In 1983 Arlin Rothauge published Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (Episcopal Church Center) and transformed the way mainline Protestant congregations think and talk about church size. The nomenclature of family, pastoral, program, and corporate-sized congregations came into existence, shaping the way we understand leadership, growth, and assimilation in various sized congregations.

Today much is written about the uniqueness of the megachurch, a classification assigned to churches that have a weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more. In Beyond Megachurch Myths (Jossey-Bass, 2007), Scott Thumma and Dave Travis present the findings of a significant research study that examined the phenomenon of the megachurch and how these churches are organized and led. The uniqueness of the megachurch has clearly been identified and in many ways (rightly or wrongly) is shaping the aspirations and behaviors of small to midsize congregations, many of whom are convinced that they need to become like the megachurch if they are to survive.

All of this research has provided us with considerable data on how leadership, growth, and assimilation happen in congregations up to 400 and beyond 2,000 in weekly worship attendance. But what happens in between? What are the leadership, growth, and assimilation challenges faced by congregations with weekly attendance between 400 and 2,000? The lack of research and literature addressing this size range suggests that once a church has crossed the corporate size barrier, few significant adjustments in organizational strategy are required until transition into megachurch status. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Having worked with a number of these congregations in my years as a senior consultant for the Alban Institute, I have become intentional about observing and documenting the types of issues leaders face in various sized large congregations. Over time these observations have led me to new ways of thinking about size typologies in the larger church, and ultimately to a classification system that further stratifies the corporate size designation into what I call the multi-celled church, the professional church, and the strategic church. As congregations grow into and beyond the corporate size designation, I believe they pass through each of these size categories at predictable junctures by addressing particular tension points.

The reader should bear in mind that these designations are born out of an action research approach to consultation. Additional research needs to take place. In particular, the typologies introduced in this article still leave the 1,200 to 2,000 size range undefined. Further quantifiable research is also needed to determine whether or not the attendance ranges and operating budgets mentioned in this article are appropriately matched markers of the identified transition points.

It’s All About Complexity

Once a congregation passes into the size zone that has traditionally been labeled “corporate,” it is already a fairly complex organizational system. In his book One Size Doesn’t Fit All (Baker Books, 1999), Gary McIntosh talks about the large church as a multiple-cell organism where:

• There are too many people to know everyone.
• There are numerous groups, classes, and cells where people can become involved. In other words, the church is a congregation of congregations.
• Church leadership is representative of several groups, classes, and cells.

It is reasonable that congregations growing beyond this attendance level will experience continued growth in the number of groups, classes, and cells that make up its ministry. It is also reasonable to expect that organizational and leadership structures will adapt themselves in predictable ways to this ever-increasing complexity.
In my work as a consultant, I’ve found that five parts of a congregational system are affected by increasing complexity and must be adapted as medium-sized and large congregations grow larger. These are:

• the organizing principle that governs adaptation and decision making
• the foundational way in which growth and assimilation are managed
• the style of pastoral leadership that works effectively
• the way in which the staff team functions
• the identity and focus of the governing board

These five system components are predictably different for what I am referring to as the multi-celled church, the professional church, and the strategic church. Operating budget and attendance thresholds can be identified where these fundamental ways of being must be adapted in order for a congregation to maintain health and to continue a growth trajectory.

Let’s begin by talking about how complexity is measured. Rothauge’s original work on size typologies established weekend worship attendance as the definitive measure of congregational size, but there are a variety of reasons why worship attendance may not be the best measure of size and complexity in larger congregations.

In larger congregations, the size of the operating budget is probably more predictive of transition points and complexity than the level of Sunday attendance. First, the level and excellence of programming in the large congregation are indications that there are people who interact regularly as part of the congregation who may or may not be a part of the worshiping community. The larger congregation may operate a day school, extensive recovery programs, grief groups, and a variety of other program-based cell groups that increase the demands placed upon the church’s infrastructure without increasing weekend worship participation.

Second, congregations that are well endowed, or those that reside in wealthy communities, often behave “larger” than their Sunday attendance suggests. A congregation that has more money to work with will behave with a level of complexity that is characteristic of much larger attendance. Why is this? The staff team stands as the central organizing body of the large congregation. The size of the staff team is closely related to the complexity that the congregation can manage. Congregations with more money can hire more staff, thus coping with and producing higher levels of complexity. Consequently, wealthy congregations often behave like congregations with higher weekend attendance patterns. Conversely, congregations with large Sunday attendance that are budget poor tend to behave like congregations with lower attendance patterns. This is because they still have fairly simple staffing structures, which result in less organizational complexity.

