Mission Possible


On February 3, 60 friends and members of our congregation gathered at the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst for a visioning retreat with the Rev. Paul Nickerson. We celebrated the growth our church has experienced, even as we explored strategies for how we might sustain and build on that growth. In a nutshell, Paul explained that there are three basic types of churches: family size (up to 50 in worship), pastoral size (50-150 in worship), and program size (150 and up). These churches all operate in distinct ways, so whenever a church grows or shrinks down to the next size it needs to adapt in order to function in a healthy way. 


When I began here in Hadley we were a small pastoral sized church with an average of 60 people in worship. Although we were nearing the tipping point between pastoral size and family size, with the energy a new pastor brings, we were able to rally and grow. Our committee structure and our understanding of the role of a pastor were well suited to our circumstance. In a pastoral size church, as the name implies, much of the ministry and life of the church revolves around the pastor. Boards and committees arrange and oversee the day to day working of the congregation while the pastor maintains a close personal relationship with individuals and oversight of all committees. In a pastoral size church everyone knows everyone else, if not by name at least by face, and it’s easy to spot new people. 


Here in Hadley, we have functioned so well as a pastoral sized church that we are now at the other end of the spectrum, ready to make the transition from pastoral to program size. However, it is well documented that this is the hardest transition for a church to make. Paul explained that when a church approaches that 150 mark, the strain on the pastor and the committee structure becomes untenable. As Alice Mann explains in Raising the Roof


the pastor can no longer carry around the whole system in his or her head. There are too many individual pastoral needs to track. The relationships among projects and leaders are becoming too complex to be coordinated solely through board discussion and pastoral diplomacy.


Simply put, a church must adapt its expectations and structure or it will quickly burn out its pastor and leaders, but successfully negotiating this transition is very tricky. For one thing, most pastors (myself included) are trained with the pastoral model in mind. For another, most congregants like their church the way it is. Adaptive change can feel like it is robbing them of precisely those parts of their church they love and value the most, and so to stall or prevent the transition from occurring members will either direct their grief/anger at the pastor and drive the pastor out, or cause a conflict in the church that drives a large number of people away. The church then shrinks back down to the size it was before the pastor came, and the whole process begins again. 


Paul gave us several reasons why we want to avoid this scenario. On a very practical note he explained that it is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible for pastoral size churches to maintain both a full time clergy person and an aging building. Successfully negotiating the transition to program size will help us do both. 


But on a spiritual level, Paul called us back to our true purpose and mission as a church.  He reminded us that the church does not exist solely for the benefit and comfort of its members, but to equip its members to love and serve the world. He explained that the church at large has gotten lulled into the mistaken impression that our purpose is to maintain the institution for the sake of our members. In fact a recent survey by church growth consultant Win Arn found that 85% of Christians believe that "the church exists to serve my needs and the needs of my family." He coined the term “Bib Christians,” to describe these folks, because they come to a church expecting to be fed, cared for, and served. They approach church membership much as one would approach membership in a health club. That is, they pay their dues (their weekly offering) and then expect the services, equipment, and staff of the club/church to be at their disposal. “Members may bring a guest on occasion, but only those who pay their dues have a right to the use of the facilities and the attention of the staff” (Michael Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, p 15).


In order for a church to be vital, not in terms of numbers but in terms of being true to Christ’s mission, we need to take those bibs from beneath our chins and tie them around our waists like aprons. We need to cultivate a church culture where our members are more focused on serving then being served; a church where the role of the pastor, our corporate worship, our organization and our programs are all focused on raising up disciples of Christ who are spiritually equipped and encouraged to be a blessing to others. 


Our mission is not to keep our members comfortable but to help them be faithful to Christ’s call to love and serve the world. Vital churches cultivate the same spirit of radical hospitality and openness that Jesus displayed, welcoming all, loving all, and pouring ourselves out for the sake of others. (They also, on a practical note, do whatever it takes to create more parking ; )


As Paul’s message to us began to sink in he encouraged us to envision what our church could look like in the next five years. People were inspired and began to envision our church as an increasingly diverse, open, connected, and useful place. He mentioned a book called “Challenging the Church Monster” that can help us figure out how to restructure our organization, and I’m pleased to report that members of the Church Council already have it in hand. He said that we need to staff for the future and gave us some strategies for freeing up the pastor’s time such that I can be out in the community bringing in more people even as we empower the people already here to minister to one another. He explained that pledges will lag behind numerical growth for a while but will eventually catch up. And finally, he encouraged us to move through this transition as quickly as possible because this is an intensely uncomfortable place for a congregation to be.


Needless to say, it was a very full and productive time, and as I think about the work that lies before us I trust that we can and will adapt. Why am I so hopeful, given that so few churches do? Because deep down I believe that the change we are experiencing is Spirit driven and Spirit led, and as your pastor I pledge to do everything in my power, through preaching and teaching, prayer and loving guidance, to keep us open, on track, and true to that Spirit. 


My first prayer is that you will join me in this that we might step up together and boldly follow where Christ is calling us to go. May it be so.


In peace and with great hope,


Pastor Sarah