Overcoming the Danger of Ministry Silos in the Small Church

silos 1240 x 697Recently I met someone who had spent many years on staff at a church of over 4,000. During his entire time at that church, he never met the pastor.

He expressed some frustration about it, because he admired the pastor and would have enjoyed learning from him over an occasional cup of coffee. But he and the pastor never crossed paths and to this day the pastor has no idea who he is.

This former staff pastor was not in a minor position. He was in charge of a department that comprised 25% of the church body – over 1,000 people! Today he trains others to do his type of ministry. He runs a well-known magazine, has written some stand-out books on the subject and is a highly sought-after speaker. But he’s still never met his former pastor.

I’m being intentionally vague about who he is and what kind of ministry he’s involved in to protect his anonymity. And it’s important to say that he’s not upset or bitter at his former pastor. He’s grateful for his time at that church and left on very good terms – he just regrets not being able to know the pastor he worked for.

That’s an example of a ministry silo.


What Is a Ministry Silo?

If you’ve never heard of the term “ministry silo” before now, don’t worry. I first heard it a couple months ago when some bloggers started using it. It’s one of those terms that’s really new, but people use it like everyone is supposed to automatically know what it means. I had to Google it.

Tim Stevens, in his very helpful new book, Fairness Is Overrated writes that “Silos are the walls that are between departments in an organization.” 

Imagine silos on a farm. They’re those very tall buildings filled with valuable crops. But they’re separated from each other by very high walls.

On a farm, silos protect the crops from cross-contamination. In a church, says Stevens, “Silos turn colleagues into competitors. …Silos will tear apart a church faster than just about anything. From a silo-built church come jealousy, slander, gossip, bitterness, conflict, and competition.”

In my experience, silos happen in two ways in Small Churches – both of which need to be identified and overcome.


1. Ministry Silos Within the Church

In big churches, there’s a natural pull towards ministry silos because of their size. Departments operate with separate staffs, in separate rooms, sometime with separate budgets and buildings. They may seldom or never interact with each other on a personal level.

One of the great advantages of a Small Church is the chance for greater intimacy and fellowship. People can get to know everyone, or almost everyone. And the staff can meet, mingle and work together regularly.

But people are still people.

Every church has cliques – we sometimes call them people-groups. That’s all silos are, after all. They’re just a new name for cliques. But sometimes calling an old problem by a new name can help us see things in a new way. You may not like to believe your church has cliques. But it might have silos.

In a Small Church, silos are less about separation by departments or buildings and more about personalities and emotions. While big churches have to fight the tendency to separate because they never see each other, Small Churches may have to fight the tendency to separate because we see too much of each other.

In my church, for instance, every department shares the same rooms, so everyone has to learn to set up, tear down and respect that someone else will use “their” room after they leave.

When I first arrived over 22 years ago, the church had some massive silos with very high, thick walls. The church, youth group and preschool all shared the same space, but there was no crossover between the three. Literally. No one in the preschool or youth group attended the church – except for the youth pastor. And none of the church people knew what was happening in their preschool or youth group.

Each department saw the room they used as “their” room. Petty arguments were common.

Over the years, we chipped away at the silo walls. It started with a sit-down, come-to-Jesus meeting with leaders in which I established a zero-tolerance rule for territorialism. Every ministry was required to leave the room better than they found it. And we spent whatever time was necessary at weekly staff meetings ironing out better communication and coordinating systems. It wasn’t fast or easy, but it worked. In the last 15 years I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to moderate an argument between departments over facility use.

But that’s only because we still meet regularly and guard rigorously against allowing silos to re-form. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll sprout like weeds. And those weeds will choke out and kill an otherwise healthy church.

To quote Tim Stevens again:

Your attendees are smart, and they can sniff this stuff out pretty quickly. They experience jealous competition in their homes and in their workplaces—if they find it at church, they either won’t sign up or won’t stay.

But here is the problem: the natural order of the universe in your organization is for silos to be built and turf-guarding to happen. It just happens. You have to try extremely hard to destroy the silos. It is rare to find churches or businesses that don’t have silos, and it’s not because they are lucky or fortunate. They have worked like crazy to keep silos from developing. It requires difficult communication, strong leadership, and people who are more concerned about the overall mission than their departmental goals.

But that’s not the only place where Small Churches need to fight solos. It’s not even the hardest to overcome.


2. Ministry Silos Between Churches

Lack of cooperation between churches may be #1 reason why Small Churches don’t see their true value and aren’t as effective as we should be. We’re not working together.

Yes, big churches need to work together, too. We all do. But, because of our limited resources, it’s critical for Small Churches to tear down the silo walls between churches and work together to advance the kingdom of God.

For some churches, especially those whose pastors are bivocational or those in rural settings, there are some very real walls of time and geography that make it harder to connect with other churches. But in my experience, those pastors tend to be more aware of their need for connection. They’ll often take time off of work to travel very long distances for fellowship meetings where they can work and strategize with each other.

But in dense, highly-populated areas like where I live, pastors who work full time and live within a mile or two of each other often have no relationships at all. Instead of cooperating, we eye each other with suspicion and jealousy – if we notice each other at all.

This has to stop. It’s one of the reasons why the mission statement of NewSmallChurch.com is “Encouraging, Connecting & Equipping Innovative Small Church Leaders.” We need each other! And our communities, cities and towns need us working together.


“Pastor (Insert Your Name Here) Tear Down Those Silos!”

I feel like the church needs our version or Ronald Reagan to stand on our ministry silo walls and demand that we tear them down.

Maybe this post is my very modest version of that.

Tearing down ministry silos is not an option. Your church needs it to be healthy. The church needs it for the same reasons.

Jesus never used the word “silo” but, as always, he said it best when he told us “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


Fairness Is Overrated

Click here for more info about Fairness Is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplaceby Tim Stevens.

It’s filled with helpful short chapters and bullet points on a variety of leadership subjects for pastors and business leaders. Much of it is intended for larger organizations, but it’s very accessible, often humorous and has some helpful advice that applies to Small Churches, too.

In my estimation, it could also have been titled “Great Advice for Busy Leaders.”


So what do you think? What ideas can you share about tearing down church silos?

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(Silos photo from Bob Jagendorf • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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3 thoughts on “Overcoming the Danger of Ministry Silos in the Small Church”

  1. A historical note: some churches in small towns/villages in our area [rural Maine] had/have separate organizations, officers, and governance for the church proper, the Sunday School, and the Womens Missions Group. I.e., these were designed with silos. In their defense however I would guess that women who were restricted or excluded from leadership in the church proper felt freed for ministry when the other organizations, which they tended to lead, were separate.

    1. That’s an important dynamic, raswhiting. For many centuries that’s how many, maybe most churches were structured, often for the very reason you mentioned. Those churches have an extra-thick silo wall to break down. It takes great care, prayer and patience to overcome those inbred structures, but I think changing that dynamic is essential for their future health,

  2. Interesting post- thank you for referencing that book. I’ve just entered into the world of ministry (Director of Youth Ministries at our church), and I’ve heard “silos” mentioned 3 times in the past week. This concept has really caught on, and I am looking forward to checking out Stevens’ book!

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