Understanding Small Churches and Transformation

Church leaders are big on talking about transformation. They are right! Things have to change if there are to be traditional jobs for them 20 years from now.


Therein lies a problem. Maintaining those jobs should not be the purpose of change. In fact, the change the entire Church seeks may include drastic changes in the role of leadership.


What’s that? Change the role of pastor? That’s not what we had in mind.


Most church leaders who reach the most influential positions get there by the recognition earned serving larger churches.


The relationship between parish and pastor in the small church is very different from that of a large church. If denominational leaders have never spent time in small churches, they have no way of knowing that. Their assessments of small church ministry are worthless if they don’t understand small church ministry.


Large church pastors might be more used to being in charge—proposing programs, and managing and hiring staff to implement their changes.


Change in small churches—MOST churches—won’t happen that way. This expectation will lead to frustration and the type of burnout that comes from wheels spinning with no traction.


Change in small churches happens incrementally—one idea at a time, one person at a time. It happens as a result of people with closely held beliefs arguing their points, probably for the umpteenth time, maybe with the same people. But then one day, something happens that makes it possible for both sides to lean back, uncross their arms, and say “Well . . . maybe.”


These moments in small parish life are glorious moments. The leader might not remember how the congregation got to that point—and for good reason. It didn’t happen overnight or by edict. It happened with one toe testing dangerous water. Then the knees. Then the shoulders. Suddenly new ideas are floating!


As the Church becomes more desperate, it begins to operate in fear. Power will be sought to control scarce resources. Land and assets will be coveted and seized. The Church will neglect true mission as they grope for successes measured by the past. Larger churches will be valued as desirable employers. They can continue as they have in the past a little longer and gets tons of attention from the “system.”


Ignoring the small neighborhood churches may seem prudent—good management. But it reveals a lack of confidence in our product (to use business terminology). We don’t really believe the mission of the Church is to reach the poor and troubled. Too much cost. Too much risk. God’s calls these days come with more comfort and perks.


This thinking is causing the Church to lose its neighborhood outposts—prime locations for active mission. The best and brightest talent will look for calls to the prestigious churches—where significant change is not likely.


But here is the good news! Lay leaders, and a few pastors, abandoned in those small, forgotten outposts of ministry, will start experimenting, networking—and changing.


Wait and see.