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How to Hit the Ground Running

How to Hit the Ground Running

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by Neal O. Michell

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The quick-start program described in this book is designed for the new rector or pastor who wants to "hit the ground running." It is also designed for principal lay leaders who will be instrumental in the transition to new leadership.

The program takes the new pastor, vestry, or other leadership bodies from one month prior to the new leader's arrival through the


The quick-start program described in this book is designed for the new rector or pastor who wants to "hit the ground running." It is also designed for principal lay leaders who will be instrumental in the transition to new leadership.

The program takes the new pastor, vestry, or other leadership bodies from one month prior to the new leader's arrival through the first eighteen months afterward. Organized in a user-friendly workbook format, this guide gives step-by-step suggestions on how the sometimes stalled and directionless period of transition in a faith community can be made dynamic and purposeful - a time of true congregational development.

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A Quick-Start Guide For Congregations With New Leadership


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2005 Neal O. Michell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89869-475-8


Understanding Congregational Size Dynamics

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?

—Luke 14:28

Developing a congregation is simply the task of developing people; making disciples. However, there are really two levels of disciple-making: one is the micro level, the one-on-one process of helping a person grow in faith; the other is the macro level, that is, the process of mobilizing people. Most churches that get stuck often do so at the macro level. Clergy are trained in seminary to think theologically and to provide pastoral care to individuals; they are not trained, however, to mobilize people. They are trained to write theological papers and to conduct liturgy; they are not trained to develop ministries. This chapter provides a way of looking at the local congregation through the lens of congregational size dynamics to help leaders understand their church as a corporate entity. Groups of people when gathered together in various numbers relate to their leader and to each other in fairly predictable ways. Certain practices that make a group effective at one size will make it ineffective at a different size.

Although there are many factors that will affect a church's growth, one of the most common is the ability or lack of ability of the pastoral leader to adapt her style of leadership to the size of congregation that she is serving. Often, churches will find their growth limited because of invisible but very real size dynamics that keep the church at that certain size. The church has gotten used to being a certain size and will perpetuate the practices that make them effective at that size; they have grown comfortable with their ways of relating to one another as a congregation. Although they may articulate a desire to grow, they often want to grow only while maintaining the current way of relating to the pastoral leader and to one another. Some churches will grow because they are able to adapt their system to mobilize the laity effectively. Other churches will plateau or decline in size to fit the comfort level of the system and leader that is in place.

This way of viewing the church as a system is theologically blind. These unseen limiters affect both "liberal" and "conservative" churches as well as "broad" churches. No church is immune. You may have the best theology in the world—from your perspective—but your church will be limited in its ability to grow because of its inability to change the way the leadership and congregation relate to each another.

Many times when church leaders first learn about congregational size dynamics, they get awfully excited. For example, they will write that their mission is to become a program-sized congregation. Attaining a larger church size does not constitute a valid mission. Lay people are not really motivated by growing their church larger. Mission is about reaching people with the good news of Jesus Christ; it is not about growing to a particular size. There is nothing intrinsically holy or salvific by being one size and not another. The real need is for churches to be good stewards of the gifts and resources that God has given them in fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandments that Jesus gave his Church. Understanding congregational size dynamics is a tool for facilitating more effective ministry.

A Comment about Attendance versus Membership

Often when people talk about the size of their church they will say, "We have more than 400 members" or "250 families." That is a particularly unhelpful statement. In my experience, most of our church membership rolls are terribly out of date. I know of one church that had more than 150 members on their rolls for whom they had no current address.

The number of baptized members listed in a typical mainline denominational church bears no real relationship to the everyday dynamics of that congregation. Most churches will have many more members listed than those who are actively involved in the life of the congregation. A church that has 650 members with 150 average Sunday attendance is vastly different from a congregation with 500 members and 350 average Sunday attendance. The larger membership church with the smaller attendance will generally have fewer financial resources, fewer leaders, and fewer programs—and effectively fewer people to minister to—than the church with fewer members but more people actually attending. Scratch below the surface of the first church and you'll likely find many members who have moved away, died, or are no longer meaningfully connected to the church.

We therefore concern ourselves with active participants rather than active or inactive members. Leaders may feel a need to be concerned about inactive members as a pastoral concern; however, the leaders who want to develop their congregation will be wise if they focus first on discipling and mobilizing the people who are actively attending before addressing their concerns about inactive people.

Realizing that the church has a large number of "phantom" members, the new pastor may be tempted to "clean the rolls" in order to begin her ministry with a clean slate. Don't do that.

