Pastoring a Small Church – A Great Calling, But a Lousy Goal

goal 200cI was wrong. And today I plan to set the record straight.


I’m figuring this thing out as I go along. As I sit down to blog three times a week, I’m still on a massive learning curve as to what I should and shouldn’t say, including what I do and don’t believe about the ministry of Small Churches.

And now I’m being asked to speak at pastoral leadership seminars and conferences (more on upcoming dates soon). This is all very new for me, so I’m figuring out what to say at those as I go along.

All this blogging and speaking has highlighted two realities for me:

The first reality is that the founding principles of New Small Church, especially as outlined in The Grasshopper Myth, are proving themselves to be true.

Among them are:

  • Small Churches are valuable
  • Small Church pastors are doing extraordinary work
  • Small Church pastors need more support and encouragement
  • Our obsession with church growth has led to some unhealthy practices and discouraged pastors
  • There’s not enough training on how to pastor a Small Church well

The second reality is that I occasionally say things that are thoughts-in-process, some of which need adjustment as time goes on. (In other words, they turn out not be true.)

One of those happened in May. I was speaking at a minister’s conference in Sacramento and I asked if anyone knew of any class at any bible college about how to pastor a Small Church. No one did. So I suggested that we need to have elective classes at bible colleges about how to pastor a Small Church. Makes sense, right? Well, maybe not. 


Numbers As a Byproduct, Not a Goal

Since I proposed the idea, I’ve been thinking about the young ministers-in-training that might want to attend such a class and I’ve realized something important. Any student who says their goal is to pastor a Small Church would worry me.

Why? Because I remember what it was like when I was in bible college. I wouldn’t have signed up for such a class.

I love pastoring a Small Church. I’m called to pastor my Small Church. And it’s become a huge part of my ministry and passion to encourage others who are called to pastor their Small Churches.

This all leads to two parallel truths:

  • Being called to pastor a Small Church is a great blessing
  • Setting out to pastor a Small Church is a lousy goal

Years ago I was encouraged by an older pastor to “get the church to around 200, but no bigger. At that size you’ll have a good paycheck and some staff to help you. Any bigger than that will be a hassle.” I was appalled by that thinking then – I’m even more appalled by it today.

By the way, wanting to pastor a megachurch is not a good ministry goal either. Because both goals are based on numbers. Numbers should be seen as a byproduct of ministry, not a goal.

It’s great to have goals in ministry. Wanting to reach people for Jesus? Now that’s a great goal. Being willing to do that in a small setting? That’s a high calling. But telling Jesus you want a certain sized box is a problem. When we attach a number to our ministry goals, are we giving God a limit on what we’re asking him to do through us?

If we’re aiming for a big church, are we saying “God, the ministry you give me won’t be legitimate unless I reach these numerical goals?”

If we aim for small, are we saying “God, I want this much and no more?”


What Kind of Person Would Make Small Church Pastoring Their Goal?

A ministry I’m getting to know more about, and have written about in my Stuff We Like series is They specialize in encouraging churches in the 200 range (“give or take a hundred or two”, as they put it) mostly with fun, informative podcasts featuring two Small Church pastors, Jeff Keady and Jonny Craig.

In one of their recent podcasts, Isolated Pastors and the Heart of 200Churches, one of them describes a similar story to mine in which an older pastor encouraged him to settle for a smaller church. He rejected that proposal as well. Instead, they describe the ministry of, this way.We have this tension of loving Small Churches and wanting to affirm pastors of Small Churches, but we never want to celebrate smallness for the sake of being small.”

Jeff & Jonny are dead right.

So I hereby officially withdraw my request for bible colleges to offer electives on how to pastor a Small Church. Bible college electives on Small Church pastoring would not be valuable because they’d be empty. And they probably should be.


What Should Be Done, Instead?

Young ministers-in-training need to be told about the value of Small Churches and the likelihood that they’ll spend some, if not most of their ministry life in a Small Church. And they should be given tools to do it well. But these ideas need to be mainstreamed into our core classes on pastoral ministry where they’ll do the most good.

Established ministers in Small Churches also need support, encouragement and further training to be able to fulfill their calling without being made to feel like they’re failing if their church isn’t growing numerically. We need more books on this. More conference speakers. More blogs. More curriculum. More round table discussion groups. More Small Churches. More options for how to pastor our Small Churches well.

But let’s have our emphasis always be Jesus first, people second and the size of our church – whether small, large or mega – just one of many tools we use to get the real job done.


So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about how to mainstream this teaching on the value of Small Churches?

