Growing pains


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?

5 thoughts on “Growing pains

  1. I enjoyed this. You know that over the years I have questioned the idea that everything is about substantial/quantifiable growth. Yet, to deny that I want it is foolish. I have become troubled with my own dissatisfaction at size, attendance and weekly contributions. When these become my obsession they speak volumes about what my expectations are about the places that I lead worship. I am afraid that my unease is much more market driven than and seeking to fill spiritual vacuums with “success.”

    I find it interesting that we always hear comments like, “God is really working here because we are growing.” We almost never hear, “This place is so successful because our small congregation encounters the divine.”

    So to answer your question I think that my “growing pains” have come in challenging my expectations. Sometimes when my expectations come to light it is in very harse contrast to reality (or what I really need).

  2. Hey there – followed you home from Beauty Tips šŸ™‚ and just wanted to say THANKS SO MUCH for this blog. Your insights on church growth here are just what I needed to hear as I prepare for my first solo pastor job in a church that says it really wants to grow. Having an actual number to focus on/pray for is SUCH a big help.

    Looking forward to your book!

  3. Lots to share –
    1- your parents on PTL. Wow.
    2- thanks for call
    3- re: growth. We just had another family leave last week who only joined 2 years ago. Off to San Diego with Navy. Not a thing we can do about it. But people want/need to grow spiritually even (especially?) if they don’t “join” the church. We’re accepting forms for fall small groups and the overwhelming number of people turning them in are visitors/newcomers/strangers. People are longing for community. They just don’t want churchiness, it seems (and all those politics about liking the pastor or not, etc.)

  4. juniper,

    I knew about your move, because…well…I’ve lurked at your sight! Good luck with it all. I’m sure it will be wonderful. You’ll get used to preaching every week. It can be exhausting sometimes, but it turns into a really enjoyable rhythm.


    Mom said that TF cried because she broke a nail. But I think she genuinely liked her. TF’s name was in our roledex for a long time, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband kept talking about selling the prized number to our friends. We were in college. Those were the days after the scandal and before caller i.d. Imagine the possibilities….

    You’re right. Growth has a lot more to do with demographics than God’s blessings. And our transient population does not allow for long-term commitments.

    Ahh…church without the churchiness. That would be lovely. I’d be in for democracy without committee meetings too.

    You have to tell us more about your small groups.

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