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Lessons From Larger Churches

By John Balchin.

Although a few have the privilege under God of seeing a church grow until it reaches the 400-500 mark (which, in England, qualifies it as a 'larger church'), most of us would find ourselves in a position of ministering in such a situation as a sort of promotion. We have probably done a decent job elsewhere in a smaller fellowship, and as a result we had been invited to take over a larger one, often without realising just what we have taken on. Most who have followed this route would admit to being somewhat unprepared for the culture shock of moving from a smaller to a larger congregation. For although there are now more Free Church assistant ministers in this country, as there have always been Anglican curates, even those who have worked out their apprenticeship in that way had not always done so in the context of a larger congregation. This means that very rarely, if ever, do we get any specific training for the job. Hence for most it becomes a matter of climbing a very steep learning curve when we get there!

Something we have to learn quickly, or it will puzzle us until the end of our ministry, is that larger churches do not operate like smaller churches writ large. This, of course, is one of the reasons for frustration on the part of some church members who have moved from a smaller to a larger church, let alone those of us in the ministry. They discover, as we do, that a different dynamic operates within churches over a certain size.

At the very lowest level, we cannot get away with some things in a larger church which in a small congregation would pass unmentioned. Larger churches, for example, demand a higher standard of professionalism in ministry. There must be consistency in worship, preaching and the programmes on offer. Particularly in the 'preaching centre' type of church, the minister cannot have a 'bad Sunday'. He is expected to deliver high-quality ministry week by week. This may be no bad thing, but is likely to put great pressure on junior and less experienced members of the team.

More seriously, some larger churches are trying to operate with a small church structure, and then they wonder why they have problems. If it is to maintain its efficiency, as a church gets larger, it must of necessity become more Presbyterian in its government - that is, the church fellowship has to delegate a good deal of the responsibility for actually running the church and its activities to smaller teams. This may be perfectly acceptable in some traditions, but it comes hard in those where great emphasis has been put on congregational participation. For example, in a larger church, it is simply not realistic to expect every item of church business to come before a church meeting. Unless someone (or some persons) have the executive responsibility to deal with routine issues and to make decisions as those issues arise, progress, if any, will be painfully slow.

It is equally possible for ministers of larger churches to operate unwittingly with a small church mentality. We are usually trained to pastor smaller congregations. For example, we are, traditionally at any rate, expected to know all our members well, and to be on hand whenever they need us. When we arrive in a larger church, we discover that it takes us all our time to know just the names of our people, let alone to be intimately involved in all of their lives. All this seriously affects our personal expectations of just how much we should or should not be doing, usually leading to a lack of time and energy and frequently to a sense of guilt and failure when our only failure has been that we have not re-adjusted our sights.

Of course, as in all churches, but particularly in larger ones, what we inherit is extremely important, and in particular, the congregation's expectation of its new leader. Just how much scope they are prepared to give their minister varies from church to church, and will often be affected by the performance of those who have gone before us. Some of us have to live with the achievements and the failures of former ministers. If the congregation has grown to value the ministry through the good work of our predecessors, we will find ourselves far better placed to do our job than in a situation where the ministry has been under-valued and unappreciated. In some situations we will find that the deference given to the minister and his views can be somewhat unnerving, even embarrassing! In others we have to work hard to build trust from scratch.

Again, it is one thing to inherit well-oiled machinery and efficient staff, and quite another where the situation has fallen apart during the lengthy interregna which are all too common, alas, in larger Free Churches. Even the best churches tend to fray at the edges somewhat during a hiatus in leadership, while others go through positive crises of identity. Some of us have been faced with the task of restructuring church leadership and administration so that our successors at least will have a better start than we did.

What we inherit also has a bearing on what we decide we want our church to be. Every church finds itself in a different situation with differing opportunities which we have to assess on arrival. However, there is frequently an even greater inertia in a larger church than in many smaller fellowships. After all, it is larger than average, and it will often have had a glorious history and effective ministry in the past. Consequently, we will be expected by many to work hard just in order to maintain the situation as it always has been, so that we can hand it on intact to our successors. Actually that in itself is no small feat! With a large turnover of membership in some places, standing still is an achievement!

