They Just Don’t Get It: When Big Church Solutions Meet Small Church Realities

big chair200c“They just don’t get it.”

How many times have I said that while shaking my head after reading articles, blogposts and books about church leadership? I could write a book.

Oh, right…

I know I’m not alone in this. If you’re a Small Church pastor, you’ve had the same experience on many occasions.

The articles and books I’m referring to are written with good intentions, and the ideas in them aren’t wrong. I’ve even used one of the books I read recently (Andy Stanley’s “Deep & Wide”) in a post entitled, 5 More Principles Small Churches Can Learn from Megachurches.

But even in a good book like Stanley’s, I spend a lot of time shaking my head, thinking…

They just don’t get it. 


Big Church Solutions

For example, here’s a short list of some church ministry ideas I’ve read in the last few weeks. These were all presented as either must-do, or very important to do.

  • Volunteer training
  • Regular staff vision meetings
  • One day a week for sermon prep
  • Age-appropriate, well-lit children’s facilities
  • Uncluttered meeting rooms, cleared of stacked chairs and unecessary furniture
  • Video announcements
  • Parking lot attendants with uniforms
  • Professional signage
  • Coordinated start/end times for adult/kids’ services
  • Not putting people in a ministry unless they’re gifted for it

I don’t disagree with any of those ideas. They all make sense.

But in all the material I’ve read in the past month, and most of what I’ve read for the past 30 years, none of those suggestions was tempered with a recognition of Small Church realities and alternative solutions. These writers (most of them, megachurch pastors) don’t seem to get that most churches, while they’d love to implement their ideas, don’t have the time, money or other resources to pull them off.

When it come to Small Church realities…

They. Just. Don’t. Get. It.


Small Church Realities

Here are a few of my headshakers in response to some of the above ideas, based on what I know a lot of Small Church pastors are going through:

Staff vision meetings? That happens between the pastor and his/her spouse over dinner every night. How about one, just one volunteer the pastor isn’t related to, who’ll show enough commitment that they can be considered a volunteer staff member?

One day a week for sermon prep? Most bi-vocational pastors with families are hoping to eke out a couple uninterrupted hours on a Saturday night for that. If they could find an entire day to set aside, they wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – spend it on sermon prep. That would be a family day.

Uncluttered meeting rooms? When your facility is small and multi-use (like our church), there’s nowhere else to put the stacked chairs. That “clutter” is proof that the room gets used for more than just one meeting each week.

Video announcements? Many Small Churches don’t own a video projector, screen or the computer to run it. Let alone someone with the time and talent to edit it into a tight video package. And what would be the point of doing that for 40 people, anyway?

Not putting people in a ministry that doesn’t match their gifts? But who, exactly has the empty-the-garbage-and-clean-the-restrooms gift? Other than the pastor’s wife, of course.


Three Requests

I’m not wanting to be a whiner. But I do want people to be aware of this reality. So I have three requests for three classes of people:

1. Church leadership bloggers and authors. Please consider that the vast majority of pastors reading your material are in Small Churches. Give us some Small Church alternatives alongside your big church solutions. Show us you get it.

2. Denominational officials & seminary profs. Please prepare the next generation of ministers for the likelihood that they’ll face Small Church challenges. Cries of “they didn’t teach me this in bible college” as a pastor heads to the restroom with a plunger aren’t funny any more. Prepare them to get it.

3. Small Church pastors. Try not to get discouraged. Take what you can from all the helpful blogs and books out there. But try not to put unrealistic expectations on you, or your church’s shoulders based on lessons that don’t fit your reality. Be who you are. Not what someone else thinks you ought to be. Get it? Got it? Good.


So what do you think? Have you faced similar frustrations with pastoral ministry articles and books?

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(Big Chair photo from Levin Photography • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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20 thoughts on “They Just Don’t Get It: When Big Church Solutions Meet Small Church Realities”

  1. Steve Willis

    Hey Karl,
    Once again I appreciate another post. I have shared too many times the sentiment of “they just don’t get it.” I have sat with judicatory and seminary leaders to advocate on behalf of small churches – and like you – written a book. The polite smiles and nods of understanding from these leaders are meant to be truly helpful. And then when they share their perspective, out pop the big church ideas to help us poor little church souls. More recently, I’ve taken to chuckling about this situation as the best way to maintain my emotional and spiritual health. Small church culture and large church culture are different cultures. Small church folk see that these are different cultures with different languages. Large church leaders often think that small church leaders simply don’t talk too good! My take away is that in order to be faithful I will continue to advocate on behalf of small churches to judicatories and seminaries. But more importantly, I want to try to build relationships and parternships of learning and fellowship among small church leaders. DIY. “Do It Yourself,” may be the key for sustaining pastoral leadership for the small church future.
    Peace, Steve

    1. Thanks Steve,

      I agree. DIY is essential. If we wait for others to “get it” nothing will ever get “got”. The understanding gap is just too big.

