Alone In a Crowd – The High Price of Big Church

shadowBig churches are great.

But they’re not built without a cost. And no one pays a higher price than the big church pastor.

In a recent blog post, Ed Stetzer re-published the results of a 2011 survey taken by his ministry,, in which he asked pastors what they felt about the ministry.

His survey was inspired by statistics making the rounds a lot lately, that seem to show that ministers are miserable in the ministry. So Ed decided to test these results. How? By actually asking the pastors.

Ed found out the ministry isn’t so hard on us after all. Pastors are generally happy with their calling, with a couple surprises.

The section of his study that caught my eye concerned the responses he received to the statement, “Pastoral ministry makes me feel lonely at times.”

Here’s some of what Ed found:

“Ironically, pastors of larger churches are lonelier. Of those in congregations with average attendance of 250 or more, 17 percent strongly disagree that pastoral ministry makes them feel lonely at times. In comparison, 32 percent with churches of 0-49 and 27 percent with churches of 100-249 strongly disagree.” (emphasis Ed’s)

The bigger the church, the lonelier the pastor.

That was the essence of a section I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth about this subject.

Big church systems work for big churches. But even when they do, it’s important to let people know that, along with the great things that are gained when a church grows, even those gains carry a cost.

I was using a DVD series from a well-known megachurch pastor in the home group my wife and I host, when he said something that struck me as odd. As he stood in the lobby of his church he said, “Thousands of people walk through those doors every weekend, and sometimes I’ll actually come out in the lobby and just watch the people as they come in … I love these people. These are some of the people I love more than anyone else on the earth.”

Really? I thought. He loves the people of the church so much he actually goes to the lobby to watch them?

I don’t doubt the love this pastor has for his church, and our home group gained a lot from his book and DVD series. But can you imagine anyone who loves someone “more than anyone else on earth” being content with just watching them? And stating that as proof of how much he loves them? Except a celebrity talking about their fans?

This pastor doesn’t sit and talk with the members of his church when they come in for weekend services. He can’t. There are too many of them. He has to settle for watching them instead.

It made me feel sad for him. I’m probably reading my own feelings into it, but I sensed he felt some sadness when he said it.

That’s one of the prices megachurch pastors have to pay. I believe it is a significant price that costs them more than most people realize. I’m grateful to them for making that sacrifice because I don’t know if I could remain emotionally and spiritually healthy if I were called upon to make the same sacrifice. Actually, my history is proof that I couldn’t.

We need megachurches. We really do. But we need to follow the advice of Jesus before we just keep building bigger and bigger ones. We need to count the cost. And the cost is more than monetary – far more. The real cost is the human one. And no one pays that price more than the megachurch pastors themselves – except maybe their spouses and kids.

As megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll recently tweeted “Your pastor may be the loneliest guy in your church and unless you are him that probably doesn’t make much sense at all.” That feeling isn’t exclusive to megachurch pastors, but I think it’s noteworthy that it was a megachurch pastor who felt the need to tweet it.

From The Grasshopper Myth – Chapter 3: Stop Thinking Like a Big Church

Building and maintaining a megachurch takes an extraordinary set of skills, gifts and dedication. But when the church gets to a certain size, and the pastor has to shift from the shepherding model to the ranching model, the the pastor’s personal connection with the church members themselves can get lost. And the pastor can get lonely.


The Blessings of Smallness

On the other side of the ledger, there’s good news. For all the frustrations faced by Small Church pastors, loneliness isn’t high on the list. Smaller, more intimate congregations allow for friendships to develop, especially in a long-term pastorate. In Imagining the Small Church, Steve Willis attests to this truth when he states that “…the happiest and most fulfilled pastors that I know are small-church pastors who have been at one place in ministry long enough to be adopted into the place and the people.”

This is not a case of gloating, I-told-you-so, or what the Germans call schadenfreude. Quite the opposite.

We need each other.

Small Church pastors, we need our congregations as much as they need us. Let’s let down our guard and make friends in our churches. Sure, they’ll let us down occasionally. Jesus’ friends let him down, too. He even knew they would, but he chose to have them as friends anyway. If Jesus needed friends, what makes us think we can get by without them?

Big church pastors, you may not have the chance to make close friends in your congregation, so I encourage you to find friends in ministry. And not just other big church pastors. When that happens, you tend to talk shop.

Find a Small Church pastor to befriend. The good news is, there are a lot of us to choose from. Maybe start with the local ministerial association.

There’s a lot we can learn from each other. And a lot we can give.


So what do you think? What can we do to ease the burden on our friends who pastor larger churches?

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(Shadow On Brick photo from jauhari • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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3 thoughts on “Alone In a Crowd – The High Price of Big Church”

  1. “Be adopted into the place and the people.” So TRUE. Longevity means A LOT in our area – mostly because it’s such a hard area. But my husband and I don’t feel like we sacrifice. I even told him one time that this is the first place I’ve lived since we’ve been married (20years) that I have felt I belonged.
    I’ll never forget the impression we made by purchasing a house – it told our congregation we were going to “stay”.
    Also, I had my two children here…one precious saint said to us, “We love you and pastor dearly…but we love your children more because they’re one of us.” That’s mountain people for you…we’ve been adopted into their family. And if I’m here when the trumpet sounds…and I hit the sky with THESE people..that’ll be more than alright with me.

    1. What a great testimony, Cindy. We found the same thing in our church. When we bought our house and then when we hit certain markers where we’d stayed longer than predecessors, it gave them the same sense of security. That increased the trust, and the trust deepened the friendships.

  2. Karl,
    Just had to share this with you it was so funny/strange. I was telling my husband some stories from your book (the one about the young college student seeking out your church because he’d find a pastor to talk to & the two ladies in the used book store who went to the same church but didn’t know each other) Anyway, we were talking about the speicalness of a small church – knowing your sheep etc..
    I went to check my FB right after our conversation to find the following from a young girl, raised in our church who got married and moved to a bigger town – she’s going to a new “big” church now. Here’s her post:

    Aww Cindy thanks so much! I love them! (some Scripture I shared with her) I wish i lived closer to jackson and I could go to my home church on Sundays. I really miss you guys.
    Big churches are ok, but nothing beats a close family church where everyone talks to you and hug you. In a bigger church its more of an individual journey, where it is so big no one reallys knows each other so no one talks to each other. I like talking to fellow believers. So I miss you guys lol


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