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(Goal photo from Kevan Davis • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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34 thoughts on “Pastoring a Small Church – A Great Calling, But a Lousy Goal”

  1. Derrill Sturgeon

    Too much emphasis on size, large or small. Bible Schools should be teaching about being SHEPHERDS of God’s flock, that is what the word “Pastor” means. When teaching Bible school in Africa, I used Phillip Keller’s book, “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm”.

  2. Interesting insight! My seminary offered classes in the area of “Town and Country” ministries – so that was their code for smaller, mostly rural church ministry. I think that pastors do need specialized training to serve in churches without additional staff. This is the reality that most small church pastors live with but are unprepared for. How do you offer Sunday School when you don’t have a children’s minister and only have five kids ages 5-11? Who answers the phone at church if you go on vacation and don’t have a secretary? Etc.

    1. That’s a great point, Laura. There’s a lot of teaching on how to delegate – and rightfully so. Delegation goes hand-in-hand with discipling. Jesus did it.

      But what do we do when there are too few people and too many tasks? How do we do what needs to be done without burning ourselves out? I know of very little (if any) training on what to do when there’s no one to delegate to.

      That brings up some great food for thought. I plan to make that question the basis of a blog post very soon.

  3. Thinking back to my seminary days (Talbot) nearly 40 years ago, in the pre church-growth days, we did not talk much about this stuff.

    Goal and calling. It’s only in the business model of ministry where goals got elevated above calling. Moses was the first real ‘called’ mega guy and tried to turn it down.

    In my opinion ‘goal’ setting is over hyped and calling under appreciated.

  4. As I read your blog I immediately went to where you ended up. It should be core curriculum. Most new post-seminarians pastor small churches (or are associates at large ones). Most will serve in small churches much, if not all, their active service years. So learning how to maximize the effectiveness of ministry with the focus on Christ in the community would be very valuable to pastors and to congregants.

    1. Thanks, Don. The fact that your thoughts went there right away is good evidence that we’re on the right track with this.

      BTW, I have some good news on that idea. It looks like my book on Small Church ministry is about to be used as a text book in a church leadership class at a Christian University. I’ll be more specific about the class and the school when it happens.

  5. Loving the responses to this. I know for a fact that Chuck Smith never dreamed of a mega church. He just had a mega-heart for young kids searching for meaning in life.

    1. Agreed, Mike. On both your comments. Especially on the idea of calling being more important – and more biblical – than goal-setting.

      BTW, I love the new avatar. For other commenters, if you want a personalized avatar, click on your generic Space Invaders avatar and it will take you to where you can personalize an pic that you can use automatically on any site where you comment.

  6. Going from a larger church to a smaller church, I am not sure that a class designed just for small churches in Bible College/Seminary would be beneficial. I know I would not have signed up for one. However, may some in the field sessions, conferences, books, blogs, etc.. would be extremely useful. I don’t think in school you actually know what questions to ask until you get out into the field.

    1. I agree completely, Katie. I’ve received so much more value from the classes I’ve taken since entering the ministry than the ones I took beforehand. Both were good and both are needed, but having an understanding of hands-on ministry helps you understand what will work and, like you say, even what questions to ask. No one should ever stop learning.

  7. Again, another hit out of the part. And I am really letting what Mike said seek in. I have been struggling for some months now with the fact that I feel like people on the periphery of my Church plant, those who are financial supporters (Churches, Church planting organizations, private individuals) are more concerned with goals than calling. More specifically, I think they are too focused on what their vision for the Church is, and aren’t spending enough time praying for the people we have been called to reach and serve, or enough time praying for me and what God is showing me as this ministry unfolds. It is rather oppressive because in recent weeks I have been finding myself worried more about what they “think” is “right”, and have not been diving in to the passion I have for our little northwest Indiana town (Walkerton Indiana in case anyone wants to know 🙂 )

    I tend to be a simple faith kind of person when it comes to things like this, and I tell my Core Launch Team all the time that if we focus on loving God, loving other and loving. (period) that all the other “goals” and what not, will come, but they are coming in God’s time and not ours.

    1. Like Mike said, our goal-orientation comes more from a business model than scripture. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it should be at least secondary to the shepherding and calling model that the bible so clearly teaches.

      Gary, you and your church seem to be on the right track, from what you’re telling me and from what I know of you through our email talks and your church website. (And I love the new avatar! Very nice.)

      BTW, for other readers, Gary has one of the most well-written (and downright entertaining) “What We Believe” pages for his church that I’ve ever seen. I plan to use it as the subject of a blog post at some point. For now, you can check it out at

  8. I’m reading a book now entitled “Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities.” Seminarians need cross-cultural experiences in their training, and they need to learn to exegete the particular congregation and community that they are called to, whatever its size. For many, going to serve a small congregation is a cross-cultural move.