      For others reading this, Steve’s book, “Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path” is worth reading. You can find it on Amazon.

      Here’s the link to a post where I quote Steve from his book:

      Your take on central-culture and peripheral culture is great, Steve. I feel honored that you enjoy my posts.

  2. Yes, I too shake my head often!
    I am in agreement with you again Karl, and Steve, great insight.

    Just some of my musings on this…
    Those staff meetings don’t always include the pastor’s wife, most of mine are in the mirror while brushing my teeth or washing my hands!
    Cluttered meeting rooms…You have not seen my office…ain’t gonna happen!!!
    But as far as video announcements…all over that! I used to, in the beginning of our ministry, print out bulletins or slips with announcements, then we were able to afford a projector, partly because I quit wasting the ink and paper. They run before service and I just highlight what’s going on while the sound guy starts the recording.

    The other stuff…
    I’m gonna go back and SMH now!

  3. In the words of Rich Mullins, “Allrightokuh-huhAmen!”
    I’m in total agreement here. I attended Bible College for 5 years under a Pastoral Major (and I learned A LOT) but to be honest there wasn’t much to prepare us for small church ministry (other than the occasional anecdote from the Professor’s time spent as a Pastor) In fact, when I was in college NOTHING was said about small town or rural ministry as the BIG push was for inner city ministry. We had all kinds of speakers from inner city ministries and big churches, but I don’t remember anything for small, rural or small town pastors.

    I love the “only the gifted” suggestions. In a small church we would be thrilled with “willing.”
    Parking Lot attendant? We’d be satisfied with a parking lot. Ours right now is 3-toned. Part broken cement, part gravel and part grass. Why don’t we pave it? Because the mortgage and utilities take up our entire budget. (Small church reality)
    Staff vision meetings? They do consist of the pastor and the church sec/treas. “Ok, how much do we have to pay what bills?”
    Coordinated starting and ending times for Kid’s Services? This makes me giggle. Starting time is, “Kids you are now dismissed for Kid’s Church” and ending time is when we hear the adults moving around upstairs. If we ever have revival, that could cause serious confusion for our Kid’s Church workers. LOL
    A BIG THANK YOU to those of you who are valiantly representing the small church!! Thank you for your BOOKS, blogs and over all sense of ‘getting it.’ Just can’t say enought of how encouraging that it!!
    May I also recommend a book? Leading the Small Church by Glenn Daman Here’s just a few quotes that I’ve highlighted in my book.
    “We need to understand clearly what marks a successful ministry, making sure that our definition of success is not determined by our culture but by the authority of Scripture.” p.35
    “What the church needs today are more shepherds, not more visionaries. We need more churches in vital relationship with Jesus Christ, not bigger churches with bigger programs (or smaller churches with smaller programs) p. 34

  4. Just read your article in the most recent edition of Outreach Magazine which lead me here. Thanks for reminding us small church pastors that we’re normal. I attend one of the big church leadership conferences every year and walk away encouraged and discouraged at the same time. Encouraged by the worship, the challenges, and the principles. Discouraged by this thought, “they just don’t get it.” Thanks again for waving the banner and leading the charge.

    1. Thanks Brian. Yeah, that encouraged/discouraged feeling is probably more common than most of us realize.

      Welcome to the conversation we’re having here. I look forward to hearing more from you.

  5. Karl, every time I read your posts I come away with a better perspective. I recently, albeit reluctantly, took over as the lead pastor of a small church in East Texas I’ve worked at for several years. In cities around me there’s a handful of churches with more than 500 people, but most are like me, under 70. Being able to read through yours and many others struggles and success as small church pastors has definitely helped me learn how to better serve. Thank you.

    1. Jordan, I’m so grateful to hear that. Our struggles are far from unique. They just don’t get the hearing they deserve or the help they need. So we need to help each other. I’m humbled if anything I write can do that for you.

