19 Nov 2019

7 Stages of Church Success with Les McKeown

Stephen Rawlings

On the latest episode of Beyond the Call, Les Mckeown discussed the different stages that organizations go through while finding success. He is uniquely qualified to lead this talk because before writing his books and starting his company, Les helped start over 40 companies. 

Les is dedicated to passing on the knowledge he has gained through his career to help create scalable, sustainable growth for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.  

He has said that if you do something long enough, you will start to see the patterns. Les found the patterns of success after his experiences working for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Finding these patterns is what led him to write Predictable Success, a book he would describe as his life’s work.

In this blog, we’ll get into the stages your church will go through.

Early Struggle

Early Struggle happens when you start your organization, and it often feels like you are hacking through a jungle. It is harder than you expect it to be, and it’s uncomfortable.

The Early Struggle is hard to move past, but Les says, "the best way to stop being a startup, is to stop being one." He gives two guiding principles to succeed in the Early Struggle. 

1. Find a profitable and sustainable market

 "You can't change the world if you go broke." 

This topic often makes churches feel uncomfortable, but money is an essential part of any startup. It costs money to do ministry, and your organization will depend on funds to forward the Kingdom. 

Please, do not take this advice the wrong way. God's Kingdom does not solely depend on tithes, but tithing is an act of obedience to God. 

Your church will have bills to pay, and you will need capital to get out of Early Struggle.

2. Visionary leader

Les says this job requires a risk-taker who is willing to roll the dice on the big-picture ideas. Visionaries see what the organization could be, and they are not afraid to go for it. 

“Visionaries are incredibly resilient,” Les said. “You knock them down; they get back up.”

Resiliency is one of their most greatest resources. You need a leader at this stage to see where the ministry could go because they will be able to weather the storms that are bound to come around during the Early Struggle. 


Fun is the stage where you stop fighting to do ministry and start doing ministry. You know you’re in this stage because the leader's name is not on every single list of duties. 

At the Fun stage, the pastor is not on the parking team, preaching, tearing down, and running the music ministry all on his own. He is leading with confidence, knowing he doesn't need to be everywhere at once.

"During the Fun stage,” said Les, “we build the myths and legends of the church. We do things that are outrageous, and we succeed."

Many churches decide to stay in this stage because it lacks complexity but not clarity. You know that your church is thriving, and you know that you are an integral part of your congregation's life. 

However, you have to make a choice. 

Do you want to stay in Fun, or move to Predictable Success? 

"In Fun, you can always grow, but you can't scale,” said Les.   

In other words, you will find it infinitely more challenging to take on sophisticated campaigns, such as opening a new location.  If scalability isn't a primary goal, then Fun may be the perfect stage for your organization to live in. 

If you want to stay at Fun, you will need a few things. 

1. Operators

These are the visionary's supporters. Les compares the visionary to a dog when it sees a squirrel. A visionary’s job is to cast vision toward the future, and turning off that brainpower can be hard. 

The visionary continuously has ideas, but ideas without the human resources to make them work will inevitably fail. A dog will never catch a squirrel if he keeps getting distracted by other squirrels.  

This is where operators come into play. They are the supporters of the visionary. They don't want to brainstorm. Operators want to know what is expected of them, and then they want to be left alone to do their job. 

Finding capable operators will allow you to keep your ministry healthy. Operators will let the visionary look forward while knowing that the day to day tasks are being done well.

2. Learn to say no 

Complexity will derail the Fun stage, and the word "yes" will bring complexity to your organization. When things are going well, it can be easy to equate success with the word “yes.” 

The Fun stage is the perfect stage to learn how to prioritize your activities, and saying “no” to certain things is not bad. You have the power to decide what your ministry is and what your ministry is not. 

Les says he prefers to stay in the Fun stage himself. He takes on the clients that he wants based on what interests him. If he said “yes” to everything, he might be busier, but he may not be happier.

By gaining operators and learning to say “n”o, you can avoid moving into the next phase, Whitewater, but to go towards predictable success, you will need to survive this next phase. 


Whitewater is when your organization's complexity becomes unavoidable. You are growing faster, so growing pains are to be expected. 

Many pastors will view Whitewater as a sign of failure. Les tells us that this stage is a natural progression for Predictable Success. 

During Whitewater, you will make mistakes, and your binary leadership style does not work anymore. This stage is uncomfortable, but Les's advice will get your organization out of this stage successfully. 

Let's look at a few ways to survive the Whitewater experience. 

1. Processors 

During Fun, we learned about the relationship with your visionary and the operators that support them. Now, we need individuals who understand how to put systems and processes in place. 

Les calls these people the "processors," and they are exceptional individuals. They analyze how things get done and how they can be done better.