    1. Hi Mary…I am almost done with “Born of Water…” What a terrific book. I ordered two and will give one to Karl when I see him next.

      I am struck and humbled that the small church issue cuts across all traditions. My favorite take away quote that fits into this topic is from page 30, “Numbers are terribly seductive idols.”

      For those interested in more look for “Born of Water Born of Spirit” Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett. Their research into smaller Episcopalian churches is solid and inspirational.

      1. I’m glad you found it helpful, Mike! Yes, the issues cut across all traditions. I’ve been thinking again about how our mission is not to keep “doing church” the way we’ve been doing it or think we’re supposed to do it. Our mission is to serve as witnesses for Jesus Christ, and the forms our ministries take and the structures needed will vary. The whole people of God need to answer the call to be witnesses. Blessings to you!

  9. Very interesting.
    On the one hand the “avoidance” of small church ministry sort of caters to the idea that “small is something to be ashamed of – a problem to be fixed.” I recall in Bible college that the thought of pastoring a small church was never addressed. We were all going to go out there and win the world! Every soul we evangelized would be saved! We would have BIG churches in the BIG cities! (well, maybe not those exact words – but certainly it was implied)

    Pastoring a small church maybe shouldn’t be a goal – and I totally agree with the reasoning – but it will be a reality for the majority of College graduates. MOST if not all classes cater to the medium to mega scenario of a church –> staff issues, budgeting with an actual budget and money in the bank, pastoral compensation packages, building maintenance, mega outreaches, conducting small groups, how to delegate with volunteers and team building. Now all of those are good – but they don’t apply to small church ministry (really small ministry – say under 50) so kids are trained for a church size that they’ll most likely not pastor. I get that making small church ministry a part of core curriculum is smart – but there would have to be a MAJOR mind change in leadership for that to happen – because if we just believe and apply the 10 step approach we’ll have the biggest church in town, right?

    Take a look at the list I mentioned from a small church perspective.

    Staff issues: what staff? Need to be taught how to do ministry with no staff

    Budgeting with money in the bank: Huh? How about how to run a church on pennies. How to run Sunday School, Children’s Church, Youth and other church ministries with little to no money. (there are plenty of ideas and resources out there!)

    Pastoral Compensation Packages: LOL. How about being bi-vocational and thriving. What to do when you have no health insurance or retirement package.

    Building Maintenance: Lessons on doing much with little. Don’t need a palace – ideas of building upkeep and management when the pastor does everything. Lessons on what it means to be a servant.

    Mega Outreaches: Would be nice, but not the reality. How to reach people when you have no money and few church members. Work on relationship building – etc.

    Conducting small groups: We ARE a small group! Ideas on going from age segmented ministries to FAMILY type ministries where everyone is involved.

    Delegating when there’s no one to delegate to: This is a HARSH reality for small churches and one that is SO ignored by most…it’s just assumed that every church is full of leaders and people willing to take over ministires. Would be nice. Would be wonderful. But not always the reality.

    I mention the above because I was NEVER taught ANY of those in a small church context. What I have learned, I have learned by experience, blood – sweat and tears. I honestly felt cheated a little because everything that was taught to me was funneled through the idea that we’d all “make it big.”

    I guess I don’t see a “small church class” as an embarassment or a goal – it’s just a reality. It’d be the same as having a class to deal with managing conflicts in marriage – nobody sets out to have a ‘goal’ of having a conflict in marriage – but if you’re married for any length of time, it’s just a reality and it’s good to be equipped BEFOREHAND.

    1. Cindy, I don’t see a Small Church class as an embarrassment or a goal either. It’s just better for the ideas to be mainstreamed. Most pastoral students will spend most of their lead pastoral ministry years in a Small Church. Having that reality taught in core pastoral classes is the best way to get that message to them. A “How to Pastor a Small Church” class isn’t a bad thing, but it would be empty, so what’s the point?

      Classes in pastoring a Small Church will have value after people are in ministry, (An announcement on that will be coming to my Facebook page tomorrow) for the reasons mentioned by Katie B above.

      Classes on how to pastor either a megachurch or a Small Church are almost useless before people are in ministry. But they can be valuable in conferences, etc, for those who are pastoring either one. Before students get into ministry, I think we need to emphasize pastoral calling and universal pastoral tools to them, along with teaching them about the likelihood (and joys) of Small Church ministry in our core curriculum. Not as a goal or an embarrassment, but as a reality.

