How Group Dynamics Impact Your Ministry

Congregational size decides some "ground rules" for pastors' roles and leadership

Monte Sahlin is  assistant to the president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists for research and development.

Pastors who have served congregations of different sizes know that "little" churches are different from "big" churches. If they took a course in "group dynamics" years ago, it is likely that the textbook focused only on the relational processes typical of small groups.

More recently, however, researchers have identified "congregational dynamics" as a systems view of life in a local church. It works from the assumption that a significant portion of what happens in a congregation is influenced by patterns related to the size of the group.1

The most significant indicator in the life of a congregation is the average attendance at worship services. This is a count of people present, regardless of age or membership status.2 Where this number is 50 or less, the group is called a "single-cell" congregation. The group dynamics are much like those of an expanded small group or an extended family.

Churches with an average attendance of 51 to 150 are called a "pastor-centered" congregation. The role of the pastor becomes central in this type of congregation.

Attendance of 151 to 300 qualifies the group as a "program-centered" congregation. A structure of programs and sub groups under a team of leaders working in partnership with the pastor is the central dynamic for this pattern.

Where the average attendance is more than 300, the group is called a "corporation-style" church. These are complex institutions. The largest actually contain several congregations, each more like one of the other pat terns present in smaller congregations.

Single-cell congregations

About 20 percent of all congregations in the United States and 59 percent of Seventh-day Adventist congregations in North America have fewer than 100 members. Many studies indicate consistently that average worship attendance is equal to about one half the membership of a congregation, so almost all of these are "single-cell" churches.3

Leadership in this type of congregation is informal and rests in the hands of two or three "patriarchs" or "matriarchs." These individuals have influence largely because of their long tenure in the group. They exercise leadership even when they do not hold any elected office and even when they do not wish to.

The pastor is usually not the leader of a single-cell congregation, especially when his or her tenure is only two or three years and he or she has one or more other congregations to serve. What the members of single-cell churches want is someone to preach and provide quality pastoral care, not leadership for change or growth.

Entry by newcomers into a single-cell congregation is difficult The group is comfort able with those whom they've known for some time and not motivated to assimilate new members. This is one of the reasons small congregations usually do not grow except during the first few years of their existence.

Successful soul winning in small churches requires the involvement of one or more of the patriarchs or matriarchs. An influential person must adopt the new member into the fellowship in order for the group really to accept the new person and make a success of the relationship. The same is true for membership transfers.

The highest value in these small churches is survival. Members have found over the years that one survival tactic is to not take the clergy seriously. They have come to expect a high turnover rate among pastors.

Pastor-centered congregation

The largest portion (42 percent) of congregations of all faiths in the U.S. have 100 to 299 members. This range accounts for 28 percent of Adventist congregations in North America. Again assuming that for almost all of these churches the average worship attendance is about half the membership, these would fall into the pastor-centered pattern.

In these churches the role of the pastor is central, and he or she is expected to relate personally to every individual. The primary expectation is that the pastor will serve as primary caretaker, nurturing the fabric of relationships that make up the congregation.

A pastor who does not visit the members and does not announce to the congregation each week who is in the hospital, who is having a baby, who is moving away, etc., is in trouble. This size of church has grown too large to function like a small group, and now the members depend on the pastor to keep them connected.

Church growth in a church of this type is directly related to the work of the pastor. The congregation expects the pastor to win new members and guide their assimilation into the group. When the pastor introduces a new member and asks the members to accept the person into fellowship, most in the group will readily do so.

Leadership is invested in the pastor. Influential members expect him or her to communicate with them, but they also look to the pastor to chair the decision-making meetings of the church and provide a sense of direction. They expect their pastor to provide leadership in the "big" projects of the church painting the children's rooms, the annual fund-raising program, or an evangelistic seminar. In order to get members involved in various church tasks, the pastor must delegate.

Expectations are high in pastor-centered congregations and they can be hard on the pastor's spouse and children. As church growth moves toward an average attendance of 150, it often slows to a halt simply be cause the pastor becomes exhausted and incapable of keeping up with all of the expectations.

Unlike most Protestant denominations in North America, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has most of its pastors who serve this type of congregation assigned to two- or three-church districts.The classic literature and the baseline studies presuppose a full-time pastor in a pastor-centered congregation, while almost all Adventist pastors in this category are half-time or less per church.

