Study looks at small church challenges
Mark Kelly, Baptist Press
November 13, 2008

Study looks at small church challenges

Study looks at small church challenges
Mark Kelly, Baptist Press
November 13, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most pastors of smaller-membership Southern Baptist churches see what God is calling their congregations to be and do and have laid the groundwork for accomplishing the mission, but their efforts to lead are frustrated by “turf” battles and a failure to clarify and evaluate plans, according to a new study by LifeWay Research.

Findings of the study, published in the November/December issue of Facts & Trends, suggest that pastors could see their smaller-membership congregations make progress by evaluating church ministries, organizing to reach their goals and planning for the future. Facts & Trends is the official news magazine of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The effectiveness of local church ministry often is jeopardized by poor organization,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. “Understanding God’s calling and the context of the church is important, but leadership requires knowing where you are, knowing where you need to go and knowing how to get there. Most small-church pastors actively pursue the first two but many struggle with the third.”

The study entailed an online survey last March that included 350 pastors of congregations averaging fewer than 100 in primary worship attendance. It found, among other things, that 67 percent of small-church pastors are frustrated with how slowly progress is made at their church.

The inertia, however, isn’t for lack of trying. According to the study:

— Most pastors of small churches have assessed their church’s cultural context. Three-fourths have studied their communities. Ninety percent have examined trends in their congregation. Seventy-one percent say they try to be actively involved in their community.

— Most pastors of small churches see what God is calling their church to be and do. Ninety-four percent say they clearly see the needs, hurts and problems God is calling their church to address. Eight out of 10 have shared with the congregation a clear, compelling picture of what God is calling their church to look like several years from now.

The obstacles to missional progress, however, are familiar to every pastor. While two-thirds of the pastors surveyed indicated their church makes regular changes to improve their effectiveness, 49 percent said lay leaders in the congregation often resist change to protect their area of responsibility. One-third of them said their church had experienced disruptive conflict in the past year.

“No doubt spiritual failures hold churches back more than leadership or administrative shortcomings,” McConnell said. “Discouraging baptism and membership trends in the Southern Baptist Convention show us that change is needed in many local congregations.

“But change requires leadership,” McConnell noted. “LifeWay Research wanted to find out whether basic leadership activities are occurring in smaller Southern Baptist churches. While we found that many key activities are occurring, we were able to identify significant shortcomings in planning and process improvement.”

Many pastors of small churches candidly admitted they do not know how to lead their church where they need to go, McConnell reported.

Only 29 percent of small-church pastors strongly agreed that they have a clear plan to accomplish the things God has called their church to do. Forty-four percent agreed (strongly or somewhat) that they often don’t understand why things they try don’t work. Thirty percent agreed that they are confused about where they should invest their own time and effort.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many churches fail to plan or even evaluate their current activities, the survey revealed. Although 70 percent of the pastors said the allocation of their church budget adequately funds current objectives, 40 percent agreed their church rarely has time to step back and plan appropriately.

While more than half of pastors — 57 percent — have written a vision or mission statement adopted by their church, two-thirds rarely change who is responsible for certain work or responsibilities. Leadership in fewer than six in 10 churches regularly evaluates methods and results of events and programs.

“The survey clearly indicates that smaller-membership churches need to stop and evaluate what they are doing and who is doing it,” McConnell said. “Leaders need to develop effective plans for carrying out the work God has called their churches to do.”

Leading a church requires both vision and administrative ability, McConnell said. Many pastors, though, are much stronger in one area than the other.

“The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:28 taught that God places teachers in the church and also gives the gift of managing,” he said. “But he never promised both those gifts would be in the same person.

“Pastors who candidly assess their own strengths and weaknesses can surround themselves with leaders who have the talents that they lack,” McConnell said. “Each local church should seek out and utilize members gifted in organizing people and processes while still encouraging each other to desire the greater gifts of faith, hope and love.”

The PowerPoint report, “Leadership Issues for the Small Church,” is available at www.lifewayresearch.com. The online study was conducted in March among 801 pastors, 350 of whom were pastors of smaller-membership congregations, defined as those with an average primary worship attendance of less than 100. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +5.2 percent for the small-church sample.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.)