Leading and Growing Small Churches - Part II

All the Great Churches Were At One Time Small...

"Don't be afraid of small beginnings, remember this whole thing started with a mouse."
- Walt Disney

In the last edition of The Pastor's Coach, we addressed the realities of leading and growing a small church; it is difficult. But the good news is that all great churches started small and God is with you. In this article, I'll address the more practical issues of leading your church forward. You will quickly see that growing a healthy church has very little to do with the right programs. It's largely about you as the leader, your vision and the people's response. That's where it all gets complicated. If it wasn't for people, this church thing would be a snap!

Lead your church forward...

1. Make sure your thinking and attitude are right.

I know people can be flaky, uncommitted and downright difficult. But if you allow yourself to think that way, you will be frustrated much of the time and place a lid on your growth as a leader. Rather than thinking how uncommitted your people are, focus on how you can become a better leader. That kind of thinking will serve you well. Here are some ideas to help shape your thinking.

Small isn't bad and large isn't good; the key is health that results in growth.

A church that averages 80 attendees that grows to 105 attendees over the span of a year is healthier than a church that has plateaued at 1,000 attendees. It's not all about numbers, but numbers always tell a story. The book of Acts is very deliberate in its usage of numbers, but the numbers were always connected to a representation of life change - not another event where nickels and noses are counted.

The following are good questions to reflect upon. Be as honest as you choose.

What discourages you the most?
A low attendance on Sunday
No one getting saved for a week
A low offering

What encourages you the most?
Everything being calm and comfortable
Having an increasing number of people involved in volunteer ministry and growing spiritually
Everyone being happy with you

What keeps you awake at night?
A vote not going the way you wanted
Great Commission problems
Financial problems

As a leader, you most prefer that people:
Like you
Respect you
Honor you

In each of the four sets, the middle or second choice is the choice most likely to serve you well as a leader. The first and third choices are not necessarily wrong, but they do not generally indicate right thinking as a leader.

Don't shift blame or make excuses; take responsibility.

You are not a victim of circumstances. You are a merchant of hope. You are an agent of change. You are a leader of God's people. Circumstances may be tough, but you are not captive to them. Focus on solutions, not problems. Tackle one thing at a time, and remember God is on your side. This is starting to sound a little preachy, but I don't mean to come across that way. I want to encourage you. I know that in my own leadership, whenever I start blaming others, it never helps. It's only when I take responsibility as the leader to ask myself what I need to do to bring about healthy change that progress is made. That's not always easy, but it's always right.

Strive always to be grateful for the ministry in which God has placed you.

Perhaps you're in a very small church, in a small town, or rural setting. Maybe God has placed you in a tall-steeple church downtown that is in decline. Or you could be in one of those churches that seem to go through pastors about every two years. While you may have days when you don't feel grateful, remember it's God's church you serve, and it's truly a privilege. Paul sang while in prison; you can at least whistle a few measures where you are! Invest yourself 100% in the ministry you are in, and serve like you will be there permanently. If God should move you, so be it; but until then, thank God for the opportunity to be part of His plan.

2. Understand what is not essential to leading and growing a healthy church.

Superstar leadership.

It's true that no one wants to follow a dull leader, but most of the sturdiest churches are not built by superstar-type leaders. The truth about most superstar-type leaders is that much of what happens and nearly all decision-making is connected directly to them. This stifles a church from becoming healthy. When such a leader leaves, and the church falls into rapid decline, it's a sure sign that it was not healthy.

The church of the 21st century wants and needs not powerful leaders with all the answers, but spiritual leaders who can help people connect with God, and who also understand how to think strategically. A leader who is a strategic thinker focuses more on moving the church forward as an organization than attracting the members to him or herself. This still requires you to be the best leader you possibly can be and a good communicator, but it doesn't require an ability to mesmerize the people. Rather than take more space here, let me recommend two great books, both by Jim Collins. They are Built To Last and Good to Great. Read them both!

The absence of mistakes as a leader.

Wow, this is good news for me, how about you? I make mistakes. Do you? That question isn't as flip as it may sound. Some leaders make no mistakes! They are the leaders who are doing nothing, take no risks, and try nothing new. They preach on Sunday and visit during the week. They may be Godly people, but they aren't leading. Leaders make mistakes - lots of mistakes - and big ones at that. But they don't make the same mistake twice.

The right programs.

It's not about programs; it's about process. Programs can be helpful, but your ministry will not rise or fall on which program(s) you choose. Your ministry will rise or fall on leadership. Good leaders make average programs successful. Poor leaders make great programs ineffective.

