Every year my associate pastor and I travel to southern California for a leadership conference. We get to hear from some of the best leaders and speakers from around the country on topics ranging from vision casting to team building, story telling (marketing) to orchestration. It’s an amazing two-day event that can leave you either inspired, or depressed, depending on what season you’re in when you go.
What I mean by this is, if you go into the conference (or any conference) in a hard season where you’re already battling discouragement, when you hear about all these programs, techniques, approaches to hiring staff and building teams, all you’re going to think about is how you can’t do any of it because you don’t have the budget to hire staff or buy programs, or take advantage of various resources. You come away berating your ministry and harshly judging yourself and your ability to lead, because, let’s face it, if you were a better leader, you’d have a bigger church, right? Wrong.
Conferences don’t help us much by only giving us the big-church pastors to hear from. Many of these great leaders have been called to areas where it’s either densely populated (like Andy Stanley in Atlanta, GA or Craig Groeschel in Edmond, OK or Irwin McManus in Los Angeles, CA) or, like some of these same mid-western/southern churches, they’re in an area where people will come because Christianity is a cultural norm (that is not to say those churches aren’t doing a good work, just that it’s easier to get lots of people in the door). Many of these leaders started with humble beginnings, but they’re now speaking from a place many of us will never see. And since “one plants, another waters, but God causes the increase,” there’s no magic formula to make growth. We hear a lot about how to manage large ministries and those of us in an “intimate setting” (small church), are left wondering how most of these things apply to us.
I was reading an article by Lance Witt addressing the pressure on pastors these days. It seems there has been a bait and switch in pastoral leadership that may be a big source of our discouragement and burnout. The article (which you can read here) stated, “A generation ago, pastors were equipped to exegete scripture, understand church history, and craft sermons, but were ill-equipped to provide organizational leadership to the churches they were called to pastor. As churches grew and the culture changed, pastors had to learn about the world of creating budgets, managing staff, casting vision, constructing buildings, raising money, worship programming, and managing change.” This is especially true in a small church where you don’t have staff. We are called to be shepherd/teachers, but we are often forced to be administrators. As “church” conforms more and more to a business model, we are put in a position, more and more, to betray our calling. No wonder we’re burning out in record numbers. We are trying to fulfill a calling placed on us by man, not by God.
Though we were called to shepherd and teach the people of God, “equipping the saints for works of service,” we have been convinced that this happens through business principles rather than relationship. We spend more time with white-boards, spread sheets, books, and in meetings than we do with people in real life. As Lance points out in his article, “Over the last twenty-five years, vision and leadership and growth have become the topics of choice for pastors. In some ministry circles, CEOs and business entrepreneurs are quoted as frequently as the writers of Scripture.” Somewhere along the line we became responsible for not only the health of our church fellowships, but also their growth. Nowhere in Scripture do I ever see a leader accredited with the growth of the church or a local fellowship, it was always the work of God. Maybe we need to rethink our calling and how we approach it?
Lance Witt observes, “I have pastor friends who are constantly looking for the “secret sauce” of church growth. They are better-than-average leaders and communicators, but their churches haven’t experienced much growth. They struggle with feelings of inadequacy and live with this nagging doubt that they are failures as leaders.” This is happening to more and more of us, particularly those of us with small churches. We spend more time looking past the people as we search for something we can implement that will grow our church. I’m thinking that our churches will grow wider if we invest in who we have been given and help them grow deeper. Yet we keep holding up mega-church leaders as the benchmark neglecting the fact that our true Leader changed the world with 12 disciples and around 100 committed followers. Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (now called Gateway Seminary) wrote an article praising small, faithful churches. In his piece, Dr. Iorg says, “Denominational demographers call a [small] church like [the one he visited] “plateaued” or “declining.” It is neither stagnant nor dying; it’s just small – and very healthy.” You can be small, and successful!
As I work to lead the small congregation to which I’ve been called (we see around 70 on a Sunday), we envision a church that engages it’s community and makes a difference. What we mean by that is, rather than developing ministries and programs on our own, re-inventing the wheel in most cases, we encourage and provide opportunities for our people to plug into existing agencies and organizations — Christian or not — and to bring the love and truth of Christ into those arenas. As part of our membership process we explain in detail who we are, what we believe and what’s expected of members. The only classes we offer are those that prepare our members to grow in their faith and be effective witnesses in their communities. We also host an event where agencies from all over the county come and exhibit, letting people know who they are, what they do, and how people can help. We have groups that work with foster/adoptive kids, who protect the environment, who rescue animals, who serve the homeless, and more. The purpose is to serve as a bridge between caring people and opportunities to make a difference, while demonstrating to our community that faith in Jesus Christ affects real life in tangible ways.
I want to encourage you, to let you know that just because you’re small, it in no way means that you are “unsuccessful.” To the contrary, God has placed you as shepherd over the saints in your fellowship because you are the perfect person for the job. That community needs you. Be faithful in your calling. Manage whatever else needs to be handled, but do so with the expectation of handing off some of those things to others as soon as possible (even if you don’t think they’ll “do it right”). Delegation edifies the body and is faithfulness to your calling. Grow deep. Draw near to Christ and lead others to do the same. Nourish your own soul so that others have an example to follow. Everything else is details, and God will lead you through them. Amen
If you want more information about our membership process, or our efforts to engage with the community, or if you just want to connect, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.