Many years ago, I was called to pastor of a small church with about 70 members. To grow the church required so much effort and energy that I told myself, “Never again!” Yet taking that church past the 200-person mark was both my greatest ministry challenge and my highest pastoral privilege.
Today, I realize that the difficulties I faced in that small church (payroll had not been met for six months, rent on the facilities was overdue, and staff and congregants were demoralized) were only symptoms of a stagnation commonly found in small churches. Why? Because small churches come with a built-in barrier to growth at, or close to, the 200-person mark.
What causes barriers to growth?
While almost every ministry leader has encountered barriers to growth, few have addressed the question at the heart of the matter: What causes these barriers to arise in the first place? Church-growth writers Elmer Towns, C. Peter Wagner, and Thom S. Rainer attempt to answer this pivotal question in their illuminating book The Everychurch Guide to Growth.
“In all of these churches, plus the seven churches in Revelation, the Bible does not specifically address issues concerning size. What we discover, however, is that failure to grow or to overcome growth barriers is often symptomatic of disobedience to biblical truths.”1
Those words helped me see that barriers to growth may originate in “disobedience to biblical truths.” The question then becomes: Which truths are being disobeyed when pastors face these barriers to growth?
The more other people are involved in pastoral care, the more the pastor can give to the mission-critical tasks of prayer, Bible study, and training the church to reach others for Christ.
As I studied Ephesians, I came to see one such truth: “From whom [Christ] the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16, NKJV; emphasis added).
A managerial issue
If growth comes when pastors and ministry leaders work effectively, then stagnation (negative growth) comes when pastors work ineffectively. Ineffective church management is a root cause of barriers to church growth!
If, as management teacher Peter Drucker famously said, “Effectiveness is doing the right things,”2 then barriers to growth happen because pastors are doing the wrong things. This verse in Ephesians helped me see that the struggles I faced in that small church were not rooted generally in spiritual warfare but specifically in church management. Certainly, there are spiritual warfare challenges in church growth, but the barriers to growth that we are describing here have their roots in management and personal effectiveness.
Sharing the burden
Ephesians 4:16 says, “The effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth” (emphasis added). Church growth comes when there is effectiveness, and effectiveness occurs when every part does its share of the work. But what do we see in a typical small church? We often see the pastor monopolize most of the ministry—preaching, visitations, and pastoral care. Or, as is often the case in small churches, the pastors concentrate on pastoral care while slighting the mission-critical tasks of prayer, Bible study, and training the church to reach others for Christ.
Towns, Wagner, and Rainer state, “Many pastors have indeed chosen the path of pastoral care, which yields an abundance of affirmation. But such a choice typically means that the church will grow only to the point that the pastor can give some level of personal attention to all the active members. And that level of growth is usually met in the lower range of attendance in the middle-sized church.”3
Barriers to church growth, then, originate in the pastors’ work schedules, which, if not done right, impact the effectiveness of the pastors. Barriers to church growth will be overcome only when pastors modify their scheduling and workloads.
No church can grow without giving attention and care to its parishioners, yet a church will remain small when the pastor is the major provider of pastoral care. In effect, a pastor’s overconcentration on pastoral care is a reason that a small church remains small.
The more other people are involved in pastoral care, the more the pastor can give to the mission-critical tasks of prayer, Bible study, and training the church to reach others for Christ. Then, and only then, can the church grow. The key is not to abolish or reduce pastoral care; it is, instead, to raise other persons to do that important task while the pastor concentrates on mission-critical assignments.
I now see that my major struggle as pastor of that small-membership church was in the area of “effective working.” I needed time to develop myself (through study and prayer) in the face of the multiple competing and pressing demands of pastoral care, while simultaneously navigating the challenges imposed by a shoestring budget.
Growth by design
Because managerial issues—personal effectiveness, division of labor, others’ degree of contribution to the work—create barriers to church growth, the challenge facing pastors becomes the redesign of work to ensure that every congregant or church leader does his or her share. In practical terms, this means that congregants and church leaders should carry most of the burden of pastoral care while senior pastors concentrate on mission-critical tasks. This kind of redesign produces growth.
Eugene Peterson stated, “The visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration. The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. . . . If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry.”4
In retrospect, my experience at the small church I pastored in the late 1990s (which is now a flourishing 1,000-member church) contains elements of the growth-by-design principle. What do I mean? It is pastored by a lead pastor and his assistant. Since, by design, the assistant pastor is mostly responsible for pastoral care, the lead pastor is able to concentrate on other mission-critical tasks. That design—coupled with the passionate involvement of many congregants in mission (evangelism and visitations)—has been a pivotal factor in surmounting barriers to growth.
The key takeaway in all this is that you design your own work in ways that simultaneously allow congregants to contribute their quota and also help you concentrate on the other work crucial for church growth.
It bears repeating: managerial issues are the root barriers to growth. Pastors can more easily overcome those barriers when they redesign the ways in which they work. Specifically, pastors of small-membership churches must do the counterintuitive: they must, in the face of seemingly unending demands of parishioners for pastoral care, choose to dedicate more of their time to prayer, Bible study, and encouraging (and training) congregants to be more involved in pastoral care. That informed choice is the first rung on the ladder to overcoming the 200 barrier.
- Elmer Towns, C. Peter Wagner, and Thom S. Rainer, The Everychurch Guide to Growth: How Any Plateaued Church Can Grow (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 64.
- Peter F. Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1974), 44.
- Towns, Wagner, and Rainer, Everychurch Guide, 78.
- Eugene H. Petersen, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 5.