There are several reasons not to clean the church's membership rolls in the first several years of a new pastor's tenure. First, a large reduction in membership at the beginning of a pastorate sends a wrong message to the congregation that the pastor is more concerned about the number of members than about the members as individuals. Also, an initial first-year reduction in membership silently communicates to the congregation that the church is in decline. A further problem is that the new pastor might drop people off the rolls that need to be visited, hence sending the message that she does not really care for those who may have been hurt in the past. It is better to ignore the membership numbers altogether than to fix it early in the pastor's tenure.

Sizing Up the Congregation

Why did our approach to congregational development change? Why did we begin to consider congregational size dynamics as a way of analyzing our churches? First, in the early 1980s, we began to notice that our denomination had been in serious membership decline for more than 15 years since its high membership mark in 1965. Second, more than two thirds of our churches at that time were either plateauing or declining. Third, clergy trained in the fast-growth 1950s were serving in the no-growth 1980s. They were not prepared for pastoring in this changed context. Fourth, we drastically reduced the number of new churches we were planting as a denomination and settled into a consolidation mode. Finally, we found that we were growing older as a denomination and not drawing younger families and individuals. So, a few forward-thinking people began to ask what was really going on inside our churches. Arlin Rothauge, former Congregational Development Officer for the Episcopal Church, and then Kevin Martin, then Canon for Congregational Development in the Diocese of Texas, helped Episcopal churches—as well as many other denominational churches—understand that this decline could actually be stemmed and that we could help lead our churches to greater health and growth through an understanding of congregational dynamics.

In 1982, Arlin Rothauge published a little booklet, Sizing Up the Congregation, which opened up a whole new way of understanding congregations from the perspective of size dynamics. This booklet categorized churches according to numbers of active members and showed the dynamics of the relationships between the leader and the congregation. He suggested four sizes, as shown in the table below:

Active members

Family 0–50
Pastoral 50–150
Program 150–350
Corporation 350+

Rothauge's analysis helped congregational leaders understand the interplay between leaders and followers and evangelism.

In 1995, Kevin Martin did a little fine tuning of Rothauge's analysis. First, he changed the basic subject group from active members to average Sunday attendance. Determining active members was difficult and led to analyses that simply did not fit Rothauge's otherwise insightful paradigm. Second, he changed the numerical categories based on his observations of churches that he had worked with in the Diocese of Texas. Third, and most significantly, he observed that many churches had a difficult time moving from the pastoral to program size. In response, he posited a fifth size category: the transitional-sized church. Finally, he changed the designation of corporate-sized church to resource-sized. Designating a church as corporate, he reasoned, seemed a bit sterile and, well, corporate-sounding rather than pastoral, and the significant aspect of this larger sized church is that it has an abundance of resources. Martin's size categories are as follows:

Average Sunday


Family 5–75
Pastoral 76–140
Transitional 141–225
Program 226–400
Resource 401+

So, let's look at these size dynamics a bit more closely using Kevin Martin's analysis.

The Family-Sized Church

The family-sized church has an average Sunday attendance of up to 75. These churches are typically located in smaller towns. They function much as a family does and are often made up of a couple of interrelated families in the leadership of the church. Not everyone in the church is a member of the extended family, but one prominent extended family is often at the center of influence.

The ordained person in this size of church is not the head of the congregation (family). Instead, the ordained person functions as the chaplain to the congregation. The congregation expects only pastoral care from the pastor—counseling, prayers at appropriate occasions, hospital visits, weddings, funerals, and so on—but the real decisions affecting the church are made by long-standing members of the congregation. The true leader in this congregational family system is designated as the matriarch or patriarch. This person is usually a long-term member of both the congregation and the community and will typically have children and grandchildren in the congregation. The church is really a set of a few extended family units with a few other friends as well.

Although the vestry is the stated lay leadership circle, usually the vestry will defer to the matriarch/patriarch. It is not unusual to have a vestry make a decision only to have the same vestry reverse itself a month later after everyone has talked to the matriarch/patriarch of the congregation. Woe be to the pastor who serves a family-sized church who really believes that she is the leader of the congregation.

The strength of this congregation is in its stability. The weakness is its low expectations. Success for this church is in keeping the doors open.

The Pastoral-Sized Church

The pastoral-sized church has an average Sunday attendance of 76 to 140. The first major shift occurs in terms of leadership. This church is clergy-centered. The role of the ordained person can be described as the pater familias. That is, instead of functioning primarily as the chaplain in the congregation, this ordained person is the focal point of all activities.

