5 Very Real Tensions Every Small to Mid-Sized Church Leader Feels

If you lead a small to mid-sized church, you face struggles leaders of large churches don’t.

I can 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 of 1500 I’m part of today. You learn a LOT about leadership (and yourself) at every stage.

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

It’s critical that as church leaders we both understand and address 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.

That’s why I’m so excited about the release of my new online course, Breaking 200 Without Breaking You online course. It can help you scale the barrier that 85% of church leaders never break—the 200 attendance barrier.

You can start making progress with your team today.

Here are 5 tensions every small to mid-sized church leader feels.

1. 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.

The goal is not to create a church where everyone knows everyone. Create a church where everyone is known.

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 Fulfil

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.

Then, though this was hard (I talk about it in the course), 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.

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 people 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.

Complexity is the enemy of progress.

Break the Barriers Holding You Back


If you want to move past the tensions that every small and mid-sized church pastor feels, I have some deeper practical help.

Breaking 200 Without Breaking You is a new course I’ve created that provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break. Even churches with attendances of 300-500 are finding the material helpful as they try to reach more people.

Click here to get instant access for you and your team.

What Tensions Do You Feel?

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!


  1. Angela on February 6, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Carey, thank you for this blog post. It is so true what is happening at many small churches. My husband is a Pastor and all of his children are in leadership and try to run his church from the pews. When he takes a stand he is strongly opposed…when he’s passive to “get along with them” the work isn’t done. Our church consists of him, me, his kids, son-in-law (sometimes) and the grandkids. No one comes and when they do, they don’t stay. Our church is inward…not outward. Before I married my husband, I attended a mega church in Michigan. It was exciting going to a multicultural church which is experiencing growth.

    I know church growth is possible, but I have found that churches that don’t reach out beyond themselves to the community will not grow. Churches that are critical and hateful towards the “unchurched” will not grow. Churches that have no vision, plans or goals will not grow. Churches that have the wrong people in leadership will not grow. Period. At times, I am deeply saddened and feel the longing to reach out. But I am concerned that if I invite someone to my church they will encounter the prejudice and hatefulness of my husband’s children and become discouraged.

    • Don on February 6, 2019 at 6:43 pm

      Great stuff Angela. All true.

  2. Don on February 6, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    It is interesting to me to see the angry responses from men and women heading up smaller churches. It’s a very defensive tone many of them seem to be taking. Having been on staff at two small-ish churches over a three and a half year span, and consulting with other smaller churches that wanted to grow, I have seen all the trademarks that Carey details in this post. People on the board steering the church in the wrong direction, families not on staff or on the board wielding a ton of influence over the congregation. Staff members afraid of insulting these people, many of whom were the big givers. They would threaten to withhold their giving if they didn’t get their way. Truly sick and sad behavior, nothing at all to do with spreading the Gospel and welcoming new people to faith. I think if this article offends you, you need to take a hard look at yourself and see why it makes you angry. If you are under the influence of these kinds of people, no amount of diplomacy will work. They are akin to the sellers in the temple whose tables Jesus angrily overturned – they are preventing people from getting to God. So please, ask yourself some tough questions about why you don’t agree with this article. And ask God what parts of it are true for you and your church. And btw, it is all about the numbers. Because every number represents one amazing person God made in his image, and Jesus died for. Numbers matter because those numbers are people that God loves! Acts 2:41

  3. Ellen on February 6, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    Interesting article and responses. All food for thought for this pastor. A few of my observation and thoughts. Jesus focused on touching individual people or groups with the love of God through his ministry. He didn’t so much focus on the numbers of people he reached. Focusing on numbers or quantity came in later and is a message that speaks convincingly in a culture which evaluates by counting everything and generally values more over less and bigger over smaller. As a pastor my call is to reach people with the Gospel and growing disciples. I question the growth by numbers emphasis. We can become too focused on numbers and miss the real human beings and their lives those numbers represent. I also wonder if the authors approach to push back is more a reflection of personality than a general rule to be followed. In my view conflict is best handled in ways that de-escalate differences so that space can be created for honest conversation, which ‘fits’ with my personality. Blessings on your ministries.