If, however, we want to see our church develop, we need to ask ourselves in what ways. Do we want to just grow even larger? Or do we need to think in terms of church plants? Is it time for some radical departure from the past as far as policy is concerned? Or do we want it to grow deeper, with the accent on fellowship and involvement? A great deal will depend on where the church is at spiritually when we arrive (and some things will depend on where the church is at geographically). Much will also depend on our own particular pattern of gift. We can only give what we have been given. We need to work with the reassurance that if it is God's will for us to be there, then logically, and in spite of personal misgivings at times, we may assume that what the church needs just then is what God has gifted us to give, which may be very different from our predecessors or from the person who comes after us. And of course, as in every church, there will be some things which we will dream of doing all through our ministry there, but which we will have to leave to our successors.

Another difference from smaller churches with which we have to contend is the fact that larger churches inevitably involve team ministry. Leading a team is actually a matter of people management, for both full-time and spare time team members. We have to learn, sometimes the hard way, that delegation without guilt is essential for survival. Having been used to doing most things ourselves, we now have to share real responsibility with others. If we do not, we ourselves become a bottleneck for the growth and development of the church. For example, in spite of my pastoral training, I now have to get used to seeing a great deal of the pastoral work done by others: or again, having been used to handling the bulk of the teaching and training myself, I now find I simply do not have the time or energy to sustain that kind of ministry in all its various forms.

Delegation can be particularly difficult if the church has grown to its present size under our ministry. Over the years, I have had too many curates and assistant ministers telling me of their frustration in working for a boss who still wants to do everything himself. Delegation involves implicit trust, something we have to bear in mind when appointing staff. Can we trust them with real responsibility? And if they are inexperienced, have we realistically the time to train them? It also involves humility in that we have to recognise that others have gifts and ministries which we do not, and that if we are prepared to allow them to grow and develop, they will not be a threat to us, rather their work will complement our own. The great privilege of this situation, of course, is that it allows us to play to our strengths, and to concentrate on doing what we are best at.

The obverse of all this is open, clear communication. Although we may not be able to do everything we once did, senior ministers must have a global view of everything that is going on. Even though they must be prepared to give away work and allow others to take the initiative, they must not be taken by surprise, something which requires a measure of real administrative ability. They have to be able to keep several balls in the air simultaneously without dropping them. Hence the need for regular, formal and informal, debriefing of the team.

In larger churches, communication generally can be a major challenge. It is relatively easy to communicate with the church as a whole if the membership is small. With a large church it is almost physically impossible to get them all together in one place at one time! Hence letting people know what is going on becomes a continual challenge, and that means not merely sharing your vision or informing them of the multi-faceted programme. There is a need to be continually introducing the church to itself. Church officers, church workers, members and missionaries need repeated naming and describing.

Larger churches, however, offer tremendous opportunities! When well structured, belonging to a larger church need not be the spectator sport it is sometimes perceived to be. In terms of resources, cash, workers and the wide variety of programmes which these things make possible, leading a large church can be an exciting and fulfilling challenge. It needs hardly to be said that, along with large congregations, there is an imperative need for some sort of cell structure (though it need not necessarily be a cell church). There must be home groups, task groups, and varied opportunities which give both the long-standing member and the newcomer easy access to real fellowship. At the same time, our very size allows for those who wish to remain anonymous while they sort through their faith or lack of it.

In these days when we have been repeatedly told that small is beautiful, and that larger churches are dinosaurs, I do not believe that we have to apologise for the larger congregations. Having been a minister of both large and smaller fellowships, I believe that small is only beautiful sometimes. At other times it would be far better for some of our small and struggling causes to get together, sink their differences, to merge their resources and enjoy the blessings of size.

As a postscript, and more seriously for the minister of a larger church, the sad fact is that the more we influence, the more we can harm. One of the subtle temptations involved in the position of leaders of large churches is to become spiritually complacent, or to give ourselves airs, when all the time we who minister in this way are nothing more than ordinary sinners being saved, but to whom God has given a particular task and particular gifts. In that sense, to whom much is given, from him will much be required. The opportunities are certainly greater, but the responsibilities and temptations are greater too.

The Revd Dr John Balchin is currently Senior Minister of Above Bar Church, Southampton. He was previously minister of two smaller churches, a tutor at London Bible College, and Senior Minister of Purley Baptist Church, Surrey.

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You are reading Lessons From Larger Churches by John Balchin, part of Issue 18 of Ministry Today, published in February 2000.

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