How to Pastor a Small Church

Most churches are small. 

And most will stay small. 

If most churches will stay small, why are so many pastors using large church strategies and systems to pastor their  small church? And how can small-church pastors apply strategies and systems that work for small churches? Those are the kinds of questions that Karl Vaters seeks to answer in his book Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250. 

Vaters first points out that most churches are small and will stay small (18). Therefore, new thinking is needed for church leadership in small churches instead of just borrowing whatever the latest tactics coming out of the megachurch world are. Maybe being a small church is not a problem. On the other hand, being a small church is not necessarily a virtue either (40). Size issues are most often matters of personal preference. Moreover, pastoring a small church is not an excuse to be lazy or inept (42). Small churches are just different than large churches. And that’s ok. But because they’re small, these churches take fundamentally different leadership principles to run. So what are they? 

Although Vaters does not explicitly articulate these principles in the book, I have drawn out what I believe are the most important principles for leading small churches explained in the book. 

Principle 1: Small Churches Must Be Lead Differently than Large Churches

Vaters point out to the “Law of Large Numbers”: “The bigger the group, the more predictably they behave. The smaller the group, the less predictably they behave” (50). Large organizations behave more similarly to each other, while smaller organizations (like small churches) are more unique. Crowds often can behave in fairly predictable ways. But a small group of people may be highly unpredictable. Therefore, small churches are more unique than large churches and must be led in a unique way. 

Vaters’ insight comports well with Nassim Taleb’s views on the effect of scale in his book, Antifragile: “If you multiply by ten the number of persons in a given entity, you do not preserve the properties: there is transformation” (88). In other words, when an organization gets bigger, it transforms into a new kind of organization and therefore must be led differently. Therefore, pastors of small churches need to stop trying to lead a small church like a large church. 

Principle 2: Small Churches Must Prioritize Relationships, Culture, and History

People go to large churches for different reasons, but one of the primary reasons people go to small churches, however, is relationships. “Small churches live and die on the strength of their relationships” (63). Therefore, small churches need to prioritize the cultivation of relationships in the body. 

Principle 3: Effective Ministry, not Numerical Growth, is the Goal

Vaters points out that becoming a “megachurch” depends on so many factors outside of a pastors’ control like whether the population in the area is growing (86). Furthermore, numerical growth is the ultimate lag measure: we cannot control it. Ultimately, God gives the growth. So what should pastors of small churches be focusing on instead of numerical growth? Effective ministry. All pastors can become more effective in their ministry, even if their church’s never get larger. “Not every church is called to be bigger,” Vaters’ writes, “But every church is mandated to do effective ministry” (96). 

Principle 4: Deal with Small Problems Before They Get Big

“Problems that get delayed don’t go away; they get worse, then they become invisible” (109). Outsiders and guests may notice problems in the church before we do because we’ve become used to it. We adapt to the dysfunction or less than excellence and therefore become blind to it. 

Principle 5: Closet Rule: Don’t Add a New Ministry Until You’ve Dropped an Old Ministry. Or until your closet grows (you have bigger capacity to add stuff).

Don’t overextend yourself. Shut down ineffective ministries if you need to, to make way for more effective ones. 

Principle 6: Bungee chord: Balance the right amount of tension. 

You don’t want to overload people with demands. But you also don’t want to let them off the hook too easily either so that they become bored. You need the appropriate amount of busyness, demand, and striving, with the right amount of rest and recovery. 

Principle 7: Discover What Your Church Does Well, Then Do it On Purpose

Every church can do some things well. But too often we “hide” our best assets among just doing churchy things. This is where the Closet Rule comes in. Saying goodbye to ineffective ministries can help highlight what we do really, really well. 

Principle 8: Cast Vision Collaboratively

A clear “vision” is more important in large churches because most large churches are very similar to one another. A large organization also needs a clear vision from the leadership to stay on track. But in small churches, a top-down vision from the pastor is not necessary. Most people in the congregation know what they need to do already. Furthermore, as the pastor, if you can help them accomplish God’s purpose and vision for their lives first, then they will run through a wall for you

Principle 9: If relationships are what glues people to small churches, then FRIENDLINESS is of utmost importance! Help people become friendly by giving them a G.I.F.T. 

Vaters acknowledges that walking into a small church is an act of great vulnerability for most people (192). Most people come to small churches for a “personal connection” (192). Therefore, we must help people connect in real relationships. Small churches might even need to work harder at friendliness and community than larger churches just because it’s so crucial for our success (193). “We have to stop assuming friendliness and make friendliness a priority” (193). 

We can help the church become more friendly by helping them give a G.I.F.T:

Greet someone you’ve never met

Introduce people to each other

Follow up with someone you met recently

Thank someone who did something you appreciate

Principle 10: Dust off the welcome mat (Give outsiders access).

“People aren’t won to Jesus by a church building, but they can be kept from knowing more about Jesus by one that isn’t prepared to receive them” (198). The point is access. Are we accessible to outsiders and unbelievers? 

Principle 11: Run better events

“Come and Watch” events are not effective. If we’re thinking that we can compete with the entertain of the world, we can’t. But there are better ways to run events for outsiders.

  • Come and Help
  • Come and Give
  • Come and Have Fun (in person)
  • Come and Learn
  • Come and Worship – “You can’t really worship a God you don’t have a relationship with, but you can be with us as we workshop and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit as we do” (204). 

Principle 12: Discipleship as Mentorship

Small churches can pivot to discipleship as mentorship rather than classes. Running a pipeline runs out quickly in small churches. The advantage of a small church is personalization (215). 

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