How come my church has reached a numerical number, and we are unable to increase that number? This is a central question we have found with small churches everywhere. Studies have shown that numbers plateau rather predictably – 200, 500, 1000, etc. The most important plateau, and the one that is the biggest barrier, is the 200 plateau (some will put the number at 150).
The average church in the United States has 66 people in Sunday School attendance. They have 87 in worship attendance. That’s across the board out of the 350,000 churches in America. That means if you run more than 87 on Sunday morning you’re already above average in America. Eighty-five percent of all churches in America average less than 200 in worship attendance. If you run more than 200 in worship attendance you are in the top 15% of churches in the United States.
Why is it that churches reach this critical plateau, and so often are unable to exceed it? The answer is simple, with very complex implications. Breaking the 200 plateau requires a very different way of doing church. And a different way of doing church requires a different way of doing leadership — The role of the pastor must change as the role of the congregation changes.
A pastor of a small church, and the congregation that makes up the small church, have a settled sense of what church life should be all about. In these small churches, the pastor personally ministers to virtually everyone in the congregation. And that is precisely the reason that 200 is the magic number. It is the number of people that one pastor can reasonably pastor.
So what’s the usual pattern? The pastor, or someone(s) in the church starts talking about growth. “We need to grow in order to fulfill the great commission.” A committee is then formed with those who seem interested, and suggestions are generated as to next steps. Possibly a standard outreach program is adopted. The committee excites certain members of the congregation who are gung-ho for about six months, when everyone begins to sense that nothing important is really occurring. And the church settles back into its usual patterns with all the same suspects.
This is a common pattern, so let’s take a closer look, beginning with the pastor.
The Starting Point: The Role Must Change From Minister to Leader.
People go into the ministry because they want to be helpful to people. They don’t necessarily see themselves as leading large congregations, or managing complex multi-functional staffs. As they begin their ministries (either by planting churches, or taking over smaller churches, or serving on staffs of larger churches), their energies usually focus on ministering to people.
More often than not they have had little or no training in best practices of leadership. Problems and issues arise within their congregations, and they go about handling them in an intuitive manner. Unfortunately, intuitive actions are often the wrong actions. Intuitive actions are almost universally tactical actions
As an example, a pastor sees how much is being spent on printed bulletins each week. S/he googles the cost of power point projection systems and realizes s/he can recoup the cost in a year by discontinuing printed bulletins. When s/he offers this to the congregation, people become angry and push back, startling him. Another pastor notes that the young couples’ Sunday School class attendance now exceeds the seniors class attendance. The only problem, the seniors are in a bigger classroom. The next Sunday the pastor announces to the senior and couples classes that they will switch rooms next week. The seniors are outraged. Both pastors take the tactical, intuitive action. Both meet with strong resistance, much to their dismay.
Congregational issues that arise within a church require quite different responses from the pastor – his role must change depending on what is being faced. Unfortunately, most pastors (and leaders generally) have no idea when the situation has actually changed, let alone what new role must be assumed because of it. But as the saying going, If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, everything looks like a nail.
Consider this graph taken from The Leadership Triangle. (Ford, Kevin & Tucker, Ken, The Leadership Triangle (Peoria: Intermedia, 2011).)
|Key Question||What’s wrong?||What’s the focus?||What’s the question?|
|Problems are to be…||Solved||Planned||Reframed|
|Interaction||Training||Inspiring||Free-flowing and robust|
|Tense||Present||Future||Past, present, future|
When the problem is tactical, the leader’s role is that of an expert or an expert-finder. His/her tone is confident – “we can apply our current base of knowledge to solve this”. The key question he raises is “What’s wrong here?” and the evident problems are to be solved. As s/he interacts with her/his people s/he functions as a trainer, bringing knowledge to bear. And s/he functions in the present tense – “how can we solve this prlem right away so that our today can be better”. A tactical issue: It snowed last night, and someone needs to remove it from the church sidewalks and parking lot.
Unfortunately, we all like to function in the role of expert. We like people to turn to us for answers, and worst of all, we’re more than happy to fuel that belief that we are the go-to people in everything dealing with the church.
When the problem is strategic, the leader’s role is that of a synthesizer, bringing together knowledge of the internal organization, the external constituency, and the broader climate. His/her tone is that of casting vision, introducing an inspiring picture of the future that takes advantage of and confronts the changing landscape. Her/his key question is “what should be our focus?” and s/he realizes that the key way to tackle problems is through innovation and integration. His/her interaction with his/her followers is best described as inspirational and s/he focuses on the future tense– the imagined and aspired-to results of careful adherence to a clearly articulated strategy.Strategic issues involve the future direction of the church, and resource allocation that must follow.
