Reasons to start in a small church

I urge my students to start out in small churches. (but, they ignore me)


Greg said...

Yes, and I know of one DS that has said, "if yourr in small church after 5 years, then something is wrong with you." I pastored small churches for 9 years and was on staff of larger churches for 4 years. I would gladly be a staff pastor any day over being a small church pastor. I finally gave up and becoming an elementary school teacher. I have been in extreme rural church and had it count as a days vacation because we would go shopping 45 miles away once a week on our day off. I had been used enough by small church congregrations every where from being expected to be a church plumber, painter and lawn service for 6 acres and yes they wanted me to pay for the gas. Go for the big church I will gladly go back to being a children's pastor.

Mark Schnell said...

Keith, as usual you said it better than I ever could. I agree with everything you said and I actually lived most of it.

It's good that you tell them the whole story, though. There is good and bad in both kinds of churches. The thing that I find interesting is how your post-modern, relational students buy into the bigger is always better idea. I'm so thankful for the lessons learned in a smaller setting. BTW, being in a small church doesn't mean one is small minded!

Greg, I read both of your personal blog postings and it looks like you had some bad experiences in the larger churches too. It just proves that good and bad things can be found in both kinds of churches.

Lawrence W. Wilson said...

Keith ... I began my ministry in a church of about 50 people, and your description is exactly correct.

One thing to add, however.

Small churches like themselves, and they're not usually interested in becoming larger churches.

So if you're convinced that "size matters" you may be frustrated there.

::athada:: said...

No advice. Just a thanks for the pat-on-the-back to keep persevering (as a lay) in the "loser" church that I'm in.

Dale Argot said...

I pastor a small town, small church. In fact, I'm pastoring my second small town, small church and I have been on staff at a medium (210)sized church before that. There are times I miss the big-church atmosphere, but I enjoy the relationships the small church can bring. Trying to "grow" a small church does bring a unique set of challenges. I know first hand.

Some feel used by large churches, others feel used by small churches. My experience is that I felt much more used by the large church and it's senior pastor than I have by either of the small churches I pastored. We forget that there are good people in small churches if we just take the time to get to know them

The AJ Thomas said...

On a realted note I would tell you r students that if they are determned to start out on staff that they need to think long and hard about the Sr. pastor they will work for. One of the best peices of advice I was ever given was to pick a Sr. Pastor not a church. Most guys who have a crappy ride their first few years could have a voided it if they had chosen a better Sr Pastor instead of a larger church, better town, bigger budget, or even better congeregation. One of the most glaring holes in my ministry training was a class where someone sits you down and tells you what to look for in a potential ministry position. We were told how to get a job but not what jobs were worth having and how to figure that out before you had accepted it. Fortunatly my dad (also a pastor) covered that stuff for me and saved me a world of hurt.

Scott Hendricks said...

It it strange that I WANT to pastor a SMALL CHURCH? I thought that was more common.

Michael R. Cline said...

I think more people in our generations claim to want that too Scott. I certainly do.

The rub is how many will actually do it, which statistically, is not many.

I'm purposely doing my internship in seminary at one small church and one larger church just to get as much experience as possible.

COACH, why not advise students early on in their practicum experience to do both small and large churches before they leave IWU? I started under Jeremy Summer at College Wesleyan, and then ended my college career at a small Christian church outside of town. The lessons from both were amazingly valuable. I think if we really want your message to have any weight, we need to stress it more in practicums than in class.

David Drury said...

Great comments here on your insighful thoughts on small church. I think the key to your thoughts is that you suggest STARTING OUT in a small church. You're not saying it's the best thing for people to do in the long run or the right fit for all ministry... but it might just be the best thing to START WITH.

I'm now in a church well over a thousand and my last church was too but my first three churches were all under your 75 mark, and even though two of them were church plants I, like Mark S above, feel like you were describing much of the advantages of having started out that way. It's a much less high profile and high pressure way to see if you can acctually lead people, people who are often stubborn and backward... but hey, you'll find plenty of those people in a mega-church too.

So, I'm glad I started out in the way you suggest... even though you weren't my professor. :-) Of course, I'm not planning to go back any time soon.


JellyVision said...

I don't mind being in a "smaller" church (100-120). My problem is with their mindset. Lawrence W. wrote, "Small churches like themselves, and they're not usually interested in becoming larger churches.
So if you're convinced that "size matters" you may be frustrated there," So does that mean that because they like who they are that we should let them stay that way and not reach out and grow? The church I am at is aging and quick. If they do not reach out then this will be a solo pastor church and that makes me the one gone.

Yes, there are advantages. However, I sometimes feel that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

PastorSteveE56 said...

In 1985 I graduated from seminary and stepped into the samll church world. I have no regrets.

Everything you said about the small church is true. One exception, in my case, the "church boss" was not a real pain, but a real friend to me.

