Small Church Problems? The Answer May Be Closer Than You Think

Words - Picture

“Show me a spiritually healthy church and I’ll show you a spiritually healthy pastor. Show me a spiritually unhealthy church and I’ll show you a spiritually unhealthy pastor.

“If you’ve been the pastor of your church for five years or longer, it’s time to stop blaming your predecessors, your circumstances and your congregation.

Like it or not, after five years, your church looks like you.”

That’s a paraphrase of a teaching I heard a few years ago from the late Norman Shawchuck to a classroom of pastors and pastors-to-be.

Norm wasn’t being confrontational when he said it, but he was blunt.

Was he right?

I think so.

In fact, the smaller the church is, the more it applies. Because, in a Small Church, pastors have fewer layers between ourselves and the other church members.

Does that scare you, or encourage you?


A Responsibility and a Relief

Norm was a pastor, teacher, author and church consultant, specializing in troubleshooting for churches in crisis. He sometimes drew on his experiences, both harrowing and hilarious, with dysfunctional congregations, to teach pastors how to lead healthy churches.

It reminds me of when we went to dog training a few years ago. You can’t just hand a dog over to a trainer, then take a well-behaved dog home with you. The first rule of dog training is that it isn’t really dog training – it’s dog owner training. If we get the leading right, they’ll get the following right. Norm found this to be true with a lot of church leadership consultation.

Norm wasn’t naive. He knew there are always exceptions to this rule, when wolves get in among the sheep. But with those exceptions taken into account, his statement needs to be seriously considered by every Small Church leader.

My church looks like me.

That’s a massive responsibility. But it’s also a great relief.

On the responsibility side, if my church looks like me, my failures are multiplied into the lives of the people God has entrusted to my care. That has to be one of the reasons the writer of Hebrews encouraged us that leaders “must give an account” for those we lead.

On the relief side, it removes the pressure of having to perform. If my church looks like me, then the primary way of having a healthy church is to have a healthier me.

Sounds like a win-win.


As Old as the New Testament

This principle is not a newfangled church growth idea from a leadership guru. It’s straight from the bible.

Take a look at the requirements for church leadership in the New Testament. How many of them are about academic degrees, fund-raising acumen, facility construction or oratory skill? Not one.

New Testament church leadership qualifications are about personal holiness, family harmony, stewardship, spiritual growth, textual integrity, faithfulness and other similar, very personal matters.

It’s almost as if God is more concerned about church leaders as people of character than he is about our professional skillset.


First, because God is primarily concerned about us as people of character. Second, because the personal, moral and spiritual character of the pastor will be directly reflected in the lives of those we’re closest to. And in a Small church, that tends to be very close.

Something like this had to be on Paul’s mind when he told the Corinthians to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” don’t you think?


Check the Mirror

So, here’s an idea for the next time we’re tempted to complain about “them” and “their problems” in our churches.

If we’ve been the pastor for five years or longer (20 and counting for me) we need to ask ourselves these questions:

If I’m not happy with my church, could that be a reflection on how I feel about myself? If so, what part of my own spiritual development do I need to work on first?

If we become like the people we’re closest to, let’s start by getting closer to Jesus.


So what do you think? Does Norm’s advice oversimplify the issue? Or is he on to something?

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(The Words Don’t Fit the Picture photo from Audrey Watters • Flickr • Creative Commons license)


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