Transitional Church Stress

I’ve just finished reading Kevin E. Martin’s The Myth of the 200 Barrier: How to Lead Through Transitional Growth. I’ll make other comments on the content of this book later. In this post, however, I’ll focus on what I found the most striking in how it fit my own church situation.

The church I pastor has hovered between 130 and 200 in average Sunday morning worship attendance since at least 1966. Some years are up, some down. My goal has been to get the average up to 200. Last year we almost made it – we averaged 198. It’s tough work – and there are so many variables that there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to keep it up. Martin’s book offers a theory of why this is.

Martin proposes two basic church models: the pastoral church and the program church. While there can be great variety within these models, the pastoral church is based on the work and abilities of the pastor. The upper limit of attendance in a pastoral church is about 165. An average attendance of about 225 is required to sustain a program church. Therein lies the problem. Our church is in the no-man’s land between these two numbers. Martin calls these churches “transitional churches.”

Martin lists four characteristics transitional churches share:

  • Transitional churches tend to be high-stress congregations for clergy. The expectations that the pastor’s role will be primarily relational in the smaller church, and the expectations that accompany programs in the large church, create this high stress.
  • Transitional churches tend to use up and burn out lay leaders. This size church has a shortage of real leaders. Therefore, the transitional size congregation tends to overuse its leaders and give them multiple jobs. This leads to high burnout.
  • Transitional churches tend to need new programs, staff, and facilities all at the same time. This leads to confusion and a sense of continual frustration as the leaders run to keep up.
  • Transitional congregations often experience tension and conflict as the congregation develops. Those who prefer the style of the smaller congregation often resent the changes. Those who want quality programs often find this resistance frustrating and irrational.

I see each of these at work in the church I serve. (1) I feel the stress of having to know everyone and what’s going on in their lives. I don’t think it’s as stressful for me as it would be for some people. I’m fairly good at learning and remembering names. The tougher part is finding time to jump start all the programs and ministries I think would benefit us.
(2) We need more leaders. We can usually recruit people to do something, but I want leaders – people who are passionate, energetic and creative, who won’t need micromanagement.
(3) We need new programs. At the very least we need to increase our outreach ministries, our junior high ministries, our Senior adult ministries (beyond mere fellowship), our recovery ministries and evangelism. Staff? We need a staff person who speaks Spanish to lead ministry with the increasing Hispanic population. Buildings – a blessing and a pain at the same time. Our hundred year old sanctuary is one of the most beautiful in NE Texas. It costs a fortune. We’ve spent so much money on it in the past 5 years we’ve had no resources left to work with our decaying educational building and fellowship hall, let alone build anything new.
(4) We’ve also experienced the tensions of transition. We lost a couple of highly involved families last year because we’re not changing fast enough. Others complain we’re changing too fast.

The easiest thing to do would be to drop back down to about 135. Of course, such a move would entail a rejection of the Great Commission. “It’s just for big churches,” I can imagine some people saying. The problem is, I’m not willing to do that. I’m not content with anything but leading this church to make disciples. Leading a larger church (judging by my experience in larger churches) looks easier than leading a church through this transition period. Obviously I have a lot of learning and growing to do.

One final comment: If you find your church in the transitional range, you might try out Martin’s book. Read it and share it with the leaders in your church. See what happens.

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2 Responses to Transitional Church Stress

  1. Guy says:

    hmm…that explains a lot of my experience in a couple of churches in that attendance range.

  2. Helpful insights, as always, Richard. I’ll have to pick up a few copies.

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