  4. Tim on February 6, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Whether a church is going to grow to be 1000 in average attendance or remain small or medium size, it is not healthy spiritually for people to expect the pastor to know them well, walk with them and treat them as if they were their only concern. People need to be prepared for crises and how to respond as followers of Christ. More than that, the church needs to be equipped to minister to those in crisis. The elephant in the room is the fact that many do not want to be equipped for ministry to one another and do not want change the expectations of their pastor.

  5. Stephen on February 6, 2019 at 8:37 am

    “Once you get beyond a dozen people, start organizing in groups.” How does a leader effectively organize groups? How many groups? Who goes where? How do you include the not so lovable members? Where can I find this information? What is the best resource?

  6. Steve Fender on May 12, 2018 at 6:26 pm


  7. Jay on February 13, 2018 at 8:34 am

    Unrealistic in my context of rural farms to expect to grow beyond 200. The town population is 275 and I refuse to steal sheep from the local UCC and Catholic churches. Simply focus on building true followers who understand what it means to love neighbors and enemies.

    • Pastor Bob Tarasiak on May 11, 2018 at 9:51 am

      Jay, you would not be stealing sheep from the Catholic Church, they are not sheep as all. They follow another gospel, another Jesus, another Mary, etc. They NEE the true Gospel. Take it from an ex-Roman Catholic for over 39 years as one.

      • Tim Kirk on May 11, 2018 at 10:15 pm

        Bob your comments are regrettable.
        As a Roman Catholic for 51 years (my current age) I am a committed, born again and Spirit-filled believer. I had a profound encounter with Jesus on a Catholic youth camp when I was 15 and I have lived a life of intentional discipleship ever since. I now lead an international charismatic Catholic community and a lot of our work involves leading ‘cultural’ Catholics (perhaps that was all you were?) to a personal relationship with Jesus – and into discovering the deep treasures of the Catholic faith (much of which is held in common with all our Christian brothers and sisters.)
        Bob if you read the documents of the Second Vatican Council, anything written by the recent popes or the catechism of the Catholic Church, you will see that personal commitment to Christ and relationship with Him as Lord is the essence of what it means to be an intentional Catholic. While many ‘cultural’ Catholics may be presently some distance from this experience of living faith, increasing numbers are coming to encounter it. Seen from one perspective, the Catholic Church is the largest Pentecostal church in the world with an estimated 150 million Catholics having been touched by baptism in the Spirit through the Charismatic Renewal. I have personally heard Pope Francis say on three occasions that his desire is for every Catholic to experience baptism in the Spirit – and to encounter Jesus.
        In the first paragraph of his first encyclical ‘God Is Love’, Pope Benedict had this to say:

        ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16).’

        The very first line of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ (his first as pope) is:
        ‘The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.’

        Bob you have been mislead. Please consider reading and reflecting a little more deeply.
        Carey! I love your podcast and listen every week. I have been so blessed by the warmth and wisdom of your guests and as the leader of a lay Catholic community have gained much from you and your interviewees. Bless you and your team for your generous and persistent witness.

        • Aaron on July 20, 2018 at 6:57 pm

          The cathloic church has not moved one little bit
          On its view of justification.

          This is still why we protest
          As protestants.

          Still true just shall live by faith alone

      • Scott on July 22, 2018 at 2:27 pm

        I am a Catholic, and am sad to hear that you left the Catholic Church! I grew up as an evangelical Protestant, and was excited to find the glorious truth of the Scriptures that I had treasured as a child (and still treasure as a Catholic) fully realized in the Catholic Church. I certainly did not find a new Gospel, new Jesus, or new Mary in that transition! Our differences (great though they are) are a matter for prayerful discussion about the meaning of that same, only true Gospel which we share, and make us separated brethren, rather than “not sheep at all!” God bless you.

  8. James Ritter on February 12, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    NUTS to the idea of “Breaking 200.” Our regular attendance is in the high 40’s to low 50’s. How about some tips on how to get to 100….or even 85?

    By the way – I believe that Lyle Schaller wrote a book on “Breaking the 200 Barrier”, and John Maxwell had a seminar on this…….both back in the 80’s.

    • Jo Ann Staebler on February 6, 2019 at 9:47 am

      I would hope to go beyond an even lower threshold: “Break the 20 barrier.” I serve a tiny church. The tension of tradition opposed to vision is huge. They want to grow by cloning themselves–there’s no energy to go out into the changing community and build relationships, and they don’t understand that’s what it takes. They expect people simply to “find” them. Then there’s the expectation that I do all those things listed–as a half-time pastor with a contract renewed 6 months at a time, with no benefits, not even paid vacation.