The Multi-Celled Church

Congregations with annual operating budgets of between $400,000 and $1,000,000 often have between 250 and 400 people in worship attendance. This is the congregation that is learning to behave like a complex, multi-celled church, and the organizing principle that drives much of its decision making and attention is leadership development. In the multi-celled church there are never enough leaders to do the work that needs to be done to generate consistently excellent programs. This congregation is largely guided by lay leadership, and the staff team exists to support and coordinate the laity in their ministry.

The multi-celled church has already learned some things about managing multiple cell groups. However, the issue of sustained growth has to be carefully examined and evaluated by the congregation as a whole. Growth will stagnate if the congregation does not come to terms with its identity as a complex congregation where everyone doesn’t know everyone else and not everyone is cared for by the pastor. The culture of the congregation must be intentionally managed to allow for multiple congregations to reside within the same corporate body.

The assimilation challenge in the multi-celled church is about creating enough programs of excellent quality to generate a continued stream of newcomers in the life of the congregation. Many people are attracted to life in a multi-celled congregation because of the emerging quantity and quality of programs offered. The congregation that fails to develop enough new leaders to provide ongoing quality programming will stagnate and falter.

The pastor in a multi-celled congregation leads primarily through vision casting. His or her principal leadership focus involves discerning and articulating an energizing vision for the congregation, one that will hold together the growing number of operating cells. The pastor must also be able to guide congregational leaders as they translate vision into action. One pastor described the challenge this way: “The real tension exists in trying to hold the vision and helping to build the vision with others. In this setting we have emerging multiple congregations within the larger congregation. How do you both allow and recognize that those congregations have their own identity but are still rooted to the larger congregation? It’s a lot like the story of having people blindfolded and touching different parts of the elephant. You’ve got to let them have their own vision but tie it all together.”

The overwhelming challenge of the multi-celled church pastor is learning to communicate a caring presence to the congregation without being the “one” who provides care to each congregation member. This pastor is learning how to focus his or her energies on other members of the staff team and key lay leadership, who in turn are providing congregational care.

Staff members in the multi-celled church are just beginning to identify themselves as a team. Most members of the team are still generalists, serving the needs of wide constituent groups. A few specialized staff members (for example, a children’s director) have been added to the team, and the team is challenged by learning to balance and honor the role of the specialist alongside the role of the generalist.

The governing board of the multi-celled church is learning to organize its work around the mission and vision of the congregation. Lay leadership is grasping the importance of saying no to ideas that distract the congregation from its mission. The board is also largely preoccupied with the development of new lay leadership to fill the growing volume of leadership needs.

The Professional Church

The congregation with an annual operating budget of between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 and/or weekly worship attendance of between 400 and 800 is driven by the need to professionalize operations. The congregation realizes that the church’s programming has outgrown the capacity of its lay leadership. Lay leaders don’t have the time and energy necessary to both sustain excellence in existing programming and continually introduce new forms of programming, so the demand for a staff team of specialists emerges. The congregation whose budget can keep pace with the need for a specialized staff will find itself crossing over and becoming a professional church.

In the professional church, growth is related to capacity. This congregation has already come to terms with the difficult cultural work of increased complexity and decreased intimacy. Members have already embraced having multiple worship services and they have let go of the notion that everyone will know everyone else. Ideas abound in this congregation, but they are limited by the capacity of the staff team and/or the physical limitations of the facility. Consequently, the congregation’s capacity for growth is largely a function of the size of its budget.

Assimilation of new members in the professional church becomes as much about watching the back door as it is about bringing people in through the front door. The professional congregation can quickly feel anonymous to newcomers, so finding innovative ways to keep track of members and to get people to engage beyond the Sunday worship experience takes a great deal of leadership energy.

The pastor of the professional congregation is learning a more managerial style of leadership. He or she is letting go of a purely relational style of leadership. This pastor has already learned to shift the care focus of the congregation away from individuals and toward the board and staff team. The pastor still maintains a strong emphasis on vision formation but is becoming equally adept at managing the performance of the congregation through careful coordination of the work of staff team and board. He or she is figuring out how to create and sustain the performance management cycle of the congregation through goal setting, budgeting, performance review, and a coaching leadership style.

As staff members take over many of the functions previously provided by volunteers, the staff needs to find new and creative ways to actively engage the laity in the life and ministry of the congregation. The staff is increasingly moving away from a generalist orientation (associate pastor) to a specialist orientation (pastor of senior adult ministry). An executive leadership team often emerges to coordinate and guide the work of the staff team. This team may consist of select staff members or a combination of both staff and lay leaders. An administrator may be appointed in this size congregation to relieve the senior pastor from having to manage the church’s day-to-day financial, personnel, building maintenance, and information technology needs.

In the professional congregation, the governing board faces a significant adaptive challenge. Leaders who were once so instrumental in making all of the programs of the church happen must learn a more distant approach to leadership. The governing board in the professional church relinquishes the daily management of the church to the staff team. Working with the pastor on vision articulation, the governing board is instrumental in creating policy and systems for managing performance, maintaining accountability, and preventing vision drift. The board spends less time on the daily fiduciary work of the congregation and more time on strategic leadership.

