5 Tensions Every Small & Mid-Size Church Encounters

A recent post I did on why most churches never break the 200 attendance mark really seems to have struck a nerve.

tensions small church faces

People clearly have strong opinions and emotions about the size of churches.

When I began in ministry, I spent about 3 years leading a small congregation (under 100) that grew into a mid-sized church (under 500) and then grew into a larger church.

I remember the emotions that swirl around small and mid-sized churches. I also have lived through the tensions those congregations face.

This post (like the last one) is for church leaders and teams that want to reach more people.

It’s critical that as church leaders we understand the tensions we’re facing. In the same way that diagnosing that pain under your kneecap when you’re trying to run a race is helpful, diagnosing what you feel in the congregation can be critical to taking your next step forward.

Overcome these tensions and you’re closer to progress. Avoid them or fail to deal with them and you can stay stuck a long time.

So, here are 5 tensions every small and mid-sized church encounters:

1. The desire to keep the church one big family. This pressure is huge. People believe that the church functions best as one big family.  The reality is even when our church was 40 people, those 40 people didn’t know each other—really. Some were left out, others weren’t. Even at 100 or 300, enough people will still believe they know ‘everyone’. But they don’t. When people told me they knew everyone I would challenge people (nicely) and say “Really, you know everyone? Because as much as I wished I did, I don’t.” They would then admit they didn’t know everyone. They just knew the people they knew and liked and often felt that growing the church would threaten that.

The truth is, at 100-300, many people are unknown. And even if ‘we all wear name-tags”, many of the people in your church don’t really have anyone to talk to about what matters. The one big family idea is, in almost every case, a myth.

Once you get beyond a dozen people, start organizing in groups. Everyone will have a home. Everyone who wants to be known and have meaningful relationships will have them. And a healthy groups model is scalable to hundred, thousands and even beyond that.

2. The people who hold positions don’t always hold the power. This is a tension almost every small to mid-sized church faces. Your board may be your board, but often there are people, and even families, whose opinion carries tremendous weight.  If one of those people sits on the board, they end up with a de facto veto because no one wants to make a move without their buy in. If they are not on the board, decisions the board makes or a leader makes can get ‘undone’ if the person or family disapproves.

This misuse of power is unhealthy and needs to be stopped. In the churches where I began, I took the power away from these people by going head to head with them, then handed it back to the people who are supposed to have the power. In two out of three cases, the person left the church after it was clear I would not allow them to run it anymore. It’s a tough call, but the church was far healthier for it. The people who were supposed to lead got to lead. And we grew.

3. The pastor carries expectations no one can live up to. In most small to mid sized churches, the pastor is expected to never miss a wedding, funeral, hospital call or meeting, visit people in their homes, write a killer message every Sunday and organize most of the activities of the church and be present for all functions AND have a great family life.

The key here for those who want to grow past this is to set clear expectations of what you will spend your time on. I visited for the first two years and when we went to a groups model, explained (for what seemed like forever) how care was shifting from me to the congregation. I stopped attending every church event. We have a great counseling referral network. And I started focusing on what I can best contribute given my gift set: communication, charting a course for the future, developing our best leaders, casting vision and raising resources.

4. Tradition has more pull than vision.  This is not just about traditional churches—it’s true of church plants too. The past has a nostalgia to it that the future never does. Even the recent past. Remember how great the church felt when it was smaller, more intimate and met in the living room/school/old facility?

The challenge for the leader is to cast a vision that is clear enough and compelling enough to pull people from the familiar past into a brighter future.

5. The desire to do more, not less. As you grow, you will be tempted to do more. Every time there are more people/money/resources, the pressure will be strong to add programming and complexity to your organization.

Resist that. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Often the key to reaching more is doing less. By doing a few things well and creating steps, not programs, you will help more people grow faster than almost any other way. The two books that have helped me see this more than any other resources are Andy Stanley, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner’s Seven Practices of Effective Ministry and Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church. These two books helped our team resist the pressure to do more simply because we could.

Often complexity is the enemy of progress.

What tensions do you face or have you faced in small to mid-sized churches?

How are you handling them? Leave a comment.


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  • christoph

    point 3 could be also the Pastor’s choice, nothing happens without him. So he does much others could do and he does not do what he’s called to do.

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Very true!