      1. Yes – I see how that would be beneficial – what it means to be a SHEPHERD vs. a CEO. Focusing on the health of a church and how to cultivate it, regardless of size. The WHY we do what we do. Perhaps try, through the ‘generic’ pastoral class to dissuade the myths about small church ministry without “glorifying” it. Sort of like your earlier post that a small church is not a problem, virtue or an excuse. That would come in very handy.
        I still say though, that even in a general pastoral class, that making a book like Grasshopper Myth or Sheperding the Small Church by Daman or BOTH as required reading would be so beneficial. I found myself often when reading both of those books saying, “Boy I sure with I had this when we first started out.” I may not have known the questions yet to be asked, but I would’ve been more prepared for ministry.

        1. No argument there, Cindy. Mainstreaming those ideas through those books would be a great way to do it. In case you missed it in one of my earlier replies (so many comments today!) I mentioned that The Grasshopper Myth is going to be used in a bible college class this coming year. I’ll give more details on that when it happens. It’s a good start, I think.

  10. I had the same idea of suggesting to our local bible college to include a class on small church ministry. But your point is well taken, I don’t want to put God in a box. I want to be faithful where I am. Perhaps, a blog discussion might be, pastoring from Tim Hortons.or Starbucks.

  11. I’m with Cindy. While it shouldn’t be the goal, it is reality. Young, new pastors should be somewhat prepared for the unique challenges that come with leading a small church.

      1. Great posts … but how do we get that info to the young men and woman in seminary? How do we change the culture in that arena so this info is mainstreamed into the curriculum? How do we take a practical look at small church ministry in an academic setting?

        Please don’t take this as antagonistic. I think this is a great conversation.

        1. I hear your concerns and share them, Brian. And I didn’t take it as antagonistic at all.

          All I know to do is what I’m doing. Get people writing books and blog posts about this and sharing good ministries with each other, etc. It will be a long road, but that’s OK. It took me a long time to get these ideas into my own head and heart.

          The good news is, some of this is starting to happen. Because of The Grasshopper Myth, I’ve been invited to speak at some conferences, including church planting conferences and denominational conferences. My book has been bought by denominational officials to give to their leadership teams and some have ordered hundreds to give to their churches. This year it will be used as a text book in one bible college class that I know of. It takes small steps like these, one at a time over a long period of time.

          And I’m not the only one doing work like this. That’s why I have the “Stuff We Like” series, so people can find out about other good ministries, too. If we set aside denominational differences and link together, we are a force to be reckoned with. Just stay positive and shout it from the rooftops!

  12. “That brings up some great food for thought. I plan to make that question the basis of a blog post very soon.”

    Yes, please.

  13. I have a question I would like to see addressed. We are on our second church plant. The first was successful. We are not associated with it. It is independent of us as we wanted it to be. We do not own any of it as we set it up as an cooperation that was tax free 501 C3 tax exempt cooperation with its own board. It owns three acres of land three buildings. When we left and started our second church plant we have done the same thing. We are presently debt free, still building present value of property is around $500,000. We don’t own any of this and one day will resign as pastors and this will be controlled by the board we help set up and the new pastors. We have a young set of assistant pastors fresh out of college whom we hope to see take the work over one day. Many pastors have told me I am wrong in what I am doing but this is not my property so how do families who start churches feel as if they own the property? What is others opinions on this? I have a son who one day will be a pastor but probably not in this church. He is working toward becoming the assistant pastor of another church. I just don’t understand those who build for themselves or their families instead of for the Kingdom of God. To me there is a separation. If I own it, then God does not.

    1. That’s a question that may not really have an “answer”, probably. The idea that the donors (or worse, the pastor) “owns” the church building has so many things wrong with it. But I think it all goes back to a mindset of stewardship that needs to be taught frequently and lived out with integrity. If we’ve really given something (like money to buy a church building), it doesn’t belong to us any more.

      I remember a story I heard about Ronald Reagan from his time in the White House – and no matter what your politics, you can appreciate this. He spoke of the presidency being like a coat he was entrusted to wear for a period of time. It didn’t belong to him. And his hope was that he would hand that coat off to the next wearer in at least as good shape as when he received it.

      That’s not a bad way to approach the pastor role and the church building. It isn’t ours. And from the moment we start occupying it, we need to treat it with the realization of how it will be handed off to others.

    2. Darrell … It sounds like there are some who are accusing you of some kind of “entitlement” because of your involvement in this church plant. Unfortunately, I can think of several situations from my own experience where early-investors into church ministries held the ministry captive to their views.

      To answer your question, no-I don’t think what you are doing is wrong. However that is not to say what you are doing is right for this particular plant.

      If it were me I’d just make sure all the key people know the issues and do all I can to communicate my motives and intent and then back it up with how I live it out.

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