20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The Keys

20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The KeysThe average length of a pastorate isn’t much over 2 years. In Small Churches, it’s lower.

It’s a high-stress job, with long hours, high demands, emotional extremes and little (sometimes no) monetary compensation. But last month was my 20th year at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. And last night my Small Church threw a party for me and my family.

As much as they’ve blessed me, I feel like I should have thrown it for them. How does that happen? How does someone, not just survive, but thrive, pastoring a Small Church for two decades?

This is not a definitive list. I’ll probably notice something I missed as soon as I press “publish”. But these are what first comes to mind when I look back on 20 years.  

Today is the first in a 3-part series, looking at the keys, the cautions and the joys of having a long-term pastorate in a Small Church.

Have a Long-Haul Attitude

If I could only give you one key, this would be it. It’s the foundation for everything else. Pastoring a Small Church is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.

Too much, too soon means you’ll be saying goodbye before you’re done. Conversely, if you don’t change things up on a regular basis, you’ll get frozen in place.

Like a marathon, the key is balance. Keep moving, keep changing, keep trying new things. But don’t overwhelm yourself or your church with busyness. Save your energy for when you need it.

Stay on top of new methods, styles and trends. Pay attention to them. Adapt and modify as needed. But innovators don’t chase after fads and styles. They set their own pace and eventually they look around to find others following.

Don’t be a spiritual junk bond investor. Be a blue chip pastor.


Be Honest, But Not Rude

Call it transparency, genuineness or being real. But there’s no substitute for being an honest, open person with the people who share your life.

I’ve met pastors who think that means being rude to people, then excusing it with protestations of “well it’s the truth!”

Sorry, no. Facts alone are not truth. The truth only happens when you combine the facts with love. Facts don’t set you free. Only the truth does that.


Train & Delegate

A marathon may be a solo sport, but pastoring is not. And a marathoner can’t be successful without a strong support team.

Too many Small Church pastors operate out of guilt. Namely, they feel guilty if they’re not doing every job that needs to be done with their own two hands. This is not helpful to you or to the church you’re called to serve.

The most important bible passage for some Small Church pastors may be Ephesians 4:12, which tells us God gave pastors to the church, not to do the work of the ministry ourselves, but “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Prepare the people to do the work of ministry. Training and delegation are not exclusive to big churches.

You’re not failing at your job if your people are trained so well they can manage without you for a weekend while you take your family on a much-needed vacation. One of the greatest confirmations of my leadership is when great things get done at the church and I don’t find out about them until afterwards. Give up some control.

Share the authority. Train people you trust, then trust the people you’ve trained. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but there’s no way to last in ministry without training and delegation.


Be Patient & Forgiving

The people in your church will fail you. A lot. They need more patience and forgiveness from you than they deserve.

You will fail the people in your church. A lot. You need more patience and forgiveness from them than you deserve.

Give and you will receive.


Lead by Example

The best preacher in the world teaches more by how they act on Monday – Saturday than by what they say on Sunday. In fact, what you say on Sunday doesn’t matter at all if it isn’t lived out during the week.


Make Time Away

This is so hard to do in a Small Church. And if you’re bi-vocational, it can feel nearly impossible. But you can’t survive without it.

It is not holy, righteous, sacrificial or healthy to work 7 days a week for 12 months of the year. It’s a sin. Yes, literally, a sin.

Sabbath rest isn’t an afterthought. And it’s not just for non-clergy. It’s in God’s Top Ten. It’s in the same list that includes Don’t Murder, Don’t Steal and Don’t Commit Adultery.

God commands us to take a rest on a regular basis. So, don’t wait for time away. Don’t hope for it, ask for it, pray for it or whine about it. Make it.


Keep Falling in Love With Jesus and His Church

Salvation is not a one-time event. It’s like marriage. The wedding starts it up, but the day upon day relationship is what it’s all about.

Pastoring is the same. Your installation as pastor gave you the title. Your daily expression of love for the people you serve is what makes the title matter.

There’s a real danger in Small Church ministry for our relationship with God, his Word and his people to simply become part of the job. If we don’t guard our hearts, prayer can become routine (or non-existent), bible reading can becoming a search for sermon material, and worship services are just another day at the office.

Find your first love again. Allow Jesus to feed your spirit, heart and soul. Let him fill you so full he overflows to others.

No amount of pulpit eloquence or pastoral training will substitute for that.

