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Size Matters

In the culture of American church-dom, we hear and read often about the declining membership of churches–all denominations, all sizes. I don’t know of a single pastor or ministry leader that enjoys admitting that their congregation or their ministry is shrinking, no matter how obvious the shrinkage is! Declining attendance is often construed as failure. Sometimes it is; but sometimes the attrition is based on circumstances beyond the control of leadership. For example, my church has said good-bye to several members who have had to re-locate due to employment opportunities, as well as some who have gone to the mission field. That’s hardly failure! But whatever the reason for the decline, denial and a refusal to adapt to the change will most certainly lead to the failure we fear.cinderella slipper

I’ve recently begun to feel like one of Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to stuff a fat size 9 foot into a sleek size 6 shoe, and I am beginning to understand why. I have continued to use practices suited to a larger church even as our numbers have declined.

When church size changes, leadership and ministry structure must be adapted to fit the new size.

I’ve been reading up on church size and why it matters. Several years ago Arlin Rothauge wrote about the relationship between leadership and church size in a little publication entitled Sizing Up A Congregation*. Rothauge classified churches into four categories based on size:

  • The Family¬† Church: 0-50 members
  • The Pastoral Church: 50-150 members
  • The Program Church: 150-350 members
  • The Corporation Church: 350-500+ members

Rothauge (as well as the writings of a few others) has helped me see why church size matters. (Let me say now that I don’t think it prudent to lock in on these mathematical models–in fact, there are other studies that reflect different models–but they do offer a context for understanding the dynamics associated with different size churches.) I understand more fully why it’s not possible to simply “scale down” practices designed for the program- and corporation-size church in an attempt to make them work in the pastoral- to family-size church.

My church was teetering on the edge of becoming a program church in our ethos, if not quite in our number. However, we are now firmly a pastoral-size church, and Rothauge’s assessment that “the membership looks first to the central leader for direction, inspiration, and pastoral care” is spot-on. The very fact that we have an average Sunday attendance of 55-60 means that it is quite natural and easy for members to relate directly to our pastor. In larger churches, it’s more difficult to have that same ease of access to the senior leadership.

Simply understanding this relationship dynamic helps me see why it is a challenge to raise up team leaders. One of the key arguments used in a program-size church for enlisting volunteer leaders is that there are too many people–too many ministries–for one person (senior pastor) to lead. However, in a church of 50 that argument won’t win the case. Add that to the general busyness of most people’s lives and it’s understandable why they are unwilling to step into a leadership role. They don’t see the need. Yet, without volunteer ministry leaders, the landscape of ministry changes considerably.

It’s time we changed with it. In fact, it’s imperative. Come back tomorrow for a look at how we are navigating change…


*a PDF version is available online

6 thoughts on “Size Matters

  1. This is a fascinating post. I can’t wait to read what you share tomorrow about how you’re navigating change. My church is navigating change, also. We’re a program sized church, but we operated out of a pastoral model for many years. It has held the lid on growth – both leadership within the congregation and spiritual growth of those within the family of faith. We have new leadership now and that is changing. I look forward to what we can learn from you regarding navigating these changes.

    • Rhonda, the change your church is navigating is statistically the most difficult. It is difficult for folks to give up personal access to the pastor in order to free him/her to give energy to what is most necessary for the church’s growth, e.g., in the areas of leadership development and spiritual growth of its members. You are absolutely right that operating out of a pastoral model when the church has outgrown that model only inhibits the church, both numerically and spiritually.

      So glad that you have new leadership and that change is coming about. Just remember that change is scary to most people and so expect the inevitable resistance. Learning to handle it graciously but firmly is the real challenge for leadership!

      • Just read this from Seth Godin’s blog today, Rhonda, and I think it speaks to the resistance encountered when trying to move to the next level: “The future is messy…and the past is neat. It’s always like that. That’s because the people who chronicle the past are busy connecting the dots, editing what we remember and presenting a neat, coherent arc.”

  2. The danger of a large church trying to keep that pastoral mindset is the Rockstar Pastor. Everyone knows him, loves him, would jump off a cliff for him, but they don’t really interact with him, so their understanding of his sinful humanity is lost–he becomes mythic (and often he believes the myth). Each size of church has its pros and cons, but I really enjoy my time right now in a pastoral church where we can know the pastor’s real character, know each other’s real characters, and grow because of those things. I see how knowing the limits of each kind of church helps congregations and leaders make and get the most out of whatever church they attend. Looking forward to the next post in this series!!

    • Great observation, Jill! The bad news is when the “Rockstar Pastor” who’s been believing his own myth stumbles and falls. Churches suffer grievous harm from those types of scenarios, and they are all too common. One of the benefits of a true equipping culture in the large church is that the leadership team has the ability to hold the senior pastor accountable and, should a fall occur, that team is equipped to lead the congregation through the transition minimizing the damage.

  3. Pingback: Size Matters…So? | An equipper's perspective

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