  • stageacter

    While my religion is by no means perfect, one of the things I like about (traditional) Quakers is the idea that we are ALL ministers, there is no laiety, and the people on committees, and the clerk, or other officers, are just members of the Meeting, serving time-limited terms. I’m not sure how it is in those Meetings that are “programmed” or “pastoral”, though.

  • Janie K

    Another great article! #4 is spot on for me in that tradition = the glory days. As a new priest has come in and is wanting to bring about financial and spiritual health, he is also seeing that it is tough to inch away from what used to be. It’s a liturgical church, so that aspect of “tradition” won’t change…nor should it. But the “extras” like Bible study, parish supper, and other activities of the church life are challenging…like pulling your foot out of the mud.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So true. We quickly got to the place in the small churches I began at that it was easier to donate $500 than to bake for a week and sell 50 cent cookies all day Saturday. Some things just aren’t worth the effort, time and attention they get.

  • Rich Grof

    Great article Carey on the way non-positional leadership works. I really appreciate your insight on the resistance to change that smaller congregations face as they try to grow. It really explains the natural plateau that congregations experience at the 250-300 member size – group dynamics change.
    I’m thinking of this for my own personal business and reviewing in my mind how I need to set up the culture, how I need to be as the leader, and what I need to watch out for to keep our growth healthy. Thanks a bunch.

  • http://www.greggdeselms.com/ Gregg L. DesElms

    Well, of course, this is a fine article… as is the one to which it links, which spawned it. I choke a little, though, on the fourth item, about tradition. Don’t get me wrong, I agree, indeed, with its overarching point; however, as a person from a church tradition with a deep and rich liturgical history, I’m always troubled by the ease with which even those in said church are willing to scap certain worship, for example, traditions in favor of contemporary new ones… usually because the church doing it wrongly, in my opinion, believes that unless it modernizes itself and its musiic, it won’t attract young people.

    The fourth item’s closing words, “[t]he challenge for the leader is to cast a vision that is clear enough and compelling enough to pull people from the familiar past into a brighter future,” are incontrovertibly true; however, I believe there are ways to do it without discarding so much of the past that important parts of what makies church church are lost. And in the word “vision,” and all that surrounds it in that fourth item, can be the key.

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — the largest (and probably most socio-politically and theologically liberal… though, as a fairly far-left-leaning liberal, I hesitate to also call it “progressive,” but hey… that’s just me) Lutheran group in the US — did a study some years back to try to figure out what might be the secret that successful ELCA churches seem to know, which other less successful ELCA churches don’t.

    In her magnificent little book, “Reclaiming the ‘L’ Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core”…

    SEE | http://amzn.to/a0nXs8

    …author Kelly Fryer deftly explains that what the study found, among other things, was that a church’s success has little or nothing to do with modernizing/contemporizing worship; that all the praise music, and that drums and guitars (usually accompanied by intolerably-bad musicianship because the musicians are usually amateurs) and turning of palms to the skies and swaying back and forth in seemingly transcendent ecstasy in the world can’t replace the simple step which so many church’s routinely miss: having a well-defined and purposeful mission which is crystal clear in the minds of every single parishioner; and, more importantly, living-out — making flesh — said mission in virtually every single thing the church does… EVERY single thing. Nothing, really, the study found, is more important.

    And, astonishingly to those who think that the liturgical worship tradition is old hat, even churches steeped in it are successful if they’ve got the mission part dead right.

    This fits like a glove with what I’ve been saying for years and years about how liturgical churches should be embracing, and not replacing, their rich worship tradition and heritage; teaching young people, almost like a music appreciation course, to understand and appreciate it, not to just write it off as something from antiquity. Classical music of the sort that is embodied in Bach cantatas is timeless, though it’s true that high schools and colleges must often educate young people to the notion of it. If it’s done right, though (and there’s the rub), young people will have an “ah ha” moment when they can finally see the connection of classical music of the past with that to which they listen, today. I admit it was probably easier in the ’60 and ’70s, though, when even the Beatles employed full and complex symphonic orchestration in several of its biggest hits (think “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for example; there were many others).

    SEE | http://bit.ly/16bqnZZ

    The more conservative (than the ELCA) Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS; often called the “German Lutherans”) seems to understand all this, and has expended no small amount of time, energy and money on its Concordia Seminary’s “Good Shepherd Institute” of pastoral theology and sacred music, and its impressive annual conference.