When the problem is transformational (adaptive), the leader’s role is that of a facilitator, inviting dialogue and discovery, particularly in the areas of values and beliefs. The tone s/he strikes is one of creativity– whether in problem-solving or in conflict! S/he knows that the key question now is itself “What’s the question?” and that problems are not so much to be solved or planned for as much as re-framed – considered in an entirely new way. S/he knows that group interaction at this level of leadership needs to be free-flowing and robust – everything on the table – and that his focus is not only on the present but also on the past and the future. Transformational challenges are the very stuff of leadership and require a leader operating at full creative capacity. In the above two examples, of the power point replacing printed bulletins and the switching of classrooms, both issues appear on the surface to be purely tactical. But judging from the reaction of the congregations (both examples actually happened), there’s a great deal of transformational material in the two responses.
Take the issue of growing beyond the 200 plateau. If the pastor is operating as a transformational leader, he will call a town meeting and say something like,
Several in leadership in the church, along with myself, have considered a concerted effort to reach out into our community and grow our numbers. The value of reaching out is clear to all of us I believe. But competing with that reaching out value is the competing value of maintaining a solid community here at the church, which will inevitably be disrupted as new people enter our doors. My role as your pastor will also need to change. I will no longer be available to hospital visits, etc. when the need arises. That means that you all will need to more intentionally exercise your various gifts. And that will be exciting and disrupted, all at the same time. So I’ve called you together to discuss this. I can’t make this decision alone. It will affect all of us, so let’s discuss this.
The pastor then becomes a facilitator. This can be very difficult for some ministers, because they want to direct the conversation and supply the answers. But the conversation must take on a life of its own as the stakeholders wrestle with the implications of growth, and what they need to do. It should be noted that as the pastor moves into the facilitator role when s/he recognizes the issue to be transformational, there will also be substantial pushback from many in the congregation. The demand will be for the pastor to “take charge” and do the hard decision-making (“Isn’t that your job?”). But the pastor then must realize that transformational work is the work of the stakeholders who will have to navigate the conflicting values and ultimately live with the resultant conclusions.
During this discussion, anxiety will usually grow (the pastor must carefully regulate this). As anxiety grows, there will be an effort on the part of the congregation to have the pastor step in and ‘apply strong leadership,’ and tell them what to do. This seduction must be resisted because the work must be carried on by the congregation. They must wrestle with the implications, even though the struggle is painful.
The pastor must also realize that s/he cannot solve this problem. In fact, no one can solve this problem. It can only be navigated. It will be an ongoing problem (as it is for all churches), the problem of growth vs. building strong community.
Pain and Resistance
One of the hardest concepts to grasp for those who wish to grow is that fact that growth will bring about pain, pain from the loss of important things valued by the pastor and the congregation. What losses are you talking about? you might ask. Growth looks like a good thing, right?.
The first loss for the pastor is the loss of her/his role as the sole minister in the congregation’s life. Pastors of small churches are jacks of all trades. Their responsibilities extend from administration, to public speaking, to hospital visitation. They are the go-to people for practically everything. And many ministers truly cherish this go-to aspect of their lives. In addition to this, having all of these functions gives the pastor a great deal of control, control that often is hard to relinquish. But failing to relinquish this can-do-everything role means the pastor becomes the bottleneck to growth.
But there’s not only pain for the pastor. There’s pain for the whole congregation, pain from the loss of a small, tight community, and pain from the loss of their familiar role as a congregant as they have known it.
Pain, or the anticipation of pain, causes anxiety. And anxiety creates resistance. I don’t want the pain, so I’ll resist what is creating the pain, which in this case is change.
Here’s an important concept to keep in mind. Resistance is not a foe, but an ally, an ally because it’s giving you information, nothing more, nothing less. But it also tends to screw up plans for moving forward, so most people don’t think of it as an ally.
However, a better way to understand it is merely the forces that exist within each of us that resist change and the pain that change creates. Our brains are structured in such a way as to feel most comfortable during steady state, when nothing is altered. Introduce the hint of change, and our brains tend to react and resist.
The first signal resistance sends is, I don’t like this change. In fact, I don’t like any change. The second thing resistance signals is, Okay, I can tolerate some change, but you’re going too fast! When the signal inside of us, or from our mentees or direct reports activates, it is up to us to figure out what the signal means. The same as when your smoke detector goes off in your house late at night. You can say to yourself, ‘Damn smoke detector’ while you rip it off the wall and destroy it. Or you can try to figure out what the detector is signaling to you. If there’s a fire, you sure want to know about it.