Tomorrow, 20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The Cautions. On Wednesday, The Joys.

So what do you think? Are you doing what needs to be done to last for the long haul?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you! Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Keys photo from Nina Matthews Photography • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

10 thoughts on “20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The Keys”

  1. Karl -you are rocking my world! In a good way. The change I see in Scott who has a great passion to serve the Lord with all that he was and still at the end of the day feel like he should have done more. The information you provide from your experience has been a blessing to our home and church. I thank God for our ministry.

  2. This is a small church website for small church pastors and I’m going to say something very personal here about, and to, Pastor Karl. At first I thought about simply writing it to him. But in reflection, I’m going to post it here. Why, because what I have to say to him (about him), many of you other small church pastors need to hear as well. There are persons in your congregations that have similar stories to my own that you’ll never hear.

    My Pastor:
    If it wasn’t for my Small Church Pastor (Karl), I don’t know that I would be a Christian today. When I first came to Community Bible Church (his church), I wasn’t a believer, nor was I in crises or really in need of anything. At best I was an agnostic who was open to listening. God opened my ears, but Karl opened my eyes. It was his style of teaching, more academic, non-threatening at the right time, that helped me to come to Christ. When I came to his church, he was simply doing the same thing he did every day. Nothing special at the time, nothing different than most of you do every day. I can assure you he had no clue he was impacting me.

    If it wasn’t for his bad times, I don’t know I would have grown. I’ve been reflecting on so much of what he said in his book about his personal periods where he was at his lowest points in his ministry. Maybe it’s not odd that when he was having the lowest periods in his life, I was experiencing my greatest spiritual growth and understanding of God’s word in my own. Maybe those bible studies and sermons he gave when he felt he was at his worst, were some of his best. I would bet some of yours are too.

    I like that I can sit in his church, listen to his sermons, and think to myself “Pastor Karl is wrong on that point.” It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it makes me smile. That happiness comes from knowing that he helped educate me enough that I can have a different perspective and disagree occasionally. It should make him smile too, it means he’s done a good job. The next time someone differs in opinion and wants to argue with something you’ve said, consider it may be a good thing and worthy of a hug.

    Almost every day I run (jog) because of the seed Karl planted by hiking the Grand Canyon and integrating those struggles into his sermons. For those of you who don’t know, the year after his solo hike across the Grand Canyon, he led a small group from our church on the same hike and my wife was a part of that group. That group continues until today. Eventually I became a part of it and to improve my hiking skills, I decided to run to improve my fitness (poor fitness level to excellent fitness). Now I lead Scouts on hiking trips, run full marathons, have hiked everywhere all over Southern California and encourage and lead others in those endeavors. Pastor Karl can’t possibly know how many conversations we’ve had about faith and how much bible study we’ve enjoyed hiking the hundreds of miles we have with others, believers and non-believers alike, carrying his messages to anyone who’ll listen. Karl doesn’t know how many countless hours I’ve spent with my wife running, something we both love that has drawn us even closer. I am confident that none of that would have happened were it not for his spark.

    When Karl jumped out of an airplane (skydived), he integrated that experience into a sermon or two and so my wife decided to do the same for me one birthday? Yeah, my canopy failed on my jump, I almost died (I guess, I was oblivious somewhat), but the reserve canopy worked and I had a really great tale to tell afterwards. Every time I tell that story, it starts with “My pastor decided he was going to jump out of an airplane, and so my wife……”

    His sermons on how to approach life (God, then wife, children, family, community, etcetera) resonated and have become one cornerstone of my morale compass. He’s touched my life everywhere, but knows little or nothing of the details. My stories and the way he’s impacted me can go on and on.

    I’m one person, one of those faceless people you see in the crowd on Sunday morning or at bible study that doesn’t always speak. I’m also one whose life you’ve impacted, continue to impact, and who carries your message to others every day. I’m part of that web of influence you don’t know you have. The next time you are in church, look around. There’s dozens of others just like me that feel the same about their own pastors (you) as I feel about mine (Karl). You may not know we talk about you, but we do. Your legacies are everywhere.

    To my pastor, Karl, thank you for everything!

  3. Oh my. How do I take in that kind of blessing? I’m deeply touched and grateful for your kind words, Brian.

    And to know that you realize how the impact of Small Church pastors is multiplied through millions of lives around the world, makes it that much more meaningful.

    Thank you. Being your pastor is my profound privilege.

