The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations

This book was a suggested read at a conference I was at last week. I read this in light of several contexts. My current church has a vision to double this year from 650 to 1300. We are in transition. The youth ministry I serve in went from 15 to 100 this past year. Wish I read this material last year. Had no idea what I was doing! My new context this summer is reflected here as well.

Here are some notes from the first chapter that may be helpful, whether you lead a church or individual ministry.

  • When organisms change significantly in size, they must also change in form
  • Most of us are skilled at responding to slow, unidirectional change in our lives. We adjust to changes in daylight and buy more coffee and sugar as our church guest’s increase.
  • But there are also moments when “just a little more more” pushes the organism across an invisible threshold and causes previously reliable systems to break down.
  • Churches almost always encounter difficulty when they arrive at a step – the boundary between one size and the next – because the culture of the congregation is in flux. Formal and informal relationships are being reshaped; key structures and processes are changing.
  • Congregational life during a size transition tends to be confusing and stressful. One pattern of interaction has run its course, but a new one has not yet emerged.
The author goes on to share some characteristics of different sized churches.
Family Church (up to 50 active members)
  • Clergy is responsible for pastoral care
  • Matriarch/patriarch are constant presence between changing pastors
  • “The longer the pastorates the more powerful clergy become. The shorter the pastorates the more powerful the laity become.”
  • This sized church has great ministry to offer the community but must become outward-focused

Pastoral Church (50-150)
  • Clergy heads up a lay leadership team
  • Clergy must communicate, delegate authority, assign responsibility and recognize the accomplishments of others
  • Lay persons experience having their spiritual needs met through a personal relationship with a seminary trained person
  • This church size senses itself as a family where everyone knows everyone else
  • When there are 130-150 people every Sunday, they begin to get nervous because they don’t know everyone and they might lose the intimacy they desire
  • Clergy feel stressed when there are more than 150 people to try to know in depth
  • Clergy can still have direct involvement in the highs and lows of people’s lives
  • Additional staff may be hired which requires more administration and can take more of pastor’s attention

Program Church (150-350)
  • Programs meet spiritual needs the pastor cannot
  • Many cells of activity led by laity
  • Clergy are still leading but in a different way
  • They focus on planning with lay leaders, recruiting, training, supervising, evaluating and keeping morale high
  • Clergy often steps back from direct ministry to coordinate and support volunteers who offer this ministry
  • Clergy experience tension in transition from interpersonal to planning/development mode
  • Clergy unite church around a common vision and lead into that

Corporate Church (350+)
  • High worship quality due to abundant resources
  • Clergy focuses on preaching and worship leadership
  • Clergy will not know everyone’s name
  • Hospital visitations are often done by associates or lay leaders
  • Laity are willing to sacrifice a personal connection with their senior pastor in favor of what a Corporate Church can offer
  • Senior pastor becomes a symbol of unity and stability even if many do not personally know them
  • Multiple staff are a necessity
  • However, most seminary-trained people are not equipped to work collegially within a multiple staff
  • Irony: Congregations are best served when multiple staff has diverse Myers-Briggs personalities. Yet, the more diverse the staff, the harder it is to understand and support one another’s ministries.
*The congregation’s transition from Pastoral to Program size is the most difficult
*Not as much ready access to their religious leaders and the family feeling changes
Two main barriers in moving from Pastoral to Program?
  • A clergy leader who holds onto the need to be connected in depth to all active members – they become the bottleneck to growth
  • Lay leaders who are unwilling to have many of their spiritual needs met by anyone except their ordained leader
This book was written in 1998. Does this still hold true for the way our churches change? Where does your congregation fit?

3 thoughts on “The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations

  1. Thanks for highlighting this book. I'll put it on my list. I find the descriptions to be pretty accurate, having been involved in each size at one point or another (Chugiak, Wasilla, St.John, Brookings, Wakonda/Irene/Viborg, and now Mitchell). My current setting is the corporate category (450 in worship, 830 on the rolls). I really do believe the bottleneck is the way you described. The question is, how do we change the culture of laity refusing pastoral care from anyone beyond the ordained elders?

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  2. I don't know the answer to your last question. It seems we can identify gifted laity, train and give them authority for pastoral care. Then we explain why this is a helpful strategy for the church. Seems a matter of repetition and then showing that it can be a very moving experience to connect with someone besides the ordained elder. I haven't seen this culture change happen. Just came to churches where it was already understood and accepted!

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  3. The church that I am on staff at has peaked at about 480 in worship and settled in around 420…We were at 220 in worship 6 years ago. But I wouldn't say that we're a corporate church. Much of our leadership still has a family church mindset. There is great pushback because some of our members are mourning the loss of the family atmosphere- while the younger generation is growing frustrated with stalled changes, and looking for a unified vision. I've added the book to my reading list.

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