Competing Values: How I continually manufacture non-change.
Because the pastor becomes a facilitator when the issue is transformational, don’t think that the pastor is unimportant. The key element in growth still defaults to the pastor. The leadership role changes depending on the demands of the situation, but he is still the leader, and central to success. And probably the most important characteristic of any successful leader is self-awareness. The self-aware leader is one who understands his own hard-wired personality (those elements that are God-given) and his/her own story (those people and factors that molded him/her as s/he grew up) and the surrounding culture and how it impacts thoughts and behaviors. This self-aware leader is able then to regulate her/his own anxiety as situations become disquieting.
Let’s start with how we in fact resist change – how we ourselves tend to resist the very changes we ourselves say we want to make. To do this, we need to turn to a discussion of values. Remember, values are those things that matter most to us. Most of us would hope that our values are always aligned and consistent. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Life in general, and organizational life in particular, has a nasty habit of offering up choices based on values that aren’t always aligned.
Every organization – business, government agency, church, club – holds numerous challenges as these go about conducting their missions. That will always be true. But what is it within myself that these myriad challenges elicit? It may be nearly impossible for us to bring about any important change in an organization without first understand, then changing ourselves.
Notice that much of what we’ve talked about involves delegation (aka empowerment). Delegation is extremely important for pastors. However, so many pastors get into micro-managing. There is undoubtedly a competing value at work inside of these pastors, unless they simply believe that micro-managing is the absolute best way to do kingdom work and lead their people (which flies in the face of all best management practices, much less kingdom values).
It’s important for you to begin to see how one value, i.e. delegation, gets trumped by another value (competence). Think for a moment of what that competing value inside of the micro-managing pastor is. There’s a good chance that her/his need to be competent may be the competing value. What happens when you delegate? You cede quality control. You know how you would perform, but what about your congregants? Will they do an equally good job? The only way to know is to constantly look over their shoulder.
You might want to fill in the below chart for yourself to see where you might be defeating yourself because of internal competing values.
|What do I want to see occur in my church (what do I value)||What am I doing/not doing that defeats column 1 from occurring?||What competing values drives my actions in column?|
|I want to see my church grow. This requires distributing leadership duties to others.||Whenever I try to turn over leadership, I become anxious and jump in and take back leadership.||I must do everything perfectly, and ceding leadership to others is too uncertain as to quality.|
This graph will give you a good start in understanding your own internal inconsistencies that may be sabotaging your best intentions.
Now What? Leading Change
For an excellent look at how an organizational culture can change, take a look at the movie Moneyball. In this movie (based on the true story of the Oakland As ball team in the early 1990s), Billie Beane (the General Manager of the As) comes to a harsh reality. We have no money to buy quality players to win against the big money cities, so we must fundamentally rethink how we go about selecting players. Sound familiar? How can we compete against the mega-church when it’s nearly impossible to close the gap between us?
With the help of Pete James, who has looked at the game and its statistics from a very different paradigm, he begins to rethink how he should do baseball. And the first thing he gets from his scouts, then his manager, then is players, is massive resistance. They realize immediately the losses they will suffer personally if they are to implement this new program. Their anxiety peaks, and they push back, hard.
But Beane continues his program, first getting a few early adaptors, then demonstrating that his plan can work (though the pushback remains fierce). The church world is no different. If you decide that you want to break the 200 barrier and grow, the pushback will be massive. The stakeholders (congregation) will need to wrestle through the implications. The journey will be difficult. But if you stick to it, the results can be rewarding.
I think John Kotter’s work will be helpful. (John Kotter. Leading Change (Cambridge: Harvard Business School, 1996) He says that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping the below steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces satisfactory results. Making critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains. So let’s look at the stages:
I won’t delineate each of these steps in detail here. You can get Kotter’s book and see what he says. What is critical for you the pastor to understand is that you yourself may in fact be the single most critical impediment to change. If this is the case, it will require a great deal of soul-searching on your part to begin the change process within yourself. And this process almost never occurs in a vacuum. In other words, you need other pastors in whom you trust and with whom you can take this journey. The ability of each of us to deceive ourselves while our own competing values run rampant is unlimited.
Jim Osterhaus‘ professional journey has led from community work with teenagers, to professional counseling, first in a community mental health center, then in private practice. He has directed two church counseling centers and then co-founded TAG with several long-term friends. He has served at one time or another as counselor/coach, professor, author, and consultant to a wide variety of organizations.