That congregation was so tolerant, almost to a fault. I tried different preaching styles, music styles, worship styles, and they just went along, almost everyone.

I was invlovled in the community as a leader and they followed suit.

The pay was low, but they did their best and were faithful.

I was their pastor for 11 years and they still love us!!

I am no longer in pastor ministry (and I sorely miss it). I now teach and disciple others for ministry in a large church and on a district level. I tell the pastoral trainees, you want to be a pastor, go to a small church - they'll love you.

brianbiz2 said...

Thanks for your column on the “7 advantages of starting in a small church!” Your advantages are so true. I was surprised that most of your students are from churches over 700. Traditionally, 75% of pastors and missionaries have come from small, rural churches. I also wish that you would challenge your students to stay at a small church. New pastors simply wishing to gain experience in the rural church before they move on to what they really deserve have embittered and used many a rural church. I always thought the rules in God’s Kingdom are a bit different—something about the way up is down! If your people aren’t committed disciples of Jesus Christ and are simply professionals looking for a career, no church needs them! Brian Wechsler Executive Director Village Missions http://www.village-missions.org/about/from-the-director/

Pastor Rod said...


Maybe the reason it's difficult to convince young pastors to "start out" at small churches is that we've glamorized the big church positions. If we really want them to seriously consider that option, then we'll need to change the value system among the clergy.


1st Time Senior Pastor said...


What you are describing about a small church is correct. I am currently the pastor of a small church. I have also been a staff pastor at a larger church. I think it is a great idea for students to start out at a small church. I have been here for 6 months and would venture to say I have learned more than in 2.5 years as a staff pastor. Do we have issues? Yep. But that is the best part. Being able to deal with issues and work together toward solutions. Our people are great and I believe the really want to reach our community with the love of Jesus.

So, I think your suggestions are great!!



Josh Bonner said...

I loved this column! I've been in the same 80 person Wesleyan church for 14 years, and while I'd rather see it grow, I like it's small warmth.

Not to derail the church discussion, but in keeping with the big/small debate....I was over at Wikipedia this evening looking at the IWU entry and two of the lines KINDA stuck out at me!

"Recently, the Board of Trustees voted to double the undergraduate student population to 6,200. Eventually, the university's total student body will surpass the 30,000 mark, making it the largest evangelical Christian university in the world."

"With nearly 4,000 seats, the new chapel will be the second largest theater in the Midwest, after Willow Creek Church's (near Chicago) 7,200 seat worship center. It will even be larger than the famous Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, home of the Academy Awards."

(SPEECHLESS.....Still Speechless!!!)

brownie said...

I would add to the discussion the advice to try and discern why a church is "small" in terms of congregational numbers. I spent 2 years trying to help a "small" group that was small because they were the remnant fussbudgets. Everyone else had finally given up on this group of Christians who were stuck in their legalistic rules-oriented churcheology.

I would love to be a part of a small church with fertile soil versus roadside soil. I'm just a layperson, so can't speak from pastoral experience, but I just hate to think of a young pastor spending the early years along the roadside instead of in the fertile soil.

Dustin and Miriam AhKuoi said...

This is my first time commenting...after reading your article on maintaining blogs...I now am riddled with guilt for never chiming in after reading your column for several of years :)

I am in agreement with you on this issue...I started out at a "smaller" church...not necessarily by your definition (in the 200's) - I made MANY mistakes...and I had so many moments where kind hearted people pulled me aside and spoke to me out of love...I listened and learned and I am a better person because of it. Coming straight out of college I knew very little about finances, day to day ministry, being on time, being responsible and MARRIAGE!!! A smaller church was a great place for my wife and I to start out our lives and build a foundation outside of the pressure cooker that larger church ministry can be. Sure...there are many things about smaller churches that rub against the unconventional side of my preference for doing things...but all in all I found that as long as I remained willing...I learned and I grew.

I am now a "fulltime volunteer" at a large church...working a regular 9-5 (which is a whole different side of ministry that I would recommend)...and I love it here...but if I would have started at a place like this I am not sure that I would have survived.

Matt Guthrie said...

Here's a question for the small church - how many of you are willing to take a pastor straight out of college or even seminary without any experience? I too agree with the many lessons learned by taking a pastoral assignment in one. But I wonder how the local church feels?

Tim Hawk said...

Your article is right on, and great advice for your students.
A further consideration on this matter is geographic location. The pastor of a church can lead the church to transform the community. As important as finding a church to serve, is finding a community to serve. I believe that we way uner-emphasize this matter. One should seek out a community that they feel called to pour their lives into to lead in its transformation. When we root ourselves in a place we are willing to invest into, then our ministry takes on a heightened intensity.
Another consideration surrounds the concept of "starting out" in a small church. I started out in a small church and regret that I didn't enjoy it more, as I was always thinking about the bigger church. Remember, most large churches began small, so plug into where you are and build it through transformational, missional leading! If I went back to pastoral ministry (I am a prison chaplain now), I think I would look for a small church to lead.
One last thought; an above post mentioned a 9-5 job in addition to pastoral ministry. I think at least a part-time job (whether needed for income or not) contributes to the community transformation model. It also helps the pastor identify with his/her people's daily lives and in touch with "non-church" people.

