I spoke to a young pastor recently, someone for whom I have tremendous respect. He said that he thinks of his church of 250 members as a new church plant. His last church was a megachurch, and he expects his present neighborhood congregation to supersize in a couple of years.
I wonder if it’ll happen. I think it’s possible, but only time will tell.
My first rural church was made up of just a handful of people, and I thought of it as a new church start, with a building. But I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t. There was a rich and long history there that I couldn’t ignore. The members didn’t necessarily want to grow. I mean, they wanted more people in the pews, more money in the plate, and more hands for the jobs, but they were a tightly knit body, and each new person took some getting used to.
I study a lot of church growth materials and I’ve always served growing congregations (even that first tiny one). I notice that some materials don’t address the growing pains when a congregation expands too quickly. Everyone says they want to grow, but what happens when they do? We can start seeing some ugly stretchmarks. They are real, and powerful, and can be blamed on the pastor.
Within a body, there are strong forces at work that fight to keep growth from happening, and I’ve learned to pay attention to them and respect them. I also realize that there’s only a certain amount of development I can handle as a pastor. As a church gets larger, my role changes, and I have to get used to it gradually.
I try to keep membership growth at 10 to 12 percent. That may sound absurd. It’s not like pastors have the power over exactly how much a church can enlarge, but when I set goals for the year, I figure that percentage. I think about the number, pray about the number. I sit in the empty sanctuary and imagine what the pews would look like with 12 percent more people in them. I work toward that goal. Most years it works.
One of the major pains come with a shift of loyalties. Often, a new person will join the church because s/he likes the pastor. A friendly congregation, good music, comparable theology, nice artchitecture, and solid programs are also important, but (let’s face it) the pastor’s often the deal-maker or breaker.
The people who are already in the church may or may not like the pastor. They might have had their heart set on another candidate, or they may have really wanted the church to hire a man, or woman, or mother, or father, or a childfree person, or anyone other than the present minister. Usually, they get over it in a couple of years, but sometimes the bitterness simmers for longer.
When the people who are dying to say, “I told you so” meet up with the people who really wanted to join the church “because of the pastor.” It causes a strange mixture. It takes a lot of time to build the bridge from the existing members to the new members.
So, what have you experienced? What sort of growing pains have you felt when new people join the church? Have you read any good books on this?