  9. Eric Field on December 23, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    While not a pastor I have been on both sides of church leadership. I think one issue that has been overlooked is the biblical basis of deacons. Too often (Having lived in various parts of the country I have attended many churches) deacons are viewed as the leaders of the church, both by the congregation and themselves. I believe it is important that when a deacon is first called that it is made clear what their role will be. When the first deacons were called in Acts, the Apostles did not abdicate their authority or leadership, but rather were looking for help because of being bogged down in day to day ministry needs. A biblical view of deacons are helpers (or technically – servants), not leaders. I think that this one one issue has caused more division and power struggles than almost anything else.

    • Aaron on July 20, 2018 at 6:59 pm

      The cathloic church has not moved one little bit
      On its view of justification.

      This is still why we protest
      As protestants.

      Still true just shall live by faith alone

    • Dennis on February 6, 2019 at 1:50 pm

      Years ago I served as a “Deacon” in a small (250) church. It was an odd and distressing season. There were 12 deacons whose role was to “conduct the business of the church.” That included; facility maintenance, insurance matters, legal matters, equipment and furnishings, and anything else that was not “spiritual in nature” which was the purview of the “Elders.” The elders, however, had to “approve” all decisions made by the deacons. Go figure.
      At first I was honored, although a bit intimidated, to be nominated to the board of deacons. You see, I was a divorcee who had remarried prior to joining the church and I knew that church strictly enforced the policy that deacons and elders shall only be “men of one wife.” No divorcees allowed!
      I requested an audience with the Chairman of Elders in order to fully vet this issue before accepting the nomination. His response was; “Well, we have in the past used that to disqualify those we felt unqualified to seek church office. However, you are a leader in the community (I was a public safety officer) and we feel your presence on the board would benefit the church.” Long story short – I accepted the nomination and was elected.
      Have you ever toured a sausage factory? Did you still want to eat sausage after seeing how it was made? A few months into my term as a deacon, I saw more ego-centric, selfish behavior than I ever imagined existed on a church board! There was a “former pastor” (not of that church, but one similar) on the board who had “all the answers” because whatever the issue, he had “handled it in the past.” The other deacons allowed him to run the show because he was domineering and could be intimidating when challenged. After the church suffered a burglary and theft of several pieces of audio equipment, this individual orchestrated an act of insurance fraud that resulted in a claim settlement that was way above and beyond the actual loss! I could not allow myself to be silent, so I confronted him respectfully but firmly on the issue and asked if perhaps an error had been made in calculating the loss. His response was an angry; “No mistakes were made!” along with a not-so-veiled- threat to have ME investigated as being involved with the heist! I invited the investigation, which never happened, and resigned my post immediately thereafter. We remained members a short while longer, but it became very uncomfortable to gather for worship with those who had so completely ruined the biblical role of deacon that we moved on.
      Deacons AND Elders need to understand their biblical roles within the church and conduct the church’s business accordingly. Churches should NOT choose or elect either based on a person’s profession, income, resources, etc. but on their character and desire to serve humbly.

      • Mark Bell on February 6, 2019 at 4:30 pm

        Awesome post! I agree with you 100%. Many problems do arise from pastors, deacons, and elders not understanding their post and even more allowing the “yeast” of the world cloud their actions and judgments. By the way, your being divorced and remarried is not the issue in Timothy and Titus. Those lists represent character traits that are true of the individual NOW. You were not a “Novice” as indicated by your upfront meeting before the nomination was forwarded for a vote and by the spiritual maturity, you showed by confronting the errant and sinful man who disgraced and soiled Jesus reputation in the community and the church. I would have you on my board any day. It is hard to find integrity, even in the church. Thanks for you service to the Lord, even if it was cut short. God bless and remember, we receive our reward at the Bema seat in front of Christ – not a “board”. Secure in Christ, Pastor Mark

  10. Charles Hines on November 11, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Is this word needed today! Churches can transform quickly if heeded! Thanks Carey.

  11. Bob on October 11, 2017 at 9:31 am

    “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.”

