By Karl Vaters on Oct 24, 2023
Don’t just get the content right. Consider how it might feel to the hurting pastors who need your help the most.
Small church pastors want to hear and use the best ideas, advice, wisdom and counsel we can find.
So we look for it everywhere. From books, blogs, podcasts, conferences, mentors and more.
But many of my fellow small church pastors have stopped looking and asking for help.
It’s not because we don’t want or need the help. It’s that we’ve grown weary of hearing advice that’s offered with the best intentions, but is more hurtful than helpful.
If you’re in a position to speak, write or counsel small church pastors, here are 5 things small church pastors regularly hear that you should reconsider.
1. “Here's what you're doing wrong.”
These blog posts are everywhere!
Most of the writers and speakers come from a good place. They truly want to help. And they often have some very good ideas.
But such lists are often based on two faulty assumptions. First, that a small church must be doing something wrong simply because they're not growing numerically. Second, that the blogger, author or speaker knows the church’s situation well enough to know what’s wrong with it.
It’s not that small church pastors don’t want to know what we’re doing wrong. We do. And blog posts that help us correct our errors have their place. You’re reading one now, after all.
But here’s an email I received recently from a fellow small church pastor that will give you an idea what those lists can feel like after a while.
“I've felt so low recently pastoring a small local church for many years. Most of the signs of a healthy church are there, but no breakthroughs. Today I thought I'd look again at 'reasons your church is not growing' all the usual stuff of it been the pastor's fault (no passion, no vision, etc, etc.) felt like a huge smack in the face…”
That pastor is not alone in his feelings. I get emails like his all the time.
When you write and speak, don’t just get the content right. Consider how it might feel to the hurting pastors who need your help the most.
2. “If your church does what my church did you'll get the results my church got.”
Yes, there are universal principles for church health and growth. And we need to be reminded of them on a regular basis.
But, while many church health and growth principles are universal, the results are not inevitable.
Pastoring a church isn’t like losing weight or getting out of debt. There’s more to it than the math of calories burned and money saved.
Sure, there’s a science to church growth and health. And most churches need to pay more attention to that than we have been. But there’s an art to it as well. And a spirit.
Pastoring a church of any size involves juggling the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, pastoral gifting, divine call, and so much more. And the smaller the church, the more the non-numerical (and non-predictable) aspects come into play.
None of that should ever be used as an excuse for not learning and applying all the best principles we can find. But no two churches or pastors are alike. Your results won’t be my results.
To prove this, all you have to do is talk to any one of the thousands of pastors who oversaw one church to massive growth, only to go to another church and struggle for years with little or no numerical growth.
3. “Act like a big church and you’ll become a big church.”
So many churches have fallen into ruin by following this faulty logic. From overbuilding, to overstaffing, to ignoring real people while chasing elusive numbers.
Sure, we need to be thinking about the next level of growth if we hope to get there. At 50, get ready for 100.
But acting like your church has 500 people when there are 50 attending doesn’t help a church get to 500 faster. It causes the pastor to do a poorer job leading the 50 people they have. After all, as any book about breaking church growth barriers will tell you, you don’t pastor a church of 50 the way you pastor a church of 500.
Usually, we interpret that to mean if we pastor a church of 500 like a church of 50, it will fail. That’s true. But it also means that if we pastor a church of 50 like a church of 500, it will fail, too.
So don’t help us pastor a church of 50 like it’s 500. Help us pastor a church of 50 really well – including how to get ready for 100.
And help us figure out how to handle the disappointment if the 100 don’t come.
4. “All healthy things grow.”
Yes, they do. But not all growth is healthy. And not all growth is numerical.
But that’s almost always the assumption.
When someone tells a small church pastor “all healthy things grow”, what we hear is “your church mustn’t be healthy.”
When a dedicated, hardworking, prayerful, passionate small church pastor is already feeling bad about the church’s lack of numerical growth, they don’t need to be told that their church is unhealthy, too.
It might be – which we probably know already. But it might not be – which we may not be able to see through the disappointing numbers.
Hearing “all healthy things grow” when your church isn’t growing makes us feel like the patient in the old – and really bad – joke about the guy whose doctor tells him he’s dying. Then, when he asks for a second opinion the doctor tells him, “okay, you’re ugly, too.”
What you may have intended as a friendly reminder can feel like knives in the back to the receiver.
5. “You need to try harder, work smarter, pray more, dream bigger, teach better...”
...attend this conference, read this book…
Yes. We do. We all do.
No matter how big, small or fast-growing a church is, we can always do ministry smarter and better.
That’s why we’re Googling phrases like “why isn’t my church growing?” It’s not because we don’t care, it’s because we care so much that it hurts when all that work, caring, passion, prayer and learning doesn’t have the results we’ve been told we should be having.
Don’t tell us to run faster on the wheel. Help us get off the wheel, get healthy and get our joy back again.
What Should We Say Instead?
Thanks for asking.
In my next post, 5 Things Every Small Church Pastor Would Love To Hear, we’ll look at some things that can help, bless and encourage our fellow small church pastors.
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