would correspond to an overall increase in growth by a stunning 34% annually. Was that because of their mean congregational sizes? No, attendance levels did not correlate to PLS. Could it be because of denominational affiliation? Cohorts one to three were a mixture of mainline, evangelical, and Catholic and Orthodox churches, while the megachurches were primarily evangelical (five were mainline). We then asked, ‚ÄúWould evangelical pastors stand to gain more from strengthening their paternalistic leadership skills?‚ÄĚ

Therefore, we did another correlation on the first three cohorts after segregating them into two groups based upon denominational affiliation: 173 evangelical churches comprised one group, and 87 mainline churches, plus two Roman Catholic and two Orthodox, comprised the second group. Contrary to our expectations, we found that the mainline church group leadership accounted for the entire significance of the PLS/church growth rate regression. That regression yielded a very strong likelihood (99.9%) of seeing an 11.6% increase in church growth in churches with higher PLS, while that of the evangelical group’s correlation did not meet the criterion considered to be statistically significant. We concluded that due to the already higher PLS scores of evangelical pastors, only marginal, if any, improvements could be gained by further increases. The benefits of this study would appear to apply primarily to mainline churches and their pastors, with the glaring exception of the evangelical megachurch pastors.

Unfortunately, our sample of these pastors was too small (only 28) to follow up with a study on the moderating effects of ELI. However, it raises the question again of how they are getting their high growth rates. Is it by high-quality spiritually vibrant disciple-making? And if so, what accounts for the apparent lack of multiplication in some of these churches? A mature disciple of Christ, by definition, can‚ÄĒand will‚ÄĒreproduce himor herself. Such a follow-up study may provide some very enlightening answers to these questions. Given the rapid rise of this megachurch phenomenon in our culture, adequately addressing these questions could help illuminate potential leadership shortcomings and provide guidance in oversight or training if required.

Implications for the Church

We cannot claim from these data alone that paternalistic leadership is more biblical than other leadership styles. However, within the present Western culture of the United States and Canada, this leadership style’s practice appears effective when supplemented with high ELI, in enabling pastors of mainline churches‚ÄĒand possibly evangelical megachurches‚ÄĒto see more biblical fruit. Assuming a causal relationship, mainline churches should see no less than an 11% increase in annual growth rates by practicing more paternalistic leadership styles, again, with the proviso that ELI is not neglected.

Because of the discrepancy between evangelicals and mainliners, one may conclude that the most significant contributing factor to church health and vitality has to do with one’s view of scriptural authority. If true, then gaining a higher view of scriptural authority would yield higher church growth rates (up to 7% annually). In contrast, church growth rates in the US and Canada are currently hovering at about 0.7% annually (Barrett, Kurian, & Johnson, 2001, p. 224), similar to the general population’s growth rate.

About 25% of the Caucasian population (Pew Research Center, 2019, p. 23) in the US (63 million, per Ward, 2021) regularly attend a Protestant church. Thus, the church’s growth should be about seven to eight hundred thousand annually (in which Protestants have remained consistently at an approximately 35% [Earls, 2019]). Seven percent of that is about 50,000 people every year, the equivalent of another twenty-five megachurches annually, or at least another half million in a decade. Hence, in ten years, there would be another half a million more real, active, and vital (assuming we do not neglect the encouragement factor) Christians living in North America, which would have an inestimable impact upon our nation’s future, and the evangelization of the world.

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1The acronym ELI (encouraging leadership index) refers to the six items of the fifth practice (i.e., encouragement) of Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices Inventory, ©2003 James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner. All rights reserved. It was used with permission. The abbreviated ten item version of Dr. Zeynep Aycan’s Paternalistic Leadership Scale (PLS) was also used with permission granted through email correspondence.

2Adequately complete responses included those which contained data sufficient to correlate church growth rate with PLS and ELI.

3Fully complete responses contained sufficient data to compute church vitality, as well as church growth rate, PLS, and ELI.

Kimon Nicolaides III, PhD, is a retired military chaplain and works with Marshallese Islanders as a church planter for the Advent Christian Denomination. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. For any questions or to further the conversation, please reach out to Kimon at kclnicolaides@gmail.com.

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