    This sounds hypocritical does it not? To remove someone from leadership because you believe they wield too much power, by doing it in a manner that displays how much power you have…. you’re doing the exact same thing.

    And I get it, there are folks in churches who hold far too much power, and nothing gets done without their say so. I’ve learned that in those cases, going head to head with them often leaves you searching for a new job. Instead, get them on your side. Show grace, earn their trust.

    If they had this much power to begin with, removing them from an office or a position in the church won’t stop them, either.

    I find that point unbelievably disturbing and it reveals a power-hungry, ego-driven spirit.

    • Ginny on October 16, 2017 at 6:26 pm

      Amen Bob!!! My thoughts exactly!! The entire tone of this article is very negative. Perhaps the writer has had a bad experience. But please don’t generalize for “ALL” churches!

      • Bob on October 18, 2017 at 2:34 pm

        I’ve had many bad experiences with church members who are granted too much power. And unless you grew up in that community, especially in small churches (which is the audience of this article), that person will likely always have more power than the pastor.

        Challenging them to a duel is not a smart move. In fact, it is unbelievably foolish. Because, as I said, there’s a reason people gave them this much power to begin with.

        In one church, I exhausted myself trying to play into their power-trip, so I walked away. Since then, I’ve learned that you’ll get a lot more folks to believe in you by showing overwhelming love, not hammering down your fist in some authoritarian manner.

        • Mike on May 26, 2018 at 1:03 pm

          Hey Bob,
          I’m confused by your comments… it sounds like your advocating for passive leadership…if your role is to lead the organization…you should be accountable to actually lead. This means confronting unhealthy people, even when they have influence… this does not mean abandoning integrity and can certainly be done in love. However, it is not loving to allow unhealthy patterns to take root in the body of Christ. Paul confronted Peter when his leadership was inconsistent… we must have the courage to do the same. “Hammering your fist” is an insecure metaphor… doing what is right, is always worth it, even if it leaves you “searching for a new job”.

    • Troy Piper on May 12, 2018 at 10:02 am

      While I understand what you are saying, I see the other side of the point also. Sometimes those people have become so engrained in they know what is best for the church that the Pastor cannot lead the church in the direction that God is leading. When it becomes toxic to the workings of God in the church the Pastor has the responsibility of fixing the problem. Unfortunately it cannot always be all warm and fuzzy, remember power is one of the most powerful drugs and very addictive.

  12. Shawn Kennedy on September 18, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Carey – I am so grateful for you leadership! I follow consistently. You are a constant source of encouragement to me and the ministry I get to be a part of as a pastor!

    • Dave on December 23, 2017 at 4:41 pm

      Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr neuhoff preached about the authority of scripture, Christ as the head of the church, and focused energy on teaching and making disciples. Instead we have another “I’m the greatest” writing blogs. Our pastor uses this deceptive blog as gospel truth in our church. can’t wait until next week when he goes “head to head” with anyone with a different vision than him. The waves of malcontent based on the advice of blogs like these is dividing our church. Growth for the sake of growth very destructing.

  13. SusieV on September 17, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    How to get the old-boy and old-girl leadership (who want to see “more people on the pews” but aren’t interested in learning or doing anything new) on board?? The struggle is real.

  14. Chuck Land on September 16, 2017 at 7:17 am

    Hey Carey, I was wondering are you planning on doing something down the road for breaking 1000? This seems to be a road block we can’t get passed over the last couple of years.

  15. Gloria on September 15, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    I am a half-time pastor (paid half-time, that is) of an ASA 70 church. My focus has been to build and strengthen ministries so that I am not doing all of it. What I vastly underestimated was he amount of time and energy it takes to coach and equip these ministries. And recruit folk to take over for those who move on, retire, or die. And to help them understand that I am not the default if they are traveling or otherwise unavailable. So, there is not much real savings in my time. It is just used differently. I wonder how long it should take to get to the point at which I am exercising just a higher level oversight.

    • Tim on February 6, 2019 at 9:51 am

      Good comment! It takes as much energy to recruit, equip, organize and hold volunteers accountable for ministry as it does to “do it yourself.” That’s where I’m stuck. I know that it is not healthy for the congregation to solely depend on the pastor. However, it’s maintaining the expectations while creating new systems that I find difficult.

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