  4. Gilbert villarreal

    very cool, thank you for sharing what God has done for you through Karl’s teachings we at conerstone are very blessed.

    1. Gilbert, just think twice before following his lead and jumping out of an airplane.
      Leaps of faith, yes, leaps from a plane, caution. hahaha

  5. This is really good – again! First – the testimony from Brian was wonderful – “one of those nameless faces that doesn’t say much…” How many of those are out there? I’d say quite a few. I would love to see suggestions (from anyone) on how to delegate specifically in small church ministry. This is not always an easy thing to do as sometimes our “pool” is quite small. Let me give you a “for example”
    Say you’ve got a church of 40 people.
    10 of those people are 70+ years of age and they’re not able to do a lot of upfront ministry (taking charge and leading) Perhaps because of health, driving ability etc..(now, this is not counting them out, we’ve got some GREAT workers for example in this age bracket…but most would rather help than lead)
    Total pool: 30
    10 of those are kids and youth (youth can be a GREAT asset, but let’s say for this example, that they’re still growing and maybe not the best to be delegated to…really can’t have a youth for a youth pastor!)
    Total pool: 20
    5 of these are not yet mature in their faith. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable delegating teaching, worship, discipleship ministires to them because they are still in the early stages of discipleship. Maybe of these 5 you’ve got people who really aren’t dependable so you can’t rely upon them to carry out a job.
    Total pool: 15
    5 of these are leaders. They fill in jobs already and have been there for years. Some may even be facing burn-out because no one is line to fill their position – it may even be hard to find subs for their postions. You feel guilty asking or delegating to this group, because they already do all they can.
    Total pool: 10
    Of these 10 you don’t have any leaders. They’re personalities are working against you. They will help, but don’t ask them to lead – or you get major passive resistance. Perhaps there are some who have the attitude that “I’ve served my time – when my kids were small.” or “I’m not comfortable leading. I’ll help where ever you need, but don’t count on me to lead or organize anything.”
    Total pool: Pastor and wife
    Too often this is the story for the small church. That’s the TRUTH. But there’s got to be a GREATER TRUTH in there somewhere! Got to be some INNOVATIVE ideas on how to have meaningful ministry when you have a pasture full of followers and not leaders. It’s there, but I’ve never seen any book (yet) or heard at any seminar on how to go about it – even ideas being suggested. Everything seems to be geared toward churches with larger pools of people to draw from…or from pools of people who are willing to lead. I’m sure there are churches who could benefit from some honest brainstorming that would help the small church WHERE they are…if ever there was a place…I think this could be one!

    1. Cindy, I know the feeling. You’ve just described my first pastorate. We had the same number of people in that church, in virtually the same categories. Our answer at the time…my wife and I did everything. That wasn’t healthy for them or for us.

      If I were to do it again, I’d probably concentrate less on programs and performance and center in more on personal mentoring relationships, especially with the new believers and youth. You may be doing that already.

      Bottom line, since I haven’t pastored a church of that size for about 20 years, any advice I give you will be little more than an educated guess. And you can certainly do that without my help.

      I agree with you that this website can develop into a great place to throw topics like this out to people and get some solid feedback. The audience here isn’t large yet, but it’s growing much faster than I expected.

      So here’s my plan. One of the reasons I’m not writing a new post today is because I’m working on adding a discussion forum where questions like this can be put out to everyone and we can crowdsource some answers. You’re obviously not alone in dealing with these issues, so if we can throw a lot of people with similar experiences together, who knows what could result?

      I make no promises about having this forum up in the next day or so (people tell me it’s that easy, but it seldom is). But when it’s up, it will sit on the main menu bar as “Forum”, “Discussion” or something like that, so everyone who comes to the site will see it.

      It will be open to everyone (I’ll have a simple registration process to weed out spammers) so we can all pitch in to comment on questions like yours, add new questions, talk over issues and help each other.

      Pray for me as I work to get this set up. I’ve never done any of this before, so I’m learning it as I go.

  6. This is wonderful Karl. There really aren’t a whole lot of resources out there that tackle small church challenges with small church solutions. What an amazing benefit…and it is SO needed. Once again – heading out to unchartered territory. Who knows? Maybe – just maybe – we’ll start seeing seminars with that very title: Solving Small Church Challenges…With Small Church Solutions (ideas you can use NOW)…Oh my, I’m drooling. (lol – jk!!)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *