5 Very Real Tensions Every Small to Mid-Sized Church Leader Feels

5 Very Real Tensions Every Small to Mid-Sized Church Leader Feels

If you lead a small to mid-sized church, you face struggles leaders of large churches don’t.

I can totally relate to the dynamics of leading a smaller church.

When I began in ministry, I spent about three years leading a small congregation (under 100) that grew into a mid-sized church (under 500) and then grew into a larger church of 1,200 I’m part of today. You learn a LOT about leadership (and yourself) at every stage.

I remember the emotions that swirl around small and mid-sized churches. I also have lived through the struggles those congregations face.

It’s critical that as church leaders we both understand and address the tensions we’re facing. In the same way that diagnosing that pain under your kneecap when you’re trying to run a race is helpful, diagnosing what you sense in the congregation can be critical to taking your next step forward.

Overcome these tensions and you’re closer to progress. Avoid them or fail to deal with them and you can stay stuck a long time.

That’s why I’m so excited about the release of my new Breaking 200 Without Breaking You online course that releases next Tuesday. It can help you scale the barrier that 85 percent of church leaders never break—the 200 attendance barrier.

You can join the waitlist here!

Here are five tensions every small to mid-sized church leader feels.

1. The Desire to Keep the Church One Big Family

This pressure is huge.

Many people believe that the church functions best as one big family.

The reality is, even when our church was 40 people, those 40 people didn’t know each other—really. Some were left out, others weren’t.

Even at 100 or 300, enough people will still believe they know ‘everyone.’ But they don’t.

When people told me they knew everyone, I would challenge people (nicely) and say, “Really, you know everyone? Because as much as I wish I did, I don’t.”

They would then admit they didn’t know everyone. They just knew the people they knew and liked and often felt that growing the church would threaten that.

The truth is, at 100-300, many people are unknown. And even if ‘we all wear name-tags,” many of the people in your church don’t really have anyone to talk to about what matters. The one big family idea is, in almost every case, a myth.

Once you get beyond a dozen people, start organizing in groups.

Everyone will have a home. Everyone who wants to be known and have meaningful relationships will have them. And a healthy groups model is scalable to hundred, thousands and even beyond that.

The goal is not to create a church where everyone knows everyone. Create a church where everyone is known.

2. The People Who Hold Positions Don’t Always Hold the Power 

In many small churches, your board may be your board, but often there are people—and even families—whose opinion carries tremendous weight.

If one of those people sits on the board, they end up with a de facto veto because no one wants to make a move without their buy-in. If they are not on the board, decisions the board makes or a leader makes can get ‘undone’ if the person or family disapproves.

This misuse of power is unhealthy and needs to be stopped.

In the churches where I began, I took the power away from these people by going head to head with them, then handed it back to the people who are supposed to have the power.

In two out of three cases, the person left the church after it was clear I would not allow them to run it anymore.

It’s a tough call, but the church was far better off for it. When the people who are gifted to lead get to lead, the church becomes healthy. When we got healthy, we grew.

3. The Pastor Carries Expectations No Human Can Fulfil

In most small to mid sized churches, the pastor is expected to attend (if not conduct) every wedding, funeral, hospital call or meeting, visit people in their homes, write a killer message every Sunday, organize most of the activities of the church, be present for all functions, AND have a great family life.

In other words, the pastor carries expectations no human can fulfill.

The key here for those who want to grow past this is to set clear expectations of what you will spend your time on.

I visited people in their homes and in hospital for the first two years, but then we went to a groups model. I explained (for what seemed like forever) how care was shifting from me to the congregation.

Then, though this was hard (I talk about it in the course), I stopped attending every church event.

We developed a great counseling referral network. And I started focusing on what I can best contribute given my gift set: communication, charting a course for the future, developing our best leaders, casting vision and raising resources.

Many small church pastors are actually more burnt out than large church pastors.

Small church pastors, please realize this: If the key to growing your church is to work more hours, you’re sunk. Work better and smarter with clearer boundaries and expectations. Don’t just work longer.

Once you master that, you can thrive, even as your church grows.

4. Tradition Has More Pull Than Vision

This is not just about traditional churches—it’s true of church plants too.

The past has a nostalgia to it that the future never does.

Even the recent past. Remember how great the church felt when it was smaller, more intimate and met in the living room/school/old facility?

The challenge for the leader is to cast a vision that is clear enough and compelling enough to pull people from the familiar past into a brighter future.

5. The Natural Desire to Do More, Not Less

As you grow, you will be tempted to do more. Every time there are more people/money/resources, the pressure will be strong to add programming and complexity to your organization.

Resist that. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Often the key to reaching more people is doing less.

By doing a few things well and creating steps, not programs, you will help more people grow faster than almost any other way.

Complexity is the enemy of progress.

Move Past the Tension

If you want to move past the tensions that every small and mid-sized church pastor feels, don’t miss out on my course Breaking 200 Without Breaking You.

The course provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85 percent of churches can’t break.

Click here to get instant access.

What Tensions Do You Feel?

What tensions do you face or have you faced in small to mid-sized churches?

How are you handling them?

This article originally appeared here.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.