Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Understanding relationships in the small church

The small church is often referred to as a "family church."  Quite often, a handful of families make up the majority of those who attend a church.  I know of one church with four primary families who have made up the bulk of the membership for decades.    Sometimes only one family provides most of the members.  In one church almost three quarters of the members come from one family.  Unfortunately, if there are problems in one of the families there are often problems in the church.

There is another reason these churches are known as family churches.  They function much like a family.  There is often a matriarch or patriarch, sometimes for each family represented in the church, that everyone looks to for guidance.  If these folks are not present, it is not uncommon for decisions to be deferred until they return.  Votes are unlikely to be taken until their input is received.

One of the key principles that pastors need to know about small churches is that everything in these churches is built upon relationships.  All the leadership skills and seminary training in the world will not help a pastor if he or she does not build good relationships with the people in a small church.  Regardless of your title, you are not the leader of that church; the family is, and until you are adopted into the family you will be an outsider.  You are invited to give input and recommendations, but you will not be a leader in that church until the patriarchs and matriarchs adopt you into the family.

I once had a young pastor call asking me to assist him in finding a new church.  He had been at his present church less than a year.  When I asked why he wanted to leave he said that no one wanted to do anything he suggested.  I asked him why he thought they should.  I explained that he had not been at the church long enough to build relationships with the people, he had not yet earned their trust, so he should not be surprised that he was not able to lead them.  This was a church that treated him well and had made a substantial investment in his ministry.  They wanted him to succeed as their pastor, but he refused to spend time with the people and build much needed relationships with them.  A few months later he left for a staff ministry position in another church, and a couple of years after that was out of the ministry.  New pastors must spend substantial time building relationships with the people in the church if they want to enjoy a productive ministry.

It's also important to know that these relationships impact any change efforts that may be suggested.  One of the first things people want to know when a change is suggested is how will it affect the relationships that exist in the church.  A pastor once invited me to speak to the church about its future.  He felt the church may have no more than ten years left if it didn't change some things and begin to reach new people.  I preached and offered to assist them in identifying some changes they might need to make.  After the service we had a Q&A time which went well until one older lady said, "I was excited about what you were saying until you said if we make changes we might lose some of the people we now have.  When you said that, I looked around and didn't see anyone I was willing to give up."  When she said that I noticed several others shaking their heads in agreement, and I knew they were not going to be open to even looking at change.

To build the relationships you need to enjoy a productive ministry in a small church you have to be willing to stay there.  As most of you know, I served as the bivocational pastor of our small church for twenty years.  Our church enjoyed some very positive ministry especially later in my pastorate.  I've often said the only thing I can take credit for was that I stayed there long enough to build relationships with the people.  We learned to trust one another, to forgive one another, and to work together to accomplish wonderful things for the Kingdom of God.  We laughed together, we cried together, we worked together and played together like a family.  We were family.

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