September 14, 2008

Growing Churches

In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we have a few large congregations, a fair handful of medium-sized congregations, and thousands of small congregations. Like most Disciples, I have always attributed this to our rural/small-town roots. Now, however, I realize that there is another reason for this.

At the Pastors' Conference, several prominent and outstanding pastors of large congregations spoke to the crowd of mostly small-congregation pastors. Some of the things they said, we found it hard to relate to. In discussing how they spend their time, what they do during a typical week, and what their role is in their congregations, those large-congregation pastors were confronted by an audience that didn't quite get it.

The reason, I think, is that the Disciples of Christ trains its ministers to be small-congregation ministers. We are not trained to be pastors of large or growing congregations. Being the pastor of a large congregation is very different than being the pastor of a small congregation, and is something that we know very little about.

In a small congregation, a very high percentage of the members are involved in decision-making. In a small congregation, the pastor (there is, of course, only one) is expected to be everywhere, responding to every crisis or need for prayer. In a small congregation, things get done, but usually in an informal way.

In a large congregation, most decision-making is, by necessity, the responsibility of a relatively small percentage of the membership. Pastoral duties are divided up among the pastoral team, and lay leaders take much of the responsibility themselves, heading up mission projects, leading small groups, organizing visitation. I suspect that much is still informal in a large church, but at the same time, the structure and administration of the church is more organized.

Church members, in addition to clergy, have only been trained to be part of a small church. They expect the board to be all-encompassing, they expect the pastor to be ever-present, and they expect to retain that informal, family atmosphere. Such things are not present in large and growing churches; at least not the way they are in small churches.

I wonder if, as a denomination, we are facing a similar situation. The mission (re-)alignment proposes that we streamline our administrative structure. Could it be that the current structure is too informal and too cumbersome to allow for growth? We've been told that a realignment would make our structure more appropriate to our smaller denomination; perhaps it will also make it more appropriate for a growing denomination.

I am, of course, speaking of what I do not know. I've never been pastor of a congregation that has had more than 100 worshipers on Sunday morning. A large congregation is something that I and my congregants are not familiar with. It's different, so we're not sure we want to grow. And if we decide that we do want to grow, we're not sure how to go about it.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for the thoughts -- wish we would have connected. I found the disconnect interesting. Well, what I really found interesting is how some of the small church pastors spoke with disdain for the work of the large church pastors.

These are in many ways, different animals. Like you I've pastored small churches, though my current church was once a large congregation. We are wrestling with that very heritage -- of what once was.

In many ways our progress forward is compromised by decision making processes that hinder growth -- too many fingers in the pie. Now, I went to Fuller, so I don't have any excuse for being trained to pastor small churches, but of course as a seminarian I was looking at teaching and not pastoring!

Keith said...

Thanks for the post. I'd completely forgotten there WAS a pastor's conference going on. Many months ago, I decided it was too expensive for my one-pastor-sized church to send me there.

Yes, as seminarians we (at least at LTS) are trained to do church small, especially because all our student pastorates are small rural congregations. You grow an appreciation for that size of church. I actually believe that's the best way of doing church.

There's a way to grow the Church without turning every small congregation into a big one: church planting. Unfortunately, we've got large churches who are against that idea and small churches who are scared to grow to the point where they can plant. But if we were to really take Jesus seriously, I think it would mean planting more small congregations, not growing more large ones.

(Pardon my soapbox.)

Brian said...

Interesting stuff. I didn't make it to the conference so good to hear your reflections. I think another element of this is the kind of folk who go into ministry. Running a large church is not unlike running a company and requires a pastor with those sort of "corporate management" skills. I worked with a pastor at a mid=sized church who now pastors one of the DOC's largest churches and he tells me he spends most of his time in administration -- very little pastoral care or teaching. I wonder how many of us who go into ministry are the "corporate type" as opposed to those of us who go into it with gifts of working with others one-on-one, teaching small groups, visiting folks in hospitals, etc. I'm not sure those of us who are not only trained but best suited, by personality and gifts, to the small church would be equipped to lead our churches were they to suddenly or slowly double in size. It just may not be in our DNA.