The Strategic Church

Once a congregation is operating with a budget between $2,000,000 and $4,000,000 and/or average weekly attendance of 800 to 1,200, it requires a more strategic orientation. As congregations grow they develop complexly layered staffing structures, board structures, and governance practices. There are so many operating cells at work in strategic congregations that it is easy for operating cells to drift out of alignment and for tremendous energies to be wasted. For that reason the strategic congregation must align its leadership energies. Such an alignment operates much like the alignment of the wheels on a car. If these wheels are not aligned, the tires will not wear evenly, the car won’t drive smoothly, and energy will be needlessly wasted as the wheels pull against one another as each seeks to head in a similar but slightly different direction.

In the strategic church, people assume that the congregation must keep growing or it will stagnate and eventually decline. Nobody talks about whether or not the church ought to grow; growth is assumed. The congregation owns its identity as a strategic institution and expects continued growth. The work that needs to be done to continue growth (program expansions, worship excellence, etc.) is managed by the staff team of the church; it is not the missional focus of lay leadership. The nature and direction of growth must be continually managed and planned. The challenge of strategic church growth is this: the strategic congregation can excel at just about anything it focuses its energies on, but it doesn’t have the resources to excel at everything. This means strategic choices must be made.

Assimilation in the strategic church must be managed as a seamless process of membership, discipleship, gift discovery, and leadership development linked through a fully formed network of classes and/or small groups. So many program offerings exist in the strategic congregation that a new member can easily get lost in a maze of choices. Intentional paths of assimilation must be created and communicated to ensure that first-time attenders eventually become members and that members eventually step into leadership roles.

The challenge of the strategic church pastor is learning to lead with a direction-setting orientation. One pastor of a strategic church put it this way: “Whatever I pay attention to grows. If I pay too much attention to the wrong kind of conflict it will grow. If I don’t pay enough attention to a new initiative it won’t grow. I have to be extremely careful where I focus my gaze.” Similarly, the strategic church pastor must learn to say no to the wrong things so that the staff team and governing board don’t lose their focus. The strategic church pastor is always struggling to take a step back and examine the larger organizational picture. These pastors are learning to personify the mission and vision of the congregation in everything they say and do. They will often crystallize the vision of the church into articulated sound bytes that every member of the staff team and board can learn and utilize.

The staff team in the strategic church has grown so large (usually well over 20 people) that it is virtually impossible for the collective group to identify itself as a singular team. Consequently, the staff team begins to form itself into identifiable and manageable subteams (the children’s ministry team, the youth team, the administrative support team, etc.). The challenge of the staff team in the strategic church is avoiding a silo mentality, where every subteam operates as if it were the only or most important team. Program staff members are continually challenged to keep a relational focus in ministry as the administrative components of their jobs expand. Maintaining the right balance between program and administrative support staff becomes critical as the complexity of the congregation mushrooms. Oftentimes an executive minister is appointed in this size congregation. The full staff team reports to the executive minister, who effectively runs the day-to-day operations of the church so that the senior minister is free to focus exclusively on preaching, public speaking, and fundraising.

Counterintuitively, the larger and more complex a congregation becomes, the smaller the governing board that is needed to lead it well. In the strategic church, decision making is hampered by a board that has too many people on it and committee structures that have grown too complex to allow for nimble decision making. Strategic congregations often struggle to reduce the size of their decision-making bodies in ways that still genuinely represent the voice of the congregation. Leadership, in general, is learning to support the decision-making effectiveness of a smaller, trusted group of leaders. The effective governing board in the strategic church focuses on directional decision making, keeping the church focused in response to these basic questions: Who are we? What constituency do we serve? And what is God calling us to do or become? These boards exist to provide a strong support and accountability system to the senior minister and executive minister.

What It All Means

Is a church guaranteed to grow once it has learned to operate with an organizational leadership infrastructure appropriate for its size? Not necessarily, but this much is clear: The congregation that doesn’t adapt its structure and leadership approach to reflect the size congregation it wants to become has no hope of sustainable growth. And the congregation that has not been appropriately structured to manage its complexity will eventually stagnate or decline.

We still have much to learn about the dynamics of health and growth beyond “corporate.” Are there predictable indicators other than attendance and budget that would help us better identify transition moments? If operating budget is the best predictor, how do we normalize that measure so that it’s not continually outdated by inflation? What happens in congregations whose weekly attendance is between 1,200 and the megachurch attendance level of 2,000? The growing importance of the larger church on the American religious landscape increases our sense of urgency for answering these questions and understanding these congregational systems more clearly.

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