How to Shepherd a 100+ Member Church Without Losing Your Sanity

insane square 200cMost Small Church pastors are shepherds.

It’s not our choice, it’s our calling.

There are good reasons for pastors of large churches to move from the shepherding/pastoring model to the ranching/management model. But most pastors aren’t called to be ranchers or to manage systems. Most of us are called to pastor people.

In the first chapters of The Grasshopper Myth, I deal with this issue in detail, including my personal struggle to come to grips with that part of my identity and calling.

I was reminded of this shepherding call in a recent question from a reader named Paul. I gave Paul’s question an off-the-top-of my-head answer at the time. But I also told him his question had spurred me to think about expanding my answer into a full blog post.

Here’s Paul’s question.

I get the difference between the Rancher & Shepherd. I definitely want to shepherd my people, not manage them. BUT, how do you build meaningful relationships with 125-150 people without losing sleep, and your sanity?

Now here’s my longer answer, as promised. Thanks for the nudge, Paul. 


The Bad News

I’ve pastored churches of 125-150 for almost one-third of my 30+ years in ministry. Based on that experience, I have to start my answer to Paul’s question with some bad news.

We CAN’T have meaningful relationships with 125-150 people. We just aren’t capable of it. Not emotionally, spiritually or geographically. There’s no quicker path to lost sleep and lost sanity than attempting the impossible. And no, I don’t mean the “without God it’s impossible,” kind of impossible. I mean the “God didn’t design us to work this way,” kind of impossible.

But there are some principles we can learn that will help us maximize our time and deepen our relationships, to be better shepherds to the 100+ member church. Here are some ideas that have worked for me.


What to DO

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Being a shepherd does not mean letting the sheep run your life. But that’s exactly what will happen without a proactive plan. It matters less what your plan is, than that you have one.

Take the time to prayerfully and intelligently assess your congregation, its culture, its strengths and its weaknesses. Then decide which people you need to invest the bulk of your time with.

That plan will change as soon as you implement it. Such is the nature of working with people. But if you don’t have a plan to adapt from, you will spend your days (and nights) being busy with everyone, only to have very little to show for it.


Invest In Leaders and Potential Leaders

One of the principles of ranching that I mention in The Grasshopper Myth, is the theory of spiritual triage. Triage is about assessing the needs, then prioritizing our response based on their severity and the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Even though it’s usually taught as a ranching strategy, triage works for shepherds, too. No matter how small our church is, we need to prioritize our time where it’s most likely to be of value. That always – and I mean ALWAYS starts with making our largest investments of time and energy into leaders and potential leaders.

This doesn’t always mean people in leadership positions. In a church needing a turnaround, it may mean anybody but them.

And I’m not saying “start a leadership training class”. That is often the worst possible way to invest in leaders, especially in a Small Church, because most true leaders won’t sit in a class for long.

Instead, use your calling as a shepherd to mentor them. Have a potential leader shadow you as you do ministry. Then show them how to do it. Then watch them as they do it. Then cut them loose to do it on their own, assessing, tweaking, encouraging and teaching them every step of the way.

Yes, feed the sheep. But teach them how to feed themselves, too.


Help Those in Immediate Crisis

Small Church pastors can’t escape the 2:00am emergency call. Shepherding pastors don’t want to escape the 2:00am emergency call. We need to take care of people with genuine needs. That’s one of the ways we put real shepherding into our pastoring.


Make and Keep Friendships

The Apostle Paul had The Jerusalem Council in authority over him, people like Timothy learning under him, and people like Barnabas alongside him.

Small Church pastors tend to do alright under authority. And most of us know how to be in authority. But most of us don’t have enough friends.

We all need people like Barnabas who can encourage, provoke and protect us.


Know and Utilize Your Strengths, Gifts and Passions

Do what you’re good at. And make time to do what you love. With the people you love.


What NOT to Do

Don’t Let Problem-Solving Consume Your Time

Problems need to be fixed. But there’s no faster way to burn yourself out than putting out other people’s fires all day. Especially the same fires lit by the same people.

This is what the helpful Urgent/Important Matrix teaches us. We need to prioritize important tasks so the urgent needs don’t consume us.

Problem-solving isn’t relationship-building. Relationships can be built around a project, but not if you’re constantly living in emergency mode.


Don’t Get Drawn Into Endless Theological Debates

I love talking theology. And I can hold my own while arguing theology. But people who want to debate every fine point of theology after each sermon are not helping you. And arguing with them is no way to build relationships. If you lose, they’ll hurt you. If you win… they’ll hurt you.

