Sun. May 9th, 2021

By: Lyle E. Schaller

Two hotly disputed concepts in the church growth movement are (1) the homogeneous unit principle, which suggests that the natural and easiest way for a congregation to grow is to focus on unchurched people who closely resemble the existing membership, and (2) the emphasis on the critical role of a dynamic, growth-oriented, aggressive pastor who is considered by many to be the primary factor in church growth.

Many church leaders object to the homogeneous unit principle because they believe every Christian church should represent a cross section of the population. Few disagree that the homogeneous unit concept is an accurate description of reality. Most growing churches are, in fact, homogeneous units. The exceptions usually turn out to be carefully and systematically managed pluralistic congregations, consisting of a network of homogeneous subgroups with strong and very directive long-term pastoral leadership.

A large number of pastors object to the emphasis on the role of the minister in church growth. Some believe it is inconsistent with the Biblical concept of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Others point out that it is inconsistent with surveys which indicated 65 to 90% of all adult church members join in response to the invitation of a friend, relative, neighbor or fellow worker already in the church. The more rapidly a congregation is growing, the larger the proportion of new members invited to join by other lay people.

More than a few pastors clearly feel threatened by the categorical language of, for example, the United Presbyterian study on membership trends in their own denomination. The study suggests that “growing congregations… are characterized by stronger pastoral leadership” and urges recognition of “strong pastoral competence as a decisive factor for the vitality and outreach of a congregation.” Many ministers feel that identifying the pastor as the key variable in church growth encourages a passive role by the laity to ignore their responsibilities and rationalize that “our congregation can’t grow until we find a better pastor.”

On the basis of my observations over nineteen years in working with hundreds of congregations, I believe there are three questions which shed light on this debate over the importance of pastoral leadership in church growth.

A good match?

The first is a highly subjective and qualitative factor. Is there a good match? Given the gifts, talents, interests, skills, and experiences of this minister at this point in his/her career and the
strengths, resources, potentialities, and needs of this congregation at this point in its history, is this a situation where both the church and the pastor are compatible? It occasionally happens that a
minister who is the ideal pastor for one congregation may be a disruptive misfit in another situation. Such a perspective helps explain why, in one situation, a pastor may be are influential factor
in producing a growing congregation, but where the minister moves to another church that congregation does not grow and may even decline in size. This emphasis on the quality of the match, rather than on specific leadership characteristics of the minister, helps to explain why some ministers who appear to be of only ordinary competence are pastors of growing churches. The better the quality of this match, the greater the probability of a growing church.

Where is the continuity?

There is no reliable evidence to suggest that long pastorates produce church growth. There are hundreds of congregations that have been served by the same minister for thirteen, twenty, or thirty years and either have been on a plateau or have been declining in size for most of that period. On the other hand, with but three exceptions, it is difficult to find a rapidly growing church, that has had sustained growth, which has not benefited from a long pastorate. In other words, while long pastorates do not produce church growth, it is rare to find a growing church without a long pastorate.

The biggest single exception to the above generalization is the congregation that has the tradition of a large, complex, lay-led network of small groups. The large adult Sunday School, led by a
strong and influential lay superintendent with an effective program of recruiting, training, and keeping teachers of adult classes, is such an example. There are hundreds of these churches around the country that have a long history of continuous growth, despite the fact that few if any pastors stayed for more than three, four, or five years. The continuity in these congregations is in the lay volunteers, not the minister.

The second major exception to this generalization is much less common. These are the growing churches which have had the benefit of a long- term staff member. Sometimes it is the choir director who has built a large music program over the past twenty years. Occasionally it is a parish worker who has been directly responsible for three or four thousand new members during the past quarter century. Or, it may be a person-oriented associate minister who has been the “glue” to hold the growing congregation together during the arrival and departure of a half dozen senior ministers. In each of these and similar cases the continuity is in this staff person.

The third exception to the basic generalization that in most growing churches the continuity is the long term pastorate, is found in those congregations which profess a distinctive theological stance and consistently express and reinforce that position with a particular programmatic emphasis. The outstanding example of that today is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. As a “church,” the Mormons have their continuity in a distinctive system of religious beliefs which is reinforced by a vigorous witnessing and missionary thrust. Another example is the Seventh Day Adventists, who have a very distinctive set of religious beliefs and reinforce this by their emphasis on missions and health. Nineteenth-century Methodism was another example which included both a distinctive belief system plus a set of practices of personal piety which distinguished them from the rest of the population. This provided a sense of continuity that offset the maximum tenure of six months (later two years) for a preacher in one pastoral charge.

What does this say about the role of the pastor in regard to church growth?

In simple terms it means that a key factor in church growth is a sense of continuity. The blurring of denominational identities, the growth of ecumenicity, the decline of the adult Sunday School that began back in the 1960s, the decreasing role of the women’s organizations and men’s groups, the shortage of persons interested in a long-term career as a staff member, the professionalization of the ministry, the decline in the role of the laity, and the mobility of the population means that, increasingly, continuity is found in the long pastorate. The long pastorate provides a sense of continuity in relationships, in the congregational life style, in goals, in missional priorities, and in the thrust of the evangelistic outreach of that congregation.

HOW LARGE IS THE STAFF?

A third question in the issue of pastoral leadership and church growth, is the adequacy of church staff in quantitative terms.

Some congregations are staffed to decline. Many are staffed to remain on a static plateau. A few are staffed to grow. What is the difference?

If one uses simple quantitative measurements as a beginning point, a useful rule of thumb is that a congregation averaging two hundred at Sunday morning worship can be served adequately by a full-time pastor aided by a good church secretary. When the average attendance at worship reaches three hundred, two full-time program staff persons are needed, such as a pastor and a Director of Christian Education or a Director of Evangelism, or two pastors. An increase of one hundred in average attendance at worship is accompanied by the addition of another full-time program staff member, and an appropriate increase in support staff.

That is only the beginning point, however, and applies to congregations that share the following characteristics: (a) do not plan to grow, (b) are reasonably homogeneous, (c) at least half of the members have been in the church for nine years or more, (d) do not have a major emphasis on community outreach service programs and (e) do not have a high turnover rate among staff members.

The congregation staffed to decline usually has less staff than the previous ratio suggests. The tendency to decline may be reinforced by a high turnover rate among members and/or staff, This tendency may also be reinforced by seeking to serve a widely dispersed and/or heterogeneous membership. The decline may be furthered by a major emphasis on service programs to neighborhood residents (day care center, counseling program, senior citizens’ center, children’s programs, recreation center)–programs which require considerable staff time but are not part of a membership recruitment strategy.

Congregations staffed to grow typically have more staff than shown in this ratio of program staff to worship attendance. In addition, congregations staffed to grow reinforce their priorities by an emphasis on adequately staffing (a) leadership development, (b) the selection, care, and nurture of that expanding network of lay volunteers, (c) the nurturing and expansion of the group life of that congregation, (d) the assimilation of new members and (e) the development and implementation of a systematic membership recruitment strategy.

Just as there is no guarantee that a long pastorate will produce church growth, there is no guarantee that adding staff will produce church growth, but it also is rare to find a rapidly growing
congregation, that sustains its growth which is understaffed.

In summary, ministerial leadership is a very important factor in any discussion of the factors behind church growth. But the topic goes beyond the distinctive characteristics and gifts of any one pastor. The discussion must include the quality of the match between pastor and congregation, the importance of continuity within the church, and the importance of proper staffing for growth.

(The above material appeared in a 1985 issue of Church Growth America Magazine.)

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