The pastor is, indeed, the leader of the congregation (however, be sure to read Chapter 3 on leadership levels and Chapter 6 on managing change before feeling too overconfident about what it means to be the leader of the congregation). The pastor in this size of church is usually expected to give her opinion on flower arrangements and paint colors, to assign the setting up of chairs, pray before parish gatherings, be the first to the hospital, and so on. The pastoral-sized church pastor is the primary evangelist in the congregation as well. She will be the primary drawing card to bring new people into the congregation.

This is the "friends" church, where everybody among the group of friends knows everyone else. Lives are intertwined. People are attracted to this church because of the intimacy among the congregation. A person can miss church one Sunday, return the next, and five different people will ask what they have been doing or how their trip was. A church of this size can give to its members a real sense of belonging and family.

The role of the vestry at this level is to serve as the unpaid staff of the church. Because a church at this size generally has only one full-time staff member, namely, the pastor, the vestry members are often the ones who carry out the plans of the rector and the congregation. When the vestry of the pastoral-sized church sees itself as simply decision makers for the congregation, the pastor becomes overworked, and the church is not set up for the appropriate and healthy transition to the larger size.

The strength of this congregation is in its stability. Assuming that the physical property of the church is in good repair, this church can sustain itself for a long time. It is tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling to be in a pastoral-sized church—as long as your expectations are not too high. Worship services are provided on a regular basis, and the congregants generally know what to expect in them. Individuals can rise in leadership and responsibility. Each member expects, and can usually get, equal access to the pastor. She is always available for counseling as well as for more personal social occasions.

The weakness of this congregation is in its predictability. The programs offered by this congregation are generic and small. Don't expect a very large choir or for the choir to sing very challenging music. The youth group is often no larger than a Bible study. Planning for this church is usually based on "what did we do last year?" This year's budget looks suspiciously like last year's, and like the year before that, and the year before that one.... Often leaders are tired, because there are more leadership positions than there are emerging leaders, so people are often weary from having too many church responsibilities.

Further, the pastor has the primary responsibility of incorporating newcomers into the ongoing life of the church. The key to making newcomers feel like they belong is for them to have a relationship with the pastor. In this size of church, the pastor is the glue that holds all these relationships together—both newcomers as well as long-time members.

The Program-Sized Church

We now jump ahead in the order of Martin's categories to look at the program-sized church, because we have to understand the program-sized church before we can understand the intermediate transitional-sized church.

The program-sized church has an average Sunday attendance of 226 to 400. Whereas the spiritual nourishment in a pastoral-sized church occurs primarily through a relationship with the pastor, in the program-sized church most spiritual nourishment takes place though the programs of the church—and supplemented by the pastor. This church is noted by the presence of activity and program offerings. There is a place to land for just about everyone in this size of church.

The typical parishioner in a program-sized church knows the same number of people as the typical parishioner in a pastoral-sized church; however, there are simply more people for the parishioner in the program-sized church not to know. The quality of relationships is no less significant or meaningful, although it may seem so to the average pastoral-sized church member. One often hears people in a pastoral-sized church say, "Now, we don't want to become one of those megachurches."

The role of the pastor changes from the pater familias in the pastoral-sized church to the chief administrator in the program-sized church. The pastor is still at the center of the life of the congregation, but her role has shifted. Newcomers in a program-sized church don't expect to know the senior pastor on a personal basis. They may be in church five times before exchanging more than 25 words with the pastor. Likewise, parishioners don't usually expect a hospital visit from the senior pastor; although it is expected in a time of crisis or real need. The senior pastor spends her time planning with other staff members and lay leaders in the congregation, recruiting new leaders, facilitating the activities in the congregation, and keeping the programs running smoothly.

Excerpted from HOW TO HIT the GROUND RUNNING by NEAL O. MICHELL. Copyright © 2005 Neal O. Michell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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How to Hit the Ground Running 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
DrewDowns More than 1 year ago
I purchased a copy for myself after leaving seminary. It serves as an outstanding resource for some of the more basic, and yet important aspects of ministry, including working with a vestry, visioning/planning for the future, and taking a strong look at existing practices. I read this immediately after reading Alice Mann's _Raising the Roof_, and it actually seemed more direct and relevant to the ministry of the moment. Most provocative is Michell's vision for vestries (congregational governing bodies). This is essential reading for anyone that hates going to a vestry meeting and for clergy that worry about the ways in which these groups behave. I bought a copy for a friend for an ordination gift and plan to do so with anybody looking at parish leadership.