The 6 Types Of Small Church Pastors (Descriptions & Cautions)

6There are so many types of Small Churches in the world! The variety is staggering.

Correspondingly, there are a great variety of Small Church pastors, too. But as I talk with more of them (us), I’ve found that there are some patterns that keep repeating themselves.

Specifically, I’ve discovered that Small Church pastors tend to fall into one of six categories. Or some hybrid of two or more.

If you’re a Small Church pastor who doesn’t fit into any of these categories, that’s fine. Maybe there’s a seventh or eighth one I haven’t run across yet.

But I offer these six to you for three reasons:

First, to let you know you’re not alone. There are others who feel what you feel and know the challenges you struggle with.

Second, as a way of supporting each other. Once we know there are others like us, we can reach out and help each other.

Third, each type comes with areas of caution to be aware of. I offer those cautions today as well.

So here they are. You might be a Small Church pastor…


1. By Calling

It’s a part of your strategy. You want to participate in the growth of the kingdom of God by investing in the multiplication of smaller churches or house churches, not by building larger churches.

I am convinced that church growth by the intentional multiplication of smaller congregations will become much more common in the near future – at least I hope so. No, not as “the next new way to do church”, but as one more valid tool in our church growth toolkit. 

Rabbits multiply faster than elephants. Starbucks stores multiply faster than IKEA stores. And Small Churches multiply faster than big churches. Some folks know this and are taking advantage of it.

Caution: Make sure you’re choosing Small Church ministry because you truly believe it’s the way God has called you to minister.

Be strategic. Be bold. Be quirky. Be innovative. But don’t do it because you’re settling for less.


2. By Temperament

You prefer quiet contemplation to rowdy celebration. Small groups to big crowds. A slower pace to a busy schedule. It’s what feeds your soul and it’s how you feed others.

(UPDATE: One of my readers pointed out in the comment section that “I have always thrived in a context in which I can know everybody’s name on Sunday.” That kind of shepherding instinct is central to a lot of Small Church pastors’ temperaments and is worth mentioning here. Thanks to Matthew Voyer for bringing that up. You can click here to read his comment. I love it when a reader makes my post better!)

If this is what draws your heart, do it with all your heart.

Caution: Find a place of ministry that suits a slower, more quiet pace. Move to a small town or rural setting. Minister in a senior adult community. If slow and steady is the way you minister, find a place where people need that kind of ministry. Maybe even in a big city among people who are seeking a way to slow down.

Be sure you’re not choosing Small Church ministry because it’s easier. It isn’t. Even when the pace is slow, the challenges are huge.


3. From Resistance, to Obedience

These are Small Church pastors who like big churches. Maybe you’ve been on a big church staff. Maybe you tried to grow your church into the next big thing, but it didn’t work out the way you expected. Maybe, because of that, you feel like a failure.

You’re not a failure. You’ve just been trying to do things you’re not called to do.

That’s my story – as told in The Grasshopper Myth. I didn’t set out to be a Small Church pastor. In fact, I resisted it for decades. But as it turns out, that’s what I do best. I didn’t choose it. It chose me.

Unlike the Small Church pastor by temperament, I don’t need (or even like) quiet, soothing worship experiences. I want activity, energy and buzz.

We need a lot more Small Churches that are led by pastors who are just as energetic, driven and innovative as their big church counterparts, but who are called to use that passion, innovation and energy in a Small Church setting.

Caution: Be sure it’s really what God is calling you to. Don’t use this as an excuse not to fix real problems (see #4). You might want to seek out a mature pastoral mentor who can help you sort this out.

I was a Small Church pastor for over two decades before I realized that’s who I was and how I minister best. The biggest challenge for us is coming to the realization that a Small Church is not a lesser calling. And that we can do Small Church really well without settling for less.


4. By Mistake

This is what many (most?) church growth advocates seem to assume about Small Church pastors. That we couldn’t cut it in big church world. That we’ve made some bad leadership mistakes that have kept us and our church stuck. This is where all those “10 Mistakes You Must Be Making If Your Church Isn’t Growing” lists come from.

While that’s not the majority of Small Churches, we’d be fooling ourselves if we refused to acknowledge that those churches and pastors do exist. In fact, there are probably far more of them than we’d like to admit.

Caution: If you’re in categories 1-3, don’t let anyone tell you you’re in category 4. If you’re in category 4, you need to fix the problems.


 5. As a Stepping-Stone

This is the pastor who is using the Small Church as a stepping-stone to something bigger. They’re always looking over their shoulder for something better to come along.

