How to minister effectively in different sized churches

This article is provided courtesy of Christians in the Media

In the booklet Sizing Up a Congregation For New Member Ministry,1 Arlin Rothauge sets forth four basic congregational sizes. Here is a brief description of the first three with an understanding of what members expect of pastors in each size.

Family Church (less than 50 members)
Family Church functions like a family with appropriate parental figures – patriarchs and matriarchs – who control the church’ leadership needs. What Family Churches want from clergy is pastoral care, period. For clergy to assume that they are also the chief executive officer and the resident religious authority is to make a serious blunder.

The key role of the patriarch or matriarch is to see to it that clergy do not take the congregation off on a new direction of ministry. Clergy are to serve as the chaplain of this small family. When clergy don’t understand this, they are likely to head into a direct confrontation with the parental figure. It is generally suicide for clergy to get caught in a showdown with the patriarchs and matriarchs within the first five years of their ministry in that place. Clergy should not assume, however, that they have no role beyond pastoral care. In addition to providing quality worship and home/hospital visitation, clergy can play an important role as consultants to these patriarchs or matriarchs, befriending these parent figures and working alongside them, yet recognising that when these parent figures decide against an idea, it’ finished.

Clergy should watch out for the trap that is set when members complain to them about the patriarch or matriarch of the parish and encourage the pastor to take the parental figure on. Clergy who respond to such mutinous bids, expecting the congregation to back them in the showdown, betray their misunderstanding of the dynamics of small church ministry. The high turnover of clergy in these parishes has taught members that in the long run they have to live with old Mr. Schwartz who runs the feed-mill even when they don’t like him. Hence it is far too risky for members to get caught siding with pastors who come and go against their resident patriarch/matriarch.

Because these congregations usually cannot pay clergy an acceptable salary, many clergy see them as stepping stones to more rewarding opportunities. It is not unusual for a congregation of this size to list five successive clergy for every ten years of congregational life. As Schaller claims, the longer the pastorates, the more powerful clergy become. The shorter the pastorates, the more powerful laity becomes. These Family Churches have to develop one or two strong lay leaders at the centre of their life. How else would they manage their ongoing existence through those long vacancies and through the short pastorates of the ineffective clergy who are often sent their way?

One minister began his ministry in a Family Church in South Carolina. Later he attended a clergy conference at which he discovered seven other clergy who had also started their ordained ministry in the same parish. As they talked, the seven clergy realised that, in view of the difference in their styles and the shortness of their tenures, the only way that the parish survived was to take none of them seriously.

One of the worst places to go right out of seminary is to a Patriarchal/Matriarchal Church. Seminarians are up to their eyeballs in new theories and good ideas. They want to see if any of them work. Even though some of those good ideas might be the ticket to their small church’ long-term growth and development, the church’ openness to trying any of them is next to zero. Sometimes, through the sheer force of personal persuasion, a pastor will talk a congregation into trying a new team or two. Pretty soon parishioners find themselves coming to church events much more than they really need to or want to. As they begin then to withdraw their investment from these new programs, the clergy inevitably take it personally. Concluding that their gifts for ministry are not really valued in this place, they begin to seek a call elsewhere. On the way out of the church they give it a kick, letting the parish know in subtle ways that they are a miserable example of Christian community.

These small congregations have endured such recriminations for decades. The message they get from their executive is that they are a failure because they fail to grow while consuming inordinate amounts of time. Middle judicatories try to merge them, yoke them, and close them—mostly to no avail. You can’t kill these congregations with a stick. Large churches are far more vulnerable. An exec can place an incompetent pastor in a large church and lose 200 members in one year. Yet the same exec can throw incompetent clergy at Family Churches, leave them vacant for years, ignore them—all with little effect, The Family Church has learned to survive by relying on its own internal leadership.

These congregations need a pastor to stay and love them over at least ten years. This pastor would have to play by the rules and defer to the patriarch’ or matriarch’ leadership decisions for the first three to five years. At about year four or five, when the pastor did not leave, the congregation might find itself in somewhat of a crisis. At some level they would be saying, “What do you mean you are going to stay? No clergy stay here. There must be something the matter with you.” Then the questioning might begin:

“Can we really trust you? Nah! You are going to leave us like all the rest.” In this questioning we can see the pain of these congregations. For a minute, let’ put ourselves in their shoes and imagine an ordained leader walking out on us every few years, berating us on the way out. Would we invest in the next pastor who came to us? Not likely! It would be simply too painful. The Family Church may have invested in one five years ago, only to find that the pastor left just when things started to move. Basically these people have learned not to trust clergy who repeatedly abandon ship when they see no evidence of church growth.

