Congregational Capacity for Change: A Challenge for Small Churches

Congregational Capacity for Change: A Challenge for Small Churches

One of the challenges for small churches is figuring out how much the congregation can do. Old programs you did when you had twice as many members seem to hang on. And new ideas for how to reach out to the community are enticing. Especially if your congregation is overly anxious about how to survive, you may find yourself taking on new programs in a frenetic way.

In our common models of church, we have several things we do for the congregation alone (worship, administration, Sunday School, adult formation, craft groups, visiting programs, etc.) and a few things we do for the community (a food pantry, a meal, a Christmas Fair, are examples).

For small churches to use their limited energy effectively, it is important to have most of your activities serve both the congregation and the community. And it is important to limit how many things you do. Each program and event should involve several—at least 3—members of the congregation, and, where possible, a few non-members. But how much is the right amount of programming?

For the most part, a church should have worship, or something worshipful, every week. With the existence of a building and pastor and a budget comes the task of having a board or council or deacons doing the administrative work as required by any non-profit. And growth in the spirit requires some sort of formation or educational programming happening regularly—maybe 5 or 6 six-week programs a year, and some sort of community outreach. So, four programs: worship, administration, formation, and outreach, make up church.

For the smallest of churches, which I call “Disciples-size”, that’s all you can do. In fact, it might be better if you can make your formation activities part of your outreach, or use an alternative form of worship as your outreach so that you are only doing three things.

If your small congregation has more than fifteen people, but less than thirty, (I call this “one cohort”) your single outreach can be quite extensive—maybe you do a direct-service charity every month, or a community event four or six times a year. You might have enough lay leadership to add a formation-type event before or after your outreach program. Or (not AND) you might do a worship-type outreach in the community.

Two cohorts—45 to 60 people, may decide to have two significant outreach programs. If you are in the mid-range between one and two cohorts you will need to take into account how active your membership is—does your congregation act more like there is one group of people, or two? Three cohorts—61 to 75 people—can start thinking about three significant outreach ministries. 

In his book Making the Small Church Effective (Abingdon, 1978) Carl Dudley notes that in small churches there is a “single cell.” That is, for the most part, all of the programming is for everyone in the church (p. 66). That means that your leaders are engaged in all of the activities your congregation takes on. Doing too much wears out that leadership.

While the primary way to beat burnout is to be sure every volunteer is doing what they love, it is possible to do too much, even if it is what you love. It is not uncommon for a church to run out of energy before it runs out of money. It is important for small churches to focus on using the energy you have –the people you have—wisely. Do a few things and do them in ways that reach the wider community.


Liz M. Magill

The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Mae Magill (Liz) is a writer, pastor, and workshop leader living in Berlin, Massachusetts. She is the author of Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers:  Growing Relational Food Ministries and the founder of Worcester ...

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