Caution: Of all the lists I’ve seen about why some churches don’t grow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this reason on the list. But it may be one of the leading causes of unhealthy churches – pastors who aren’t fully committed because they’re looking for something bigger.

Whatever church you’re in, it deserves no less than your full commitment. Stop looking for the next great thing and maybe where you are will become the next great thing.


6. For Now

This is the pastor of the church that is growing and will become big. It’s the pastor I thought I was (see above) and it’s what a whole lot of us think we are.

If that’s who you are and what God has called you to, that’s great!

Caution: Be careful about thinking your church will become the biggest thing in town. Church growth (as in, individual churches getting bigger) is not as automatic as many have promised. There have probably been more pastors burn out and leave the ministry because the promises of growth didn’t materialize than any other factor.


Do It On Purpose

Whatever type of pastor you are, do it well. Churches need pastors who are ministering with their entire heart and soul. Not settling for less. Not frustrated that it’s not getting bigger. Not refusing to correct mistakes. And not as a step on their way to something bigger and (supposedly) better.

We tell our congregations that everyone matters. That each person has a gift to add to the body. That every gift, no matter how small it may seem to them, has value. That we should do it with all our heart, soul and passion.

Let’s practice what we preach.


So what do you think? What type of Small Church pastor are you?

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(6 photo from Leo Reynolds • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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24 thoughts on “The 6 Types Of Small Church Pastors (Descriptions & Cautions)”

  1. Karl thanks for another great post. I am still trying to decipher which category I fit in best, though I know it is not number 4 or 5 (probably a good thing). I appreciate how you challenge me with your posts to think through not just what is best for the church but how best I can be faithful to Christ and God. Thank you.

  2. Great article…you know the obvious category I identify with. But I have to wonder after 43 years of ministry if it is part or all call. I never felt it as a call but it worked out that way.

    Every church I’ve pastored has been small. I may have seen prior ministries as fitting any of the six. But as look back…I think this is where I am to be in the Body as this is what He has best equipped me for and called me to.

  3. I just celebrated 8 years as a small church Pastor (+/- 20 adults on a good Sunday)!

    When I left my last church eight years ago I thought God was removing me from a toxic situation to bigger and better ministries. As I spent a year in “No-Man’s Land” without a church struggling to work like the average American I began to wonder what God was up to.

    When I landed my current ministry it was just a “Stepping Stone (#5”), I thought. Yet, after I had been in my second blue collar job as a bi-vocational minister for almost three years I really began to wonder what God was up to.

    I wept and screamed at God silently for a couple of months as I actually felt that God was stripping ministry away from me. People were leaving our already small church, I wasn’t making any money, debt was mounting, and I was doing a job of a college student (they gave me the job out of pitty, I told myself). This truly was one of the darkest periods of my life. I had a co-worker who called me Pastor Paul out of respect, but I remember going off on him one day and metaphorically throwing-up all over him after he called me, “pastor.” I told him what I just told you – God was stripping me of the ministry and I didn’t deserve to be called a Pastor.

    But, God was molding me. I was resistant, but I was becoming obedient (#3). I just had to be broken first, so He could fix me.

    Now I teach high school English to pay the bills and I still Pastor that same small church ( I have learned to enjoy my position and be faithful with what has given me. I compare myself to the guy who received two denari and was told to be faithful with it until the Master returns. I don’t take what I have for granted and I am doing what I can to stay sharp as a Pastor, a christian, husband, father, and human being.

    So Pastor, BE FAITHFUL!

  4. WOW…great post! I’m not sure where I fit in but maybe I can suggest another category.

    “Those who don’t think they’re a small church”

    I became a pastor two years ago at age 57 (yes, I may be just a little south of normal) when I joined a small church plant and was asked to become one of the leaders by serving as pastor. Now, we are a small church around 50ish, but I don’t dwell on that fact. I tend to see us as part of the big “C” church in Hyde Park (the town we live in) and we try to focus on finding ways to work together to reach our community. Some of the larger churches have well established ministries that allow us to partner with them…that way we’re not reinventing the wheel. We help with some of the manpower and they have the organization…it’s a win-win for our town.

    Anyways, I really enjoy this site…so very encouraging!

    1. Great point, Jay. I would include “Those who don’t think they’re a small church” under point #3. But thanks for making that point clear. One of the ways I resisted being a Small Church pastor was by refusing to believe I was one. I wouldn’t even allow the words “Small Church” to be used.

      And thanks for your story. It sounds like you have some great things happening.

  5. Great post I am probably a 1/2 hybrid. However you fail to mention the aspect of my temperament that leads me to the small church. As one who is so relationally oriented I have always thrived in a context in which i can no everybody’s name on Sunday.

