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