Matt said...

One critique I have of your idea is that the skills to lead a small church are different than the skills to lead a large church. There are certainly some similarities, but there are pretty key differences. I've seen so many pastors who were "trained" in a small church become frustrated because their church grows beyond their experience - it also frustrates the church. Very few people are actually effective leaders in both large and small churches - it happens, but it's pretty rare.

It also depends on the gifts and skills of the pastor. There are some students in your classes are who truly gifted and skilled to lead large churches. They would experience a significant amount of frustration in a small church and still not gain the actual experience that will help them lead in a large church.

I think it's great to promote the values of both kinds of churches. And since church society usually does a pretty good job pumping the value of the large church, it's good to have a few voices do the same for a small church setting.

But the fact of the matter is that they are two different kinds of communities - both of whom need incredible, Christ-centered, and effective leadership.

Thinking in Ohio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thinking in Ohio said...

I thought this was a GREAT article and pretty good advice. I pastored three small churches over the course of nine years after college and during seminary and I think your description is pretty accurate; though I've got to agree with Mark (comment #2) that there's another side to the coin when it comes to small churches.

I joined the staff of a medium size church several months back and the experience has been amazing, because of the senior pastor and a fellow associate on staff. Both boomer-age pastors, they have poured their hearts into my development on staff. I can honestly say that I have grown more in the past six months than I have in the past six years! And yet, I do have friends who have had horrendous experiences on staff in other places.

I agree with AJ Thomas, and am convinced that it all comes down to who the senior pastor is... does he/she believe in developing leaders? Does he/she believe they have something to teach their staff members? But the most important question may be, "How teachable am I? Am I willing to learn from others or has my age/education/etc. made me too arrogant?"

Craig Moore said...

Wow Keith, when I started out in the ministry in the early 80's, no one was advised to go into a small church. Small churches were for
1s, 2s & 3s on a scale of 1-10. If you went to a small church and it stayed small, then you were a "loser" and unfruitful. Small churches were looked down on and so were the pastors. I am sure you remember those days!

Rev. Sambo said...

Dr. Drury,

My major problem is that too many times we see the small church as a starter church for ministry. I have pastored only small churches my entire ministry. They are extremely rewarding. They are a people who are waiting to be loved and ministered to. They are forgiving more than not to a fault.
The problem I have is the perception from above, (district and general church) that if there is no movement in the numbers, there is no purpose in the church.
We have had strong church bosses, (carnal and good hearted), both have only made us stronger and more effective in ministry.
I could write a book on this subject, and the underlining theme of the whole book would be "Faithfulness to the call".
I have never gone to a church asking what they were to pay. I have never had a church that was able to afford us full time.
The church that I am presently pastoring in is over 70 years old. When I look at the history of the pastors of the past of this church, it is no wonder that it has wallowed in less than booming numbers. There has been only 3 pastors that has stayed in this church longer than five years and the average stay of all others is almost 2. No wonder small churches stay small. They need excellent pastors to stay the call and love the people who need them to help to grow.

thanks for letting me vent.

Matt, Michelle, and Will said...

As usual, you make great points about the positives, but I think there are some warnings that should be given as well.

All small churches are small for a reason, but not the same reason. My experience is that most small churches have very little desire to play a part in the Great Commission. Perhaps because they don't understand what that would look like or perhaps because they just like who they are too much.

The danger is that when a young pastor brings his/her enthusiasm and idealism into a setting like that, they can quickly be discouraged and sometimes become disillusioned about the Church (big C). Also, young pastors are usually more impatient which also creates tension when wanting to move ahead too quickly.

Yes, there are some positives to starting in a small church, but there are also some things that can be potentially disatrous to both the church and the pastor.

Of course much of what I've said about small churches is true of big churces too.

Chris said...

Keith, I appreciate everything you had to say here. I have been serving in small churches for about 11 years now because that is where God has placed me. I do dream of the bigger more resourced churches, but I also realize they too come with their own problems and frustrations. I have served in a church of 35, one of 9 and currently one of 145. I have many friends that serve in churches that number 700+ and they have the same problems that I do, only on a larger scale. I would encourage your students not to start off their ministry doing what they want to do, but rather on their knees seeking what the Father wants them to do. Being where God places you is far better than picking a place and going on your own.

Thanks Chris

Pastor Al said...

Late Post to a Great Discussion:

My thought is...Grow with your Church. We have been growing numerically about 10% yearly. This provides me a chance to pastor a larger church without transferring elsewhere. Growth increases the organizational complexity, which in turn provides fresh challenges. I pray that I my personal growth curve keeps up with what God wants to do in our faith community.