Learn to value and nurture the casual conversation. If you’re an introvert, like me, that will be hard work. But it’s worth it in the long run.

If you’re trying to build relationships, there are very few things more meaningful than time spent with a friend in meaningless conversation.


Don’t Let the Chronically Needy Drain You

As I wrote in my original answer to Paul, Jesus himself said “the poor you will always have with you.” I’ve learned that this also applies to the emotionally poor.

There will always be emotionally needy people who will want to monopolize your time and sap your emotional strength. Sometimes we have to help them with their immediate need, then move on.


Don’t Feel Guilty for What You Can’t Do

Sorry to break this to you, Small Church pastors, but you can’t do everything.

Even Jesus was limited in what he could do. Living in a human body does that. That’s one of the reasons he told the disciples he had to leave so the Holy Spirit could come and finish the task he started.

Don’t be guilty of trying to be better than Jesus.

Do what you can. Love the people, teach the leaders, help the needy. And let the Holy Spirit do the rest.


So what do you think? What ideas have helped you become a better shepherd to a 100+ member church?

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

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12 thoughts on “How to Shepherd a 100+ Member Church Without Losing Your Sanity”

  1. One thing that I’ve done for many years now is to have one-on-one contact with every person in my church at least once a year. Between our midweek and Sunday services I preach/lead about 95 services a year. So…my wife and I take someone (a different someone–or family) to lunch after each (well almost each) service.

    I fill this in with home visits to those who can’t go to lunch for some reason. The point is that we spend some quality time with everyone in the church each year. The return on this investment is HUGE. I can’t tell you how many times things that people want to say to me, but have not, come up in these one-on-one annual meetings.

    This fits into your pro-active point Karl. Some might say this would be way to expensive. About half the time the church member insists on paying.

    1. Mike, that’s a GREAT idea. And it’s exactly the right kind of proactivity we need to be thinking creatively about. I hope others will take you up on this idea.

  2. Another idea that is often associated with “ranching,” but is clearly a biblical principle that carries value for church leaders of all sizes is to try and meet with groups and not just individuals. When our church was about 150 we started a Seniors Group and I would meet with them for lunch once a month. This gathering gave me a chance to touch base with 12-20 people at one setting. That doesn’t mean I would never meet those people individually, but by spending time with the group there was enough contact that it took some of the pressure off. They felt connected to me and I was able to hear what was happening in their lives. This same principle is true for ministry teams, leaders, new believers, guests, etc. If you are able to gather a few people you are still having face to face shepherding time, but you are also multiplying your time, and you are connecting people to other people in the process. Trying to shepherd the entire church in a vacuum is not smart, and in my opinion, is not very consistent with the New Testament. To proactively shepherd, try to gather small groups of people together for dinners, coffee, teaching times, trips, etc.

    1. That’s a fantastic insight, Jim. Conversations with groups of people who have common interests also has the advantage of helping them build their relationships with each other. They make new connections within the body, helping them become less dependent on just the pastor for their spiritual nurture and fellowship.

    2. This gives me an idea. Our church has 6 adult small groups (Sunday School classes). Since I do not teach a class, I could sit in on each of the classes on a rotation basis. That way I could connect with our adults on a more intimate level on a regular basis without expending a ton of extra energy. I’d love to know what you guys think.

  3. Thanks for the help. It really gives some things to work with. I’m more excited about my ministry and church than I’ve ever been. What God is teaching me has set me and my congregation free.

  4. This article has so helped me today as I’m in a time of transition with the two small churches I pastor: One growing, one declining; and I am discerning where God is leading and how to pursue this calling well, when I so often feel stretched beyond, feel I’m NOT doing anything well, and feel the sting of guilt and the knowledge tat someone, somewhere is disappointed with me each day. God isn’t calling me to that – but to trusting service and joyful obedience. Very helpful insights – as I’ve found before here on your blog. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for a great post Karl. At the suggestion of the book “The Shepherd Leader” by Timothy Witmer we have divided our congregation up among our elders. We try to touch base with everyone every 6-8 weeks and ask them two questions. “How are you doing?” “How can we pray for you?” This keeps us in touch with people and helps us know if someone has a struggle and needs help. I’m Lead Pastor and have more families assigned to me than any other elder. I also try to touch base with the families that I’m not directly assigned to twice a year and ask them these questions as well.

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