  6. Thanks so much for your website and blog (I’ve been reading it for about 4 months now). This one made me laugh as just a couple days ago as the pastor’s wife, I emptied out the bathroom garbages and refilled the toilet paper rolls — just part of the weekly duties. My husband often ends up changing light bulbs, cleaning gutters, etc. We have been in a small church for almost 25 years now in a community of some really big churches. Most people who leave our church do so to attend a big church and many people who come do so to be part of a small church family. So the cycle goes. Because our church is under 100 I’ve always felt we have great opportunities to do things that are much harder to do in a large church. Our pastor (my husband) gets to know just about everyone who ever walks through our doors. He spends a lot of time one on one with people and so we’ve seen people who came off the streets come to know the Lord or just be encouraged because a pastor took the time to listen to them.
    We have a retired small church pastor in our church and he loves to tell the story of his first Sunday as a small church pastor, where he walked in the door and was handed a plunger by the head deacon and told the toilet in the basement had just overflowed and he better go fix it! He did and ended up staying at the church for about 10 years!
    Both my husband and I attended Bible school and he seminary and for our first years of ministry thought that the big explosion of growth was just around the corner and we would become a large church. We had the classes, seminars, and books that told us what to do to get there. Never happened. I remember the time many years later where we both felt God’s plan was for us to pastor a small church and that didn’t necessarily mean there was something wrong or that we were unhealthy. So as long as God keeps us in this church we will continue to serve faithfully, reach out to our community, and empty bathroom garbages!

    1. I’m glad you finally jumped in to comment, Laurie. Your and your husband’s story is one that’s repeated in church after church. Each with its unique spin, but all with gratefulness to God for work well done.

      Your stories, especially the plunger story, reminded me of a post I wrote before you started reading this blog, called “Only In a Small Church: Sometimes You Gotta Kill Cockroaches”. Here’s the link if you’re interested.

  7. I pastors small churches for 25 years and here is what I have discovers now that I am on staff of a larger church. Small churches are small because they don’t do what is necessary to grow big. These bigger church/ mega are trying to help these churches grow. My experience has been that these smaller churches don’t want to grow thus they make their pastors life miserable. If you are frustrated with the church maybe. You don’t share the same vision and should seek to go somwhere you can fulfill your calling. Trust your heart you know what to do just do it.

    1. That’s true for some Small Churches, Brya, but not for most. My Small Church hasn’t made my life as a pastor miserable. Quite the opposite. It’s dynamic, fun, outreaching and loving.

      I’m sorry that your experience in Small Churches has been negative, but many people find great joy, worship, fellowship and greater opportunities for ministry and outreach in smaller churches than in bigger ones. Many other people have had just as bad experiences in big churches as you’ve had in small ones.

      Big churches and Small Churches are both great. Everyone needs to find the place where they can do the greatest service for the kingdom of God. It sounds like you’ve found that in a bigger church and I’m glad you have. Many find that in smaller ones. Size has nothing to do with effectiveness.

  8. Great article. It is very true. I can remember a pastor I knew at a Mega who would write blogs, he had one about getting people to volunteer in the church. He suggested that you never wanted to say you needed help because that would look bad, and people might help out of guilt but not desire. It was well written article and I commented on how would that be applicable to a small church, he gave me the brush off and said yes it will work. Thing is when you know everyone in the church, and they all know what is going on it’s kind of hard to “trick” them into volunteering by making them think we don’t need their help. 🙂

  9. I remember a meeting at a convention office with the Lifeway representative. They had the latest outreach material “guaranteed to grow your church.” So I asked, “What size was the church that developed this program?” “400” Then I said, “So a 400 member church grew to 800…I can see that. But have you had any under churches under 100 use this to grow to 200?” Then the stuttering began and I thought we had a closet charismatic in our midst. Finally, “Well two churches have used this with good results. One in Alaska and the other in Washington.” I got their phone numbers and called later that week. Well both grew…kinda…for a time and then the volunteers got tired. Small church volunteers tend to be involved in many tasks. I had another friend had been a pastor then a Director of Missions who was snapped up by Lifeway to work on their material. I challenged him with “give us stuff that small churches can use to grow effectively.” Haven’t heard from him in a few years. I wonder why?

    1. Sad, but true, Daniel. Let’s hope that will change. I recently had a two-day meeting with a major ministry provider (like Lifeway, but not Lifeway) that wanted to know how to serve Small Churches better. They’re starting to realize their material doesn’t scale properly for churches under 150 or so. It was an eye-opening two days – for me and for them. Let’s hope this is the start of a change in thinking.

  10. I have been to many pastor meetings, district church meetings, sectional meetings etc. in the last 30 years and I have never heard, in any of those meetings, a bi-vocational pastor be acknowledged or recognized for his service. What is wrong with this picture!
    Thanks again for your insights.

  11. Thank you for you insights. I have served in small churches since the beginning of my career and finally there is a voice expressing my opinions, frustrations and most of all hopes. Please keep it up.

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