Flagship Church Label

flagshipAs a consultant entering a congregation I’m often informed (warned, actually) that the church I’m entering has flagship status within the denomination. Denominational leaders will tell me. Congregants will tell me. The staff team tells me.  I’m never quite sure what the label is meant to convey. What are people urging me to appreciate, or to be careful about? Is it that I’m supposed to stop and recognize the exceptional abilities of the people and the place? Am I supposed to be more appreciative of the mission and ministry? Do the traditions run deeper? Or are people just warning me that this congregation will be so different from anything I’ve encountered that I need to take care not to screw it up?

Where does the flagship label come from, and is it at all useful in our lexicon of classifying congregations?

In the most traditional sense a flagship is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels. The flagship is a temporary designation that is awarded to a ship by virtue of the fact that it is the largest, fastest, newest, or most heavily armed vessel in the line up. The flagship typically carries the commanding officer of the fleet, and carries the commander’s flag. In time, the flagship metaphor has crossed over into common parlance to signify the most prominent or highly touted of a class of something.

 I have noticed a common set of characteristics (both good and bad) that show up when I’m working in a congregation that has classified itself, or been classified by others, as “one of our flagship churches”.  These congregations bear an incredible capacity for excellence. They are resource rich with highly talented staff teams. Clergy leaders from these congregations often go on to become Bishops or Executives within their middle judicatories. Flagship churches are generally regarded as pillars within their communities, offering some of the finest social justice and outreach ministries. Their board members are movers and shakers within the world of business and non-profits. Some think of themselves as resource congregations for other, smaller congregations in the area. However, few of the programs created by a flagship church are reproducible in a smaller church context. 

 In other ways the flagship label is an albatross around the neck of leadership. The perceived affluence of the church creates the impression that there are more than adequate funds to sustain the place. In fact, flagship churches often have great difficulty sustaining their operating budgets because everyone assumes that “my money isn’t really needed to keep this place afloat”.  Flagship churches tend to be prideful places, bearing a sense of arrogance about their own self-importance. Smaller congregations both admire and despise them. Flagship churches seem to have a lot to lose, in terms of prestige and reputation. Consequently, I notice that they are more resistant to change and much less flexible than other large congregations. Leaders become fearful that a failure of any sort might cause a fall from grace. Flagship churches seem to have an exceptionally difficult time processing and learning from failure.

 Bottom line: I think the term has outlived any usefulness that it may have had in helping us understand the uniqueness of our largest churches. I think it’s time to find a new label that embraces both the capacity and the responsibility of our most resource rich congregations.  Any thoughts on what a more useful label might be?

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