"Up until this point, visionaries and operators, their only concern is doing the right thing,” said Les. “Now, for the first time, we have got a very important emphasis on doing the thing right. It's not an option anymore to make it up as we go along." 

Processors may organize the sign-in system for the children's program, or decide the scheduling list for volunteers on the weekend. They are a vital part of the organization because they help take the weight of complexity off the visionary. 

2. Allowing people to leave 

If you are in Whitewater, the legacy of your church has been solidified. Your congregation knows your legacy, and many people identify fondly with the original way your organization was organized. 

Predictable success demands innovation, and what worked for your church three years ago may not work now. Once this realization takes place, you may notice people getting upset at the culture shift. 

Once your congregation reaches a certain size, the lead pastor will not know everybody personally. This stage is expected, and the innovation forced by Whitewater will cause some members to leave the church. 

It’s important to remember that Whitewater is a growth period, and how your leadership handles the struggle will determine your organization's success.

3. Leading through Whitewater 

Leading your congregation through Whitewater requires you to stop thinking of yourself as the founding pastor, or go back to Fun. Again, it’s not a bad thing to want to be the founding pastor, but Predictable Success requires you to raise up leaders in your organization. 

“You've got to turn your enablers into a leadership team,” said Les. “This is a much bigger deal for the nonprofit, faith-based world than the for-profit world." 

Before this stage, your organization depends on enablers. The word enabler is not derogatory.  It means that the people you employ do their job well, but they are not leading your organization. 

For example, if your music director's primary focus is music. He or she may be doing a great job, but in Predictable Success, you will need them to be a leader who can activate change. You need a leadership team invested in your organization with authority that is close to yours. 

You are building a team in Predictable Success, and although you will still be in charge, the gap between you and the leaders you trust will need to be shortened to achieve your goals. 

Predictable Success

How do you know when your church has reached Predictable Success? 

Les compares organizational growth to a skyscraper. In the Fun stage, you can go up a flight of stairs quickly, but it will drain your resources. In Predictable Success, you use the elevator. 

Whitewater is hard because you are building that elevator, and your organization did not come equipped with it. But once you have it, you can move up the skyscraper quickly. 

Les describes the transition to predictable success like this: 

"We had our fun times... then we were filling in potholes. Now we've done that, and I can see the way ahead, and here's the fascinating thing, we get back to having fun, but it's on top of scalable systems and processes."  

The Fun stage doesn't distract anymore because you have a baseline to achieve your scalability goals. 

In Predictable Success, opening another campus doesn’t seem intimidating anymore because you have a system to repeat your previous achievements. In Predictable Success, your organization can be confident about your passions because your organization can be sustainable. 

Treadmill, The Big Rut, and Death Rattle

Once an organization reaches Predictable Success, it can either stay there or move towards The Big Rut. This phase is the slow slide to becoming irrelevant.

Everything looks okay on the outside, but closer examination reveals  the ministry's leadership dynamic has changed. The only option left to the visionary is to go, but there are warning signs before The Big Rut. 

Les refers to the middle ground between Predictable Success and The Big Rut as Treadmill. During Treadmill, a lot of energy is used, but not much momentum happens. 

“[In Treadmill], the processor role becomes dominant,” said Les. “In order to grow, the visionary role has to be dominant, supported by the operators. Then the struggle in Whitewater is to get literal coequality.”

This inequality between the operator, visionary, and processor leads to the decline of vision, and that will move the organization from Treadmill to The Big Rut. 

Unlike The Big Rut, Treadmill is fixable. It is not easy, but equality can be shifted back between your personality types. You can self-diagnose Treadmill, but once an organization moves into The Big Rut, it is too late for the visionary role to reclaim its importance. 

The final stage is Death Rattle. At this stage, final attempts are made to get an organization out of The Big Rut. Unfortunately, there is a small chance of that happening. Most organizations, for-profits and nonprofits included, find themselves unable to survive The Big Rut, which makes the organization have to dissolve and close its doors, or possibly be acquired by another organization. For churches, this may look like dissolution or merging with another church.

What stage is your church in?

We are thankful to Les McKeown for sharing his expertise with the StartCHURCH community. Churches are always growing and changing, and innovation is needed to lead what God has given us. 

Les offers great insight into how churches and businesses function. So much that this blog is unable to contain all the information that he provided during his interview with us at StartCHURCH.

For example, if you wanted to hear about Les' views on church succession, difficulties of being a visionary, and how Harvard may be in The Big Rut, you should check out this episode of Beyond the Call. 

To check out his book, click here, and to see his website click here. 

Remember, the best way to not be a church startup is to stop being a church startup. So, give us a call at 877-494-4655 to discover how StartCHURCH can help you get your organization to the stage in which your organization should be.

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