Why Being Big on Strategy Can Help Small Churches Feel Small (and Why That’s a Good Thing)


The last time I flew, I imagine my experience was like most Americans’—on a major carrier.  The plane was one of hundreds pulled up to the gate that day.  Before I ever took my seat there were countless people getting the plane ready for take-off—those working the ticket counter, those working the baggage, those prepping and inspecting the aircraft, and not one of these were responsible for flying the plane.

Many of the leaders I talk to who work with small churches not only lead the church—they do everything else as well.  They operate more like the pilot of a small prop plane, than the captain of an intercontinental jet.

I get that. I work at a small church too.  I only have so many hours in a week, but those working with larger churches are often able to focus their time in more specific areas, whereas those working with smaller congregations often have to multi-task in order to fill the voids left by financial or personnel resources.

Small church leaders are often expected to do things outside of their ability because these things are often assumed to be part of their role. 

Here is what I have learned so far that others already know: one leader, no matter how talented, simply cannot do everything…or at least she or he cannot do everything well.

Here is something else I have learned that others already know: even though you work for a small church, the workload often seems too BIG to handle.

This is why thinking strategically, even especially as the leader of a small church, is vital (yes, as in essential to the life of the church you serve).

Yet strategy is hard for at least two reasons:

1. Leaders fear strategy.  

Often, those with whom I speak, fear strategy will diminish one of their church’s greatest strengths—the intimate and family-like quality that characterizes their congregation—but this results from mistaking casual for intimate.

The difference is as simple as the difference between moment-to-moment reactionary decision-making versus prepared, thoughtful, well-reasoned and proactive decision-making.  Adopting and understanding organizational leadership, for example, will provide a strategic approach to leadership that will create an environment where leaders, as well as followers, can concentrate on what matters most to their church.

2. Strategy is often contested or rejected by the congregation.

Small churches aren’t failing because their mission and vision are off.  Nearly every church I know of—small and big; effective and ineffective, alike—are all, in one way or another, wanting to love God, love others, and invite people to grow in their relationship with Jesus.  The words may differ, but the heart of nearly every mission and vision is the same.

Where mission and vision are the what and why of a church, strategy is the HOW.  And when leaders start talking about the how, other people get nervous.

Strategy, however, is the difference maker.  Churches that not only know what they want, and why they want it, but most importantly know HOW to achieve it, are the ones that are able to take small strategic steps to often prevent (at best), manage, or minimize (at worst) the big problems that are bound to arise.

Here is one way strategy has helped our small church feel small, and why that’s a good thing.

Our church has grown from 50 to nearly 200 in a seven-year period (much of that growth occurring before I was hired).  While the vertical growth in numbers should be celebrated, we are now working even harder to celebrate “horizontal” numbers.

One of our chief strategies is that Connected People Connect Others.

In a small church, even a very small church, there exists the possibility for hundreds of relationship combinations!

Here’s how: In a group of 4, there are 12 possible relationship combinations.  One arrives at this number by multiplying the number of the group by one less than the group size so that in our test group we arrive at this number by multiplying 4 (the size of the group) by 3 (one less than group number) to get 12.  So, in a group of 12 there are 132 potential relationship combinations and in a church of 132 there are 17,292 relationship combinations!  It is easy to see how quickly this gets out of hand!

This is why, even in a small church, there are people who still go unnoticed and unconnected.

As our church grows vertically, it is all the more important to grow horizontally by moving our members into increasingly connected relationships.  For us, this means we start to track a person’s trajectory from the first time they visit us (what we call the “Corner”) to their involvement in a group, team, or class (what we call a “Circle”) to their ongoing and regular connectedness with at least three other people (what we call the “Table.”)

For us this language functions like this:

  • Corners are where we ENGAGE; a starting point; where relationships BEGIN
  • Circles are where we CONNECT; a next step; were relationships BUILD
  • Tables are where we SHARE; a deeper level; where relationships BOND

If this language does not make sense in your context, then pick wording that does.  What is important is that you have a strategy and process for helping people in your church connect beyond their proximity to each other in your worship environment.

What step could you take this week that would increase your ability to lead a strategically small church?

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