We need to refrain from sending these congregations seminary-trained pastors. History demonstrates that these churches have not been served well by full-time ordained clergy. Some churches are having success employing locals, providing them with some basic training to give long-term pastoral care on a part-time basis. Long-term tent-making ministries offer the best possibility for ministering to many of these Patriarchial/Matriarchial congregations.

If denominations and middle judicatories persist in placing newly ordained clergy in these parishes, they should do so only after laying out this theory for these clergy, helping them discover who indeed are the patriarchs and matriarchs of the parish, suggesting some strategies for working with them. If these clergy find it simply too difficult to work with these parental figures, they need to let their executive know promptly. Rather than leaving these newly ordained clergy regretting they pursued ordained ministry in the first place, the exec should move them out of the Family Church.

The Pastoral Church (50 to 150 active members)

Clergy are usually at the centre of a Pastoral Church. There are so many parental figures around that they need someone at the centre to manage them. A leadership circle, made up of the pastor and a small cadre of lay leaders, replaces the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Family Church. The power and effectiveness of the leadership circle depends upon good communication with the congregation and the ability of the pastor to delegate authority, assign responsibility, and recognize the accomplishments of others. Without such skill, the central pastoral function weakens the entire structure. The clergyperson becomes overworked, isolated, and exhausted, may be attacked by other leaders, and finally the harmony of the fellowship circle degenerates.

A key feature of a Pastoral Church is that lay persons experience having their spiritual needs met through their personal relationship with a seminary trained person. In a Pastoral Church it would be rare for a Bible study or a prayer group to meet without the pastor. The pastor is also readily available in times of personal need and crisis. If a parishioner called the pastor and indicated that she needed some personal attention, the pastor would drop over to see her, probably that afternoon but certainly within the week—qualitatively different experience from being told that the first available appointment to see the pastor in her office is two weeks from now. The time demands upon the pastor of a Pastoral Church can become oppressive. However, most members will respond with loyalty to a reasonable level of attention and guidance from this central figure.

A second feature of the Pastoral Church is its sense of itself as a family where everyone knows everyone else. If you show up at church with your daughter Julie by the hand, everyone will greet you and Julie, too. When congregations begin to have 130 to 150 people coming every Sunday morning they begin to get nervous. As Carl Dudley put it in Unique Dynamics of the Small Church,2 they begin to feel “stuffed.” Members wonder about the new faces that they don’t know—people who don’t know them. Are they beginning to lose the intimate fellowship they prize so highly?

Clergy also begin to feel stressed when they have more than 150 active members whom they try to know in depth. In fact, this is one of the reasons why clergy may keep the Pastoral Church from growing to the next larger size congregation-the Team Church. If clergy have the idea firmly fixed in their head that they are ineffective as a pastor unless they can relate in a profound and personal way with every member of the parish, then 150 active members (plus perhaps an even larger number of inactive members) is about all one person can manage.

There are some clergy who function at their highest level of effectiveness in the Pastoral Church. Given the different clusters of skills required for other sizes of congregations, some clergy should consider spending their entire career in this size congregation. Since the Pastoral Church can offer a pastor a decent salary, clergy do tend to stick around longer. If clergy can regard themselves as successful only when they become pastor of a large congregation, then 65% of mainline Protestant clergy are going to end their career with feelings of failure. Two thirds of mainline Protestant congregations are either Family- or Pastoral-sized churches.

Clergy with strong interpersonal skills fare well in the Pastoral-sized church. These clergy can feed continually on the richness of direct involvement in the highs and lows of people’ lives. Clergy who enjoy being at the centre of most activities also do well. There are lots of opportunities to preach and lead in worship and to serve as primary instructor in many class settings for both young and old. Outgoing, expressive persons seem to be the best match for the style of ministry in the Pastoral Church. An open, interactive leadership style also seems to suit this size church best.

Growth in the Pastoral Church will depend mainly on the popularity and effectiveness of the pastor. People join the church because they like the interaction between pastor and people. When new people visit the congregation for the first time, it is likely to be the pastor who will make the follow-up house call.

When some congregations grow to the point where their pastor’ time and energy is drawn off into many other activities and the one-on-one pastoral relationship begins to suffer, they may hire additional staff to handle these new functions so their pastor can once again have plenty of time for interpersonal caring. Unfortunately, this strategy will have limited success. To begin with, when you hire additional staff you then have a multiple staff, which requires staff meetings, supervision, delegation, evaluation, and planning. These activities draw the pastor deeper into administration. Then, too, additional staff members tend to specialize in such things as Christian education, youth ministry, evangelism, or stewardship, which tends to add to the administrative role of the head of staff rather than freeing his time up for pastoral care.