In my travels as a consultant, I have observed that large, fast-growing, and healthy churches are making their ministries leaner, not adding to them. In contrast, the smaller churches have more going on. More stuff doesn't make your church better. In fact, it weakens it. You can't do everything, so focus only on the things that drive the Great Commission forward. It will take great courage to cut nonessential ministries, but you must. Remember, good is the enemy of great. Don't look for bad ministries to cut; look for the ministries that are not absolutely essential. Be tough! Think through the short list of what is essential and do those things well.

3. Make sure your vision is clear.

This can't be overemphasized. Do you know where you are headed? Do you communicate it clearly, creatively, consistently, and with conviction? What does a win look like? Is your congregation unified in this vision? Do everything within your sphere of influence to fight against just doing church from Sunday to Sunday. Know what God has called you to accomplish.

The following are seven key questions to help you test the strength of your vision.

Does your congregation live it? (Does it matter?)
Do your ministries match and support it?
Do the staff and/or key leaders reflect it?
Does the Bible affirm it?
Does the Senior Pastor stick to it?
Does the budget back it?
Are your plans to build in alignment with it?

If you are unclear on your unique vision, then for now, stay fiercely focused on the Great Commission stated in Matthew 28:19-20.

4. Identify, gather and develop four groups of people. In each of these groups, about five people are all that are needed to begin with.


The first group is your zealots. They are not necessarily key influencers, but they are fired up and eager to do whatever needs to be done.


These are your prayer warriors - people who earnestly pray and pray much. They really know how to get ahold of God and truly intercede on behalf of you and the church.


These are the key leaders who will come alongside you to help you carry the leadership load. Don't waste them! Use them wisely. Don't put them over, for example, the fellowship committee or the communion preparation team. Use them in areas of highest people productivity such as evangelism, discipleship, teaching, and small groups.

Developing them is the key. I highly recommend John Maxwell's material on leadership. You probably don't have time to design and write your own stuff, so find good material that you can use. Pour your time into your sermons, evangelism, prayer, and developing your leaders.


The inviters are your evangelists. They are the people who have a heart for the lost and are naturals at cultivating relationships with the unchurched and inviting new people to church. Be a cheerleader for these people! You may not have many of them in your church, but God places at least a few in every church. It's your job as the leader to identify who they are and encourage them.

5. Cultivate a culture of volunteer ministry.

Much has been said on this topic, and I won't go into detail now. But I do want to encourage you in your efforts to empower your people to use their spiritual gifts for meaningful ministry. If you are in a church where they still believe "the pastor does the ministry - that's why we pay him," don't despair. I know that can be discouraging, but don't give up and don't lose hope. Start by educating your people. It may take a long time, but stick with it. Take them to the appropriate passages in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and Acts 6. Those are good places to start. Use good resources. I recommend Sue Mallory's book, The Equipping Church. Start small, train a few, and stick to the truth that Scripture teaches. Your job is not to do the ministry, but to equip others to do it.

In all of this, don't go for the quick fix or expect overnight results. It will take time to develop yourself as a leader, process change, strengthen evangelism, fire up prayer, and particularly, develop and equip your leaders. Don't lose heart! Just take it one day and one person at a time.

6. Establish a mentoring relationship.

The small church, though exciting and full of potential, can feel lonely at times for the pastor. You don't have a large staff or may not have any staff at all. You have unanswered questions and don't know who to turn to.

Don't travel the road of leadership alone. Find a mentor. My first recommendation to you is very practical and realistic. Find a pastor with whom you can connect and respect of a church at least twice the size of yours within a couple of hours driving distance. Ask for some time - not a lot of time, but perhaps a lunch every six to eight weeks. When you meet, come well-prepared with specific questions and buy the lunch! The advantage is the low cost, close proximity, and personal connection.

Another option that is worth your financial investment is the John Maxwell Leadership Coaching Process that Conrad Lowe (a long-time friend and associate of John Maxwell and myself) and his team offers. Every two weeks for one year, a veteran church leader mentors you for 30 minutes via the phone on your agenda covering your issues. If this sounds interesting to you, you can contact Conrad at 678-513-2565 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This has been a long article but hopefully helpful to you as the leader of a small church. If you feel overwhelmed with this material, let me close with the three most important things for you to focus on (besides your Sunday morning service, which I know you are already putting your energy into):

Leadership development

These three things will give you your highest return. Do them well and the results will speak for themselves.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.