Large churches

About a third of the congregations of all faiths in the U.S. have 300 or more members; 21 percent have 500 or more members. Only 13 percent of Seventh-day Adventist churches in North America have more than 300 members, although these 600 congregations contain the majority of the total membership.

Most of these congregations likely fall into either the program-centered pattern or that of the corporation-style church. A significant number of churches with 300 to 400 members continue to hold on to the pastor-centered dynamic. This can be noted where there are 300 or more members and yet average worship attendance stays at 150 or below.

If the pastor-centered pattern is the model for the literature on pastoral minis try, then the program-centered pattern is the underlying assumption upon which most denominational polices and materials are based. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual calls for the church board to be made up of the depart mental leaders in the congregation. This is typical of the program-centered pattern, but can be dysfunctional in other dynamics.

In a program-centered church, leader ship is invested in a team, not one, two, or three individuals. Formal processes of electing leaders and making decisions are important. The congregation sponsors a number of activities or groups a choir, a Pathfinder Club, a witnessing program, seminars of various kinds, etc.

Strong lay leadership for the variety of specialized ministries is the key element in a program-centered church. The role of the pastor is no longer primarily "front-line" delivery of pastoral care, but planning and program development, recruitment and training of volunteers, coordination, and consensus building.

Church growth comes indirectly from a well-honed strategy that involves the work of many individuals. Public evangelism is important, and equally important is a careful, intentional program of individual fol low-up and new member assimilation. Many successful pastors of program-centered congregations are using computer software that allows them to track potential and cur rent members, groups, and activities.

When a church moves toward the corporation-style pattern, additional pastoral staffing is added. Typically a program-centered congregation has one pastor even though it has other staff members office manager, youth worker, personal evangelism worker, family counselor, social worker, or parish nurse. These staff members are usu ally not clergy. When another clergy-person comes into the congregation, things become more complicated.

Associate pastors inevitably have a "congregation" of their own, no matter how much they are committed to supporting the senior pastor. This is normal, and the most productive pastoral staffs simply use this dynamic for church growth.

The fast-growing mega-churches actually consist of a number of small congregations within the church. Associate pastors are as signed to specific congregations and held accountable for their growth.

Large churches are important to the mission of the church today because of mounting evidence that the baby boom generation (now 32 to 51 years of age) and the baby bust generation (now 22 to 31 years of age) prefer the high quality of worship and wide menu of programs that large churches can provide. For example, Adventist boomers typically want to be in a church near a day academy.

Don't be confused by the fact that these same generational segments prefer a high degree of personalization, such as small group ministries and informal dress at worship. In fact, large churches have the resources necessary to provide personalization.

Church growth in large churches is related to meeting the needs of younger adults (under 50) and providing a wide range of choices for those who participate. This includes opportunities for significant public service in collaboration with Christian charitable organizations such as the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

What does it all mean?

Most pastors will never serve in a pro gram-centered or corporation-style congregation. Most will, however, spend the early part of their career trying to apply their professional education to single-cell churches that seem to defy the textbooks.

The exceptions are important. African-American congregations, at least in the Adventist Church, tend to be larger than Anglo congregations, although they rarely have multiple pastors on staff. And there is no evidence that the research reported here applies to other congregations Hispanic, Asian, etc.

Many pastors will experience greater professional fulfillment if they recognize the kind of congregational dynamics that define the context of their ministry. More can be achieved by guiding the boat through the currents than rowing upstream.

Some will undoubtedly object that group dynamics should not determine the mission of the church. I agree! Mission is about where the boat is headed, not how we get to our destination.

This approach is consistent with Paul, the great missionary pastor, who first announced: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. ... To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:19-22, NIV).

1 Arlin J. Rothauge's seminal work in this
area, Sizing Up a Congregation (1984), is
available from the Episcopal Church Center in New
York City. Lyle E. Schaller has produced a series
of books and articles along the same line, and
other studies have been published by the Alban
Institute in Washington, D.C. Studies by the
North American Division Office of Information
and Research and the Center for Creative
Miniistry also show that the same dynamics can be
observed in Seventh-day Adventist congregations
as well.

2 Data on percentage of Adventist churches
by size is from the North American Division
Office of Information and Research Report 1,
Demographic Profile of the Adventist Community
in North America. Data on percentage of
churches of all faiths by size can be found in From
Belief to Commitment: The Community Service
Activities and Finances of Religious Congregations
in the United States
(Washington, D.C.: Indepen
dent Sector, 1993).

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Monte Sahlin is  assistant to the president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists for research and development.

September 1997

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