As we move to the next size congregation, notice the change in the diagram of the church’ structure. Clergy consider a congregation’ transition from Pastoral to Team size the most difficult. One can expect enormous resistance on the part of a Pastoral Church as it flirts with becoming a Team Church. Many churches make an unconscious choice not to make the transition and keep hovering around the level of 150 active members. The two treasured features of a Pastoral Church that will be lost if it becomes a Team Church are ready access to their religious leader and the feeling of oneness as a church family, where everyone knows everyone else and the church can function as a single cell community.

Two things prevent a congregation from making that transition. The first barrier is found in the clergy. When clergy hold onto a need to be connected in depth to all the active members, then they become the bottleneck to growth. The second barrier is found in the lay leaders who are unwilling to have many of their spiritual needs met by anyone except their ordained leader.

It is most helpful to put this theory up on newsprint before the chief decision-making body of the church and ask them where they think they are as a parish. If they have been saying “yes, yes” to church growth with their lips, but “no, no” with their behaviour, this theory can bring their resistance to the conscious level by pointing out the real costs they will face in growing. Churches tend to grow when parish leaders, fully aware of the cost of growth, make a conscious decision to proceed.

Without the backing of key lay leaders, the cost of moving from a Pastoral to a Team Church usually comes out of the pastor’ hide. The parish may welcome the pastor’ efforts in parish program development while still expecting all the parish calling and one-on-one work to continue at the same high level as before. Burnout and/or a forced pastoral termination can often result.

The Team Church (150 to 350 active members)

The Team Church grows out of the necessity for a high-quality personal relationship with the pastor to be supplemented by other avenues of spiritual feeding. Programs must now begin to fulfil that role.

The well functioning Team Church has many cells of activity, which are headed up by lay leaders. These lay leaders, in addition to providing structure and guidance for these cells, also take on some pastoral functions. The Stewardship Committee gathers for its monthly meeting and the committee chair asks about a missing member. Upon being told that Mary Steward’ daughter had to be taken to the hospital for an emergency operation, the chair will allow time for expressions of concern for Mary and her daughter. The chair may include both of them in an opening prayer. If the teacher of an adult class notices that someone in the class is feeling depressed, the teacher will often take the class member aside and inquire about his well being. Even if the teacher eventually asks the pastor to intervene, the pastor has already gotten a lot of assistance from this lay leader.

Clergy are still at the centre of the Team Church, but their role has shifted dramatically. Much of their time and attention must be spent in planning with other lay leaders to ensure the highest quality programs. The pastor must spend a lot of time recruiting people to head up these smaller ministries, training, supervising, and evaluating them and seeing to it that their morale remains high. In essence the pastor must often step back from direct ministry with people to coordinate and support volunteers who offer this ministry. Unless the pastor gives high priority to their spiritual and pastoral needs, those programs will suffer.

To be sure, a member can expect a hospital or home call from the pastor when personal crisis or illness strikes. But members had better not expect this pastor to have a lot of time to drink coffee in people’ kitchens. To see the pastor about a parish matter, they will probably have to make an appointment at the church office several weeks in advance.

When clergy move from a Pastoral Church to a Team Church, unless they are able to shift from a primarily interpersonal mode to a program planning and development mode, they will experience tension and difficulty in their new congregation. It is not that clergy will have no further need for their interpersonal skills. Far from it-they need to depend on them even more. But now those interpersonal skills will be placed at the service of the parish program.

Key skills for effective ministry in a Team Church begin with the ability to pull together the diverse elements of the parish into a mission statement. Helping the parish arrive at a consensus about its direction is essential. Next the pastor must be able to lead the parish toward attaining the goals that arise out of that consensus. In the Team Church, clergy need to be able to stand firmly at the centre of that consensus. To wilt in the face of opposition to this consensus will be seen as a lack of leadership ability. The Team Church pastor will also need to be able to motivate the most capable lay persons in the parish to take on key components of the parish vision and help make it become a reality. Developing the trust and loyalty of these parish leaders and ensuring their continued spiritual growth and development is another key part of the cluster of skills needed in the Team-sized Church.

For clergy who get their primary kicks out of direct pastoral care work, ministry in a Team Church may leave them with a chronic feeling of flatness and lack of fulfilment. Unless these clergy can learn to derive satisfaction from the work of pastoral administration they should think twice about accepting a call to this size parish.

Roy M. Oswald, former Senior Consultant, Alban Institute

From Action Information,
Volume XVII, Number 2, March/April 1991, pages 1–7
Volume XVII, Number 3, May/June 1991, pages 5–7