    SEE | http://bit.ly/16brQPU

    There is much, indeed, with which to disagree with LC-MS Lutherans; but when they get something right, they REALLY get it right… and they get right that there is a way to retain a rich liturgical heritage without forsaking modernity and vision. Sadly, LC-MS Lutherans take even THAT only so far, and so are inherently stunted in their socio-politics and accompanying theology compared with ELCA Lutherans (whom they see as so liberal as to be heretical); but one must be careful not to let that stand in the way of how deftly LC-MS teaches about the tradition of liturgy and worship…

    …something from which ELCA Lutherans could take a lesson. But that’s not really my point, here. My point, simply, is that there are ways, — largely through simple education, at least when it comes to liturgy and worship — to help the young understand that certain parts of a church’s tradition are timeless and should not be forsaken along the way toward living-out and making flesh the necessary vision of any church which expects to survive in the age of what the a 2012 Pew Research Center study called “nones”: persons “who do not identify with any religion” and check the “none” box when asked on forms what is their religion, if any…


    …or, perhaps worse, in some ways, those who now call themselves the ridiculous (in my opinion), but increasingly popular “spiritual, but not religious” (SBNR)…

    SEE | http://bit.ly/H4PsK4
    SEE | http://huff.to/H4Pxh1
    SEE | http://ti.me/H4PRwc

    …with apologies to my friend JIM BURKLO, who both has another view…

    SEE | http://bit.ly/H4Qkyy
    SEE | http://bit.ly/H4Qjun

    …and is much smarter than am I on such matters, in any case.

    I write all this because I am deeply troubled by the notion, just generally, that church tradition must be all-but-abandoned in order to see, embrace and live the promise of the future. That’s just not true; but how to manage it is such a profound challenge. Mission, though, can truly guide… that is, if, as the ELCA study found, a church can develop a good one, really and truly understand it, and then make it flesh in everything it does.

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Hi Greg. Thanks for this. I’m not saying abandon tradition nearly as much as ensure it still works. Too many churches have held onto things that are not working in the name of tradition, only to be stumped by their lack of progress. Every liturgical element was new at one point, and it was kept because it helped people. When what we’re doing stops helping people connect with God, it’s time to rethink.

  • Jonathan

    When a church makes the transition to groups how does children’s ministry make this transition?

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      It’s a big subject Jonathan. I think the key is to cast vision around the goal of building relationships. They key difference between a classroom model and groups model is to separate the role of communicator from group leader. Have people who can communicate do the message, and have people who are great at relationships do groups. The good news is your church has many people who are great with relationships, so the model scales well. Hope this helps!

  • Eskilover

    Hi Carey,
    Excellent article. What can a leader (non-staff) do about #2 if tour senior pastor is non-confrontational? The problem is often the people in power have been wielding it so long that almost no one can see it except when you cross them.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Wow. That’s a great question, and it’s kind of a game stopper. if the senior leader won’t tackle the hard issues, it makes it harder for everyone. I might try to have a direct conversation with him/her about it and outline what their fear is doing to the organization.

    • Rich Grof

      Hi Eskilover
      I have a thought on your question. I’m guessing this may be a common problem. In all things we must remember that all of God’s leaders are placed in leadership at his will. That means it would be wise to give respect to the senior pastor. His correction or guidance is in God’s hands. As for the non-positional leaders who use hostile tactics to control situations for their own benefit, they need to be spoken too privately with frank kindness to win them over. If that doesn’t work, I find that by staying true to the vision of what I’m working on, they will align themselves or resist and eventually leave. Just a heads up though, if they are used to complaining loudly to get their own way, you can expect to deal with this head on. Just a thought…

  • pinkjohn

    Great points, but I have a minor quibble with one. I agree in principle about casting a vision of the future. But the “pull of tradition” is not just about nostalgia. It is also about having a place that remains familiar in a world where the rate of change seems only to accelerate. “Living in the past” is usually used as an epithet. But there is value in having a place where important things like family and community history is remembered and honored.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Yes. There are traditions which are definitely worth honouring. But I think the key is that when the traditions were relevant, they were relevant because they served their time well. If they have stopped doing so, move on. Marry the mission but date the model.

  • adamkingYM

    One tension I’m facing as a Youth Director (soon to be Director of Discipleship) at a long established smaller church (150-200 in attendance) is mistrust of me and other potential leaders, particularly young leaders, from some older members because we don’t necessarily fit the ideal of a sharp dressed businessman. We are perfectly fine as long as we are teaching their kids, but it’s hard not to think at times that my suggestions for the larger church is considered less than if I were 50+ years old.

    The tension I believe is a fear of radically new ideas, which I think is actually a fear of true creativity. On one hand I understand that fear because if the radical new idea or creative spark outright subverts the Gospel message, then it should not be allowed to flourish. But when the creative spark or new idea is not a change in message but a change of strategy, medium, focus, etc. then it MUST be unleashed even at the risk of failure.

    Anyways, just some thoughts. By the way, it was great to see you on Friday at Orange Tour in DC! I convinced a group of our leaders to come with me, including our senior pastor, that are now absolutely fired up to start rethinking how our church is doing ministry. Good timing too since they’re about to hand me a lot of new responsibility (as mentioned above, moving from just Youth to now all Discipleship/Family ministry). I’m gonna need a great team.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Hey Adam…the DC Tour Stop was so much fun! I hear you about mistrust of younger leaders by older leaders. I started out in ministry at 30 in a church where the average age was 65. What I found is that people started following when I started leading. I think if you lead with humility, it becomes something people instinctively follow. Don’t let them discourage you because of your youth, and lead with all diligence.

    • Eskilover

      Hi Adam,
      As a 54 who has been involved in church leadership for most of my adult life, I have seen older members dismiss younger folks ideas out of hand because the younger ones didn’t dress the way the older guys thought they should. Or understand working from home. However, sometimes the benefit of experience is seeing the flaws in a young person’s plan. I’ve also experienced youthful exuberance for something getting bogged down when things get tough and the younger leader abandoning a perfectly good idea for the next great idea. If you really want to make a change, why not discuss the idea with the people you perceive as not supporting you? Ask, sincerely, for their input. You might be surprised at how much support you get from them. At the same time they might give you insight that could save you a bunch of time. At the least, you will have opened a dialogue with them. Good luck with your new position.

  • Andy McQuaid

    Carey – What an accurate list for the smaller town/smaller church pastor! I’m curious how you advise exerting the leadership necessary to break through these barriers without igniting accusations of “control” as you describe in last month’s post. http://careynieuwhof.com/2013/09/5-personal-insights-from-a-recovering-control-freak/

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks Andy! There is a link for sure. :)

  • david manafo

    #1 & #5 hit home the most for me. Realizing a small church can be as inauthentic and lonely as a big one. You can’t force people to connect but provide opportunities and groups. Also sticking with simplicity – less – has been vital but challenging.
    Providing steps is a great metaphor for me. Thnx

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      That’s right David. We can’t make people grow but
      we can provide the environment win which growth can take place.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Carey, I’m getting a little tired of tweeting “Another awesome post by @cnieuwhof,” but feel free to continue writing! I’d add this issue: the propensity to mis-define success. I think smaller church leaders, especially, (I know this from experience) tend to define success via attendance vs. life transformation. It looks like the large churches are growing by adding numbers. In fact, they’re usually growing by bringing people to experience the power of the Spirit in their lives–which of course produces increased attendance. It’s an easy misstep to make.

    • Dan_Cartwright

      Especially easy when ‘church growth’ sites spend so much time tlaking about ‘numbers’.

      • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

        It does seem to come across that way, Dan. I found I was able to get past that impression by getting around some of those churches and leaders to see the heart they really have for reaching people.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Love your encouragement Lawrence. So thankful for your kind words. And yes. That’s a great point. Thank you!

  • Ferrell Hardison

    Once again Carey —> BULL’S EYE!!!

  • Dan_Cartwright

    I heard somewhere (John MacArthur teaching the book of Acts, I think) that we need to remember that it’s His church and that whatever we do in terms of church growth should be done in step with what the Holy Spirit is already doing. One thing we know the Hoy Spirit is ‘doing’ is saving people and that Jesus added to the N.Tchurch those who were ‘being saved’. I think if we let Him build His church, His way, many of the tensions would be alleviated.

  • Kevin

    I keep seeing the advice from church leaders like yourself to “create steps, not programs” (point 5, above). What are the clear steps that your church has in place for people, from visitors to regular attenders to fully involved members?