Ever since Arlin J. Rothauge published Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry1 in 1983, mainline Protestants have been using the terms family,pastoral, program, and corporation to identify congregations by size, starting with the smallest.2 A sociological axiom underlying this typology is that size determines organization. Each type of congregation has its own unique leadership structure and relationship style that match its numerical size. I call this match congruence in congregational size3 and believe it is necessary for a congregation to be healthy and effective. Thus, a congregation with the numerical size of a pastoral church will be dysfunctional with the leadership structure or relationship style of a family church.

“Aha!” Moments
In my work as consultant and leadership trainer for congregations in transition, I have come to expect “Aha!” moments when I describe family and pastoral churches to clergy and lay leaders of those congregations. However, those moments do no occur as frequently with leaders of program and corporation churches. “We have the numerical size of a program or corporation church,” they say, “but our relationship style and our leadership structure are really more like a pastoral church.”

I encounter such identify confusion primarily among leaders of congregations with Sunday attendance above 150 and below 1,000. Leaders of congregations with attendance over that number seem confortable with the leadership structure and relationship style of a corporation church.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the confusion in the 150 to 1,000 range is that congregational leaders attempting transitions from pastoral to program size encounter frustration and failure because they do not fully understand what they seek to become. A transition in size is not so much about congregation as it is about changing the ways they are in active relationships.

Leaders of program and corporation churches (as well the leaders of pastoral churches seeking to become program churches) need to understand that members must have opportunities to be in relationships in different ways and in multiple groups, whereas members of family and pastoral congregations can relate to each other in a single way and in one group. It is not a matter of personal preference or of superimposed congregational design. It is simply that the human capacity for active relationships is limited to certain group sizes.

Congregational Building Blocks
Using information about group size based on anthropological research,4 I defined three basic building blocks that are used to construct all congregations. Family and pastoral congregations, consisting of a single cell, use only one of the building blocks. Program and corporation congregations, consisting of multiple cells, use all three building blocks in various configurations.

Small Group. The smallest building block is the small group, with 12 to 15 people. It is in this setting that relationships of the greatest intimacy and mutual care and support occur. Anthropologists call the small group a “sympathy group,”5 based on the fact that most people, when asked to list the people for whom they will profoundly grieve when they die, list about 12 family members and friends; rarely does the list exceed fifteen.

We almost never see a true small group in family or pastoral congregations. However, it is an important building block for program and corporation churches. In such churches the small groups consist of people who gather for study or prayer, for mutual support (single parents or bereaved or recently divorced people), and the like. Each group has its own leader, who serves as both convener of meetings and connecting agent between meetings.

Family Group. The next building block is the family group, which is larger than the small group but has no more than 50 people. In other settings, this is sometimes called a “primary group.” An intergenerational unit that functions like a family, this group entrusts its leadership to respected elders. Members receive rights and priviledges based on their age, relationship to the elders, family position, and often gender. The family group may be an actual extended family, a clan whose members are related by birth and marriage, or a sort of tribe, with more than one extended family. It even may be a group of unrelated people formed by common circumstances that continues over time.

The family church is a stand-alone family group. Pastoral churches usually do not have family groups, but they are crucial building blocks for both program and corporation congregations. The early worship service in larger congregations is often a family group, as is the choir, the corps of Sunday school teachers, the youth group, and the Sunday morning Bible class.

Fellowship Group. The third building block is the fellowship group, which is larger than the primary group but has no more than 150 members. In other settings it is called a “community group” or “village group.” Anthropologist Robin Dunbar6 determined that this is the largest possible group in which human beings can be in active relationship with each other.

dunbar believes that in primates, the number of relationships an individual can manager is primarily the consequence of neocortex size. The neocortex portion of the human brain, although significantly larger than that of other primates, is only large enough to handle the complexities of active relationships in a group of less than 150 people. Other primates cannot manage this many.

When the group is at its maximum size, most of the members of the group need a facilitator who can help them maintain their many active relationships. Members seem most comfortable when the group numbers around 100—perhaps the ideal fellowship group size.

The pastoral church is a stand-alone fellowship group. The pastor facilitates the relationships of the group members, making it easy for them to be in active relationships with the others, even if they do not have complete knowledge of all the active relationships in the group.

Obviously, the fellowship group cannot exist in the family church, but it is a building block for program and corporation churches. The principal worship services in many program and corporation churches are fellowship groups, with worshipers having active relationships only with those at their particular service. Another fellowship group in program and corporation congregations includes the children and teachers in the Sunday school.

A program church, depending on its size, may be constructed of 10 to 20 small groups, fewer than 10 family groups, and only two or three fellowship groups.

A corporation church has more of each type of building block. The fellowship groups and family groups in corporation churches enjoy high levels of autonomy to manage their affairs, possessing many characteristics of completely independent mini-congregations within the larger church. Each of the main worship services may be subdivided into two or more fellowship groups whose identities are shaped by activities other than worship. Further, a significant number of worshipers are not in active relationships with other members of the congregation. Unique to a corporation church is a fellowship group that has total responsibility for a major activity, such as the operation of a hospital in an economically undeveloped country.

It is easy to understand the single-cell structure of the family church and the pastoral church. On the other hand, the program church and the corporation church, consisting of multiple cells, are highly complex. It is probably true that no two of these churches assemble their building blocks in the sa
me way.

When church leaders of congregations in the 150 to 1,000 weekly attendance range see that their churches consist of three building blocks in various configurations, some of the identity confusion subsides. They start to realize that they must change their leadership structure and relationship style to be more appropriate to program and corporation churches and that they need to create new groups of different sizes for members to be in active relationships. Similarly, when the leaders of congregations seeking a transition becomes not just a matter of increasing membership or starting a new and different worship service, but of changing the ways existing and prospective members of the congregation are in active relationships.

This article was adapted from Size Transitions in Congregations. Copyright © 2001 by The Alban Institute, Inc.. To order, call 1-800-486-1318, ext. 244.

1. New York: Seabury Press, for the Education and Ministry Office of the Episcopal Church.
2. Family: average weekly worship attendance of up to 50; pastoral: 51-150; program: 151-350; corporation: 351+.
3. Theodore William Johnson, Congruence and Transitions in Congregational Size (Evanston, Ill.: A thesis submitted to the faculty of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Development, 2000).
4. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000).
5. C. J. Buys and K. L. Larsen, “Human Sympathy Groups,” Psychology Reports 45 (1979), pp. 547-53 (cited by Gladwell).
6. “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution 20 (1992), pp. 469-93 (cited by Gladwell).