6 Important Realities About Pastoring A Small Church

Pastoring at any size church is no easy task. Most pastors work well over the typical 40 hour work week while dealing with situations that are emotionally, spiritually, and physically taxing. Before I get any further into this article, I want to thank you for doing what you do and serving Christ’s church. Many times pastoring a small church is a thankless job, but what you do truly matters and even if people don’t express it, they do appreciate you!

Reality #1: Pastoring a small church is normal

Since I have been in ministry, I have observed this idea that pastoring a small church is abnormal. It may not always be explicitly said, but it is certainly implicit. I’ve heard, and you’ve heard, well known pastors of large churches talk poorly about pastoring a small church. I’ve always heard the cries of well-intentioned small church pastors beating themselves up that they don’t look like the large church down the street. 

By the way, I’m defining large here in terms that will likely surprise you. My definition of a large church is any church with a weekly attendance of more than 500 people. I define large churches this way because only 5% of all churches in America have more than 500 people. It is abnormal to have a church that is larger than 500 people. But, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that anything is wrong with large churches, I’m simply trying to illustrate that it is normal to pastor a small church. The vast majority of pastors in America pastor a small church. 

Reality #2: Growth barriers don’t actually exist

If I had a dollar for every time someone has tried to sell me a course on how to break the X00 person barrier, well I’d probably have enough money to buy one of the courses. These courses and resources have become increasingly popular over the last decade, but the reality is that growth barriers don’t exist in the way that they are popularly portrayed. 

Growth barriers exist differently in every organization based on the number and quality of the leaders that lead them. On average churches average a 1:80-120 staff to active member ratio. The median church size in America is unsurprisingly 80 people. That means that half of all churches in America have less than 80 people who attend. Notice a trend?

The key to breaking any “growth barrier” is to raise up more leaders who can lead more people. The church growth proponents who sell you their course may use different language that is more polished, but the truth is that developing more high quality leaders almost always leads to growth. 

Reality #3: Quality is always better than quantity

Thinking about the need to develop high quality leaders, a shift must be made from quantity to quality. I’m sure you want your church to grow. The great commission requires us to make new disciples so church growth should be something that every pastor wants. Yet, the focus can never be on more people. In order to grow in quantity, you first have to grow in quality. 

Interestingly, an argument that I often hear from small church pastors is that they may not have as many people but the people they do have are spiritually mature. This is a common perception, but it’s typically not true from a statistical perspective. The Hartford Institute for Religious Research found that only 20% of churches with under 100 people showed high spiritual vitality — showing that perception is not necessarily reality. In case you’re wondering, in churches over 100 the number is 37% — better but still not great. 

Pastoring a small church well requires you to develop high quality leaders who can lead others. If all of the ministry is done by you then you’re likely too busy to actually pour into people and raise up high quality leaders. Make sure to carve out intentional time in your schedule to develop leaders. You may already know of some people who could be great leaders, but you’re probably going to have to do some digging to find others. Don’t just look for the people who are outspoken or show typical leadership abilities. Look for those who love Christ well that can be taught to share that love with others.

Reality #4: Everything won’t be better when you get to X

You’re not going to like this one. I know because I don’t like this one. I’m guilty of telling myself that, “if I can get to X then everything will get better.” Maybe for your church it’s something like…

“If we can get to 150 people everything will get better…”

“If we can get to a $250,000 per year budget everything will get better…”

“If we can hire a full time staff member everything will get better…”

Now, it’s probably true that things will arguably get better when those things happen. However, you’ll also find an entirely new set of challenges that you didn’t expect will show up when those things happen. The truth is there’s no magical size, budget, or staff team that will make everything better. Those things certainly help, but they won’t solve all of your problems.

Reality #5: You need to take care of yourself

Like so many people who spend their lives caring for others, pastors are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. They pour their lives into the lives of others through counseling, late night texts, funerals, hospital visits, and so much more.

With all that “other focused” activity, it’s difficult to remember to take care of yourself. But the truth is that pastors need more care than anyone.

Pastors face unique and unrelenting spiritual battles that most people don’t understand. Pastors maintain long and odd hours, especially in smaller churches where many pastors are bivocational or the sole full time minister.

You should be taking care of yourself spiritually through daily personal time with God, emotionally through regular counseling with someone that’s not in your church and not your spouse, and physically through exercise, rest, and a decent diet.

Reality #6: Culture change is hard

It is easy to face discouragement when you feel like you’ve been trying to change things for the better only to feel like everything is staying the same. Culture change is hard within the church — within any organization really. Don’t let slowness to change discourage you from trying to move forward. Stay positive and make sure that you are orienting the change toward mission and vision. 

No one likes change for change’s sake. They need to know why the change needs to happen and how it will benefit the organization. You’ve got to talk about mission and vision in order to get people on board. But, even then this isn’t a one time thing and then everything will change. It’s still likely to be a slow process. 

We’ve actually produced a 30 page book to help you become a mission driven leader. Download the book for free below by answering the question and entering your email! 

Kevin Fontenot

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