    1. That’s a great point, Matthew. I don’t know how I missed that! I’d probably call that the Shepherding Pastor and it fits under #2. I should have mentioned it, since it may be the #1 type of Small Church pastor there is! I may just add it in and give you due credit.

  6. Eighteen years in a thriving small church that punches above its weight and still has exciting projects before it, but I don’t know which of these categories fit. Contemplative and social justice oriented, we’ve seen many people go through and on to other places, healed and restored, and the size of the worshiping congregation rarely exceeds 70. Maybe a combo of 1& 2.

  7. I don’t comment much on blogs, but I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies and a Masters Degree in Historical Theology. I have been in the ministry for about seventeen years, and have served as pastor for eleven of them. THIS BLOG and the comments from other servants of God here have been one of THE most helpful and encouraging things in my ministry and life. Thanks.

  8. I really do not fit exactly in any of these , i never thought I would be called to preach, much less Pastor a church. My Grandfather, and my Father were both pastors, but I had a Bro. I thought would be called. I married a preacher, we planted a church in a very small community. God called me to preach and I fought it for 2 yrs., then as time went on my husband had a heart attack and passed away. Then the church voted me in as pastor, it is still like a dream to me and I have been there as Pastor it will be 24 yrs. next month. We are in a real financial crisis right now, just trusting God! I too love to know the names of everyone in the church. I JUST LOVE PEOPLE and LOVE GOD !

  9. Karl,

    So many of your posts are spot on! Thanks for allowing the Lord to use you, by being faithful in writing your articles, in giving much needed encouragement, and at times, correction in our thinking. Your reason for this post–of reminding all of us small church pastors that we are not alone, is, for me, very well received. The day to day grind can serve to bring us to the point, if we’re not careful, that we feel isolated from the Body–a dangerous place to be.

    So again, thanks!

    BTW, I think that I most closely identify with 1, 2, at times in the past, 4, and even 6! Never gave much thought to 2 but it makes great sense. “know thyself” is good advice.

  10. I hope that more Small Church guys will read your posts. They’ve certainly been a help for me. I’m still thinking through which category fits me best. I’m probably a mix today of 1-3.

  11. Francis Schaeffer had a sermon, and a book of sermons, entitled “No Little People, No Little Places. ” The title says it all. If we really want to see things from HIS point of view, then we have to value each individual.

  12. I’m not sure I fit exactly into any of the categories as described. If any fit, it is #1, not because I ever thought I was called to be a small church pastor but because I am very sure I am called to my current ministry. I came here with a plan to be ‘big’ and ten years later, am still learning to be content in the place God called me to. I also knew we would never be a mega church (village of 1100 people and our population center is 8500 and 25 miles away), but I did think in terms of several hundred, which I still think is possible but probably not in my tenure since I’m in my 60s. I know it’s not a stepping stone, I came here with the idea that this was a life choice and calling. I do like quiet and space, but frankly thought that large church with staff would give me the quiet and space I enjoy. And there’s probably some resistance to obedience thrown in as well. Thanks for another thoughtful post!

  13. Karl, I was left to lead our small church (14) when our pastor stepped down, I never wanted to be a pastor and now I am. I co-pastor with a 3 person pastoral team which is a Blessing, I thank God for seeing what we couldn’t. Not until I attended your Small Church Conference did I realize where God wanted me to be and wanted me to do (Pastor). I now know that I’m #1, because these last 7yrs God has been preparing me for his calling. Thank you for the insight God gives you to share with all us.

  14. I spent the bulk of my ministry trying to pastor out of an 80’s and 90’s mindset which taught unless the church is growing year to year you are failing. I even had one bible college professor tell us that if your church is not bigger and better when you leave it, you should find something else to do. I even fell into the ‘if you want a bigger church preach like the church is full ‘ syndrome. I ended up burned up and burned out. It was actually two years ago when I read your book, I stood on the deck of my trailer at cobourg camp and shouted, my name is Ralph and I am. Small church pastor. It is challenging, especially now in thje bivocaational role, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I believe I am a small church by calling and gifting.

  15. Small church is not “less.” Not at all, and blessings to you for sharing this! One of the greatest challenges I’ve found in my 10 years as a small-church pastor comes in how we view it, because for all our grasping and trying to create systems and plans and structures, what matters most in teeny churches ain’t that. Small faith gatherings are driven by organic relationship, by intimacy and trust and authentically shared faith. It’s more tribe or family than franchise or startup. It’s the place where we lay down our lives for our friends, as our Teacher once put it.

    And I’ll have to give your book a read! Sounds well worth it!

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