5 Things Every Small To Mid-Sized Church Struggles With

Of all the subjects I deal with on this blog, church size generates a LOT of reaction and emotion.

This post on why most churches never break the 200 attendance mark struck a deep nerve.

As I outline in my course, Church Growth Masterclass, people clearly have strong opinions and emotions about the size of churches that can (and should) be overcome.

But I can also totally relate to the dynamics of leading a smaller church.

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 struggles those congregations face.

This post (like the last one) is written for church leaders and teams that want to reach more people. If you don’t want to grow, this post won’t help you much.

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 sense 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 problems every small to mid-sized church encounters.

shutterstock_2915936241. The desire to keep the church one big family

This pressure is huge.

Many 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 wish 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 

In many small churches, 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 better off for it. When the people who are gifted to lead get to lead, the church becomes healthy. When we got healthy, we grew.

3. The pastor carries expectations no human can fulfill

In most small to mid-sized churches, the pastor is expected to attend (if not conduct) every wedding, funeral, hospital call or meeting, visit people in their homes, write a killer message every Sunday, organize most of the activities of the church, be present for all functions AND have a great family life.

In other words, the pastor carries expectations no human can fulfill.

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 people in their homes and in hospital for the first two years, but then we went to a groups model. I explained (for what seemed like forever) how care was shifting from me to the congregation.

I stopped attending every church event.

We developed 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.

Many small church pastors are actually more burnt out than large church pastors.

Small church pastors, please realize this: if the key to growing your church is to work more hours, you’re sunk. Work better and smarter with clearer boundaries and expectations. Don’t just work longer.

Once you master that, you can thrive, even as your church grows.

If you want more on burnout and recovery, this post has some helpful insights on burnout and what to do to get over it.

In addition, Beth Marshall from NewSpring Church explains how pastoral care can and should scale as your church reaches hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of people in this podcast below. You can listen on the player below on download the podcast on your phone here via iTunes.

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 natural 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.


So what happens when your church starts to reach the unchurched?

If you’re not careful, you’ll push up against artificial growth barriers that most churches have no idea how to scale. Largely because they’re invisible.

We live in an era where 94% of churches aren’t growing or aren’t growing as fast as their communities. Barely 1 out of 20 churches are effectively reaching their neighbors for Jesus. Despite how desperately our communities need to hear and engage with the good news about Jesus, many churches are lost when it comes to reaching a postmodern culture.

That’s why I put together the Church Growth Masterclass. It’s everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that. But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.


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

How are you handling them? Scroll down and leave a comment.

And if the subject of small churches versus large churches still bothers you, have a listen to this interview I did with Karl Vaters. The direct download off iTunes is here.


  1. Adam lantz on February 7, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    Our church experienced terrific growth in a short period of time. The pastor left, and with that, his great sermons and his ability to get people involved. We hired a new pastor that lacks vision, has no drive and is often aloof to the congregation. We’ve went from 300+ a sunday to around 160 in about 5 years. Our church has no clear direction. Lacks leadership from top to bottom and is struggling. I feel as though we are a sick church waiting to die. Its terrible to watch. Families are leaving because of the pastor, men are refusing to serve under him, and its sad.

  2. Elton Smith on February 11, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    What does money have on maintained on a small church

  3. Greg Schwarz on March 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Love this post because its fits the majority so well. I often wonder how pastor longevity plays into the success of reaching one’s true mission. As a small (95/Sunday) rural MN church we stopped the decline, changed our focus, and began to focus outward more than inward. With a vibrant, young, dedicated pastor, we had momentum. The denomination moved him to greater things and we set back slightly. We are doing well again and have committed leaders, a new pastor with new ideas, and renewed energy. That is not always the case. There is a whole blogpost laid out for you. I’ll wait for your thoughts.

  4. Edward Green on January 22, 2016 at 6:22 am

    The factors I look for in a healthy church impacting a community are things like how many people walk to church rather than drive (apart from health reasons) and how much stuff that could be programmed happens organically – or rather how the programmes follow the organic. The role of leadership is to discern and respond to what the Spirit is doing.

    Once a church reaches 100-150 it is probably time to look at planting or how that church can support small churches (50-60).

    I am convinced that the impact of 100 churches of 100 is greater than 10 churches of 1000.

    • Wamalwa Evans on December 8, 2017 at 10:39 am

      The most struggle is when some are tithing and others don’t care even though they are employed. The highest amount of money they can give is less than a dollar as offering.

      You need to pay rent and do normal expenses for the church.

      May God help us

  5. Weekend Roundup, November 13 | JLP Pastor on November 14, 2015 at 3:42 am

    […] Carey Nieuwhof: 5 Things Every Small to Mid-Sized Church Struggles With […]

  6. More Great Reading | Second Chance Pastor on November 13, 2015 at 7:49 am

    […] 5 Things Every Small To Mid-Sized Church Struggles With […]

  7. […] week I outlined the struggles smaller churches experience in my post 5 Things Every Small To Mid-Sized Church Struggles With. Having started ministry in very small churches, I can relate to each of those struggles […]

  8. Zachary Verbracken on November 8, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    I have been able to attend and serve in a large church and work on staff in a smaller church. I definitely resonate with a lot of these. I would be the first to admit that both large and small churches have some common dysfunctions, but the one that I see being most common with small churches is the idea that…. All I need to do to grow the church is…. do more, pray more, work harder… when in reality, the thing you might need is some clear vision and strategy, some simplicity in your model, and some clear assimilation steps (like you’ve mentioned above).

    I think maybe part of the problem is that small church pastors can fall often under the “doer” category, and pastors of larger churches equip others to do much of the ministry.

  9. LBB on November 7, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I was so happy and relieved to read this article. Thank you! I am not ordained. I am the senior warden at a small church plant (15 people right now). We meet in a community center. Our founding pastor (who had served for 2+ years with NO PAY!) had to leave 2 months ago due to health concerns. Since that time, we have had a retired pastor filling in (with pay) while we try to figure out what to do next.

    The interim guy lives 40 miles away, and has made it quite clear he is not interested in performing any tasks other than showing up on Sunday to preach. Period. That leaves me in charge – of the planning, the paperwork, our website and Facebook presence, the squabbles, the drama, etc. I’m a widow who lives alone, so I don’t have family I’m neglecting – but to be honest, I am burning out quickly. After I’m done typing this, I plan to go back up and read the linked article on burn-out…

  10. […] 5 Things Every Small to Mid-Sized Church Struggles With by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  11. Jason Salyers on November 6, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    These are great. Thanks for sharing!
    Now, what do small-to-mid-size churches do about volunteers? Recruiting, training, getting them to commit (and actually follow through!)…

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