My ministerial resume can be summed up fairly well in three phrases: a suburban church, an inner-city church, and a small-town church. As dizzying as that varied list may sound, I feel fortunate to have had such a variety of experience. If pushed to identify which of these contexts was the most challenging, however, I would single out the inner-city congregation, First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, as the most strenuous of the three. Such realities as our being located in a transitional neighborhood, the general shift in focus from downtown to suburbs in terms of population growth and energy, and dynamics having to do with aging (of the congregation and the building) all most certainly came into play. But size, in terms of both the congregation and the physical plant, was perhaps the key issue for me.
First Baptist’s history is hardly unlike any “first” church in any large city. I’m sure you know the story quite well: Downtown congregation grows. Downtown church expands building. Downtown congregation dwindles. Large building remains. As I have heard the many accounts of the congregation’s “glory days,” browsed the archives, and gotten hopelessly lost in the church’s cavernous halls, I have concluded that the church complex of my former parish must have been built during an era when most senior pastors lived by the adage, “A building program is the sign that God’s Spirit is at work in your church.” (Judging from the monstrosities that continue to be built today in God’s name, maybe such a notion lives on.)
I have often wondered, while marveling at that particular church building’s expansiveness, if the place was ever fully occupied. “Only briefly,” some of the resident church historians have told me. Unforeseen demographic changes, not to mention church controversies, soon served to render the voluminous space unnecessary.
Since there continues to be no such thing in congregational life as a demolition program (imagine how long a pastor would last after raising that prospect at the next business meeting!), many large-building congregations are forced to continue to trudge along, burdened by exorbitant maintenance costs. Today, the plumbing has failed up on the third floor. Tomorrow, air conditioning units number 34 and 41 will give up the ghost. Next month, either the sanctuary roof will need to be re-shingled or a drip-catching paper cup system will need to be “installed” around the pulpit!
“And I Saw a Great Beast”
John must have seen something a lot more formidable in his Revelation than brick and mortar, but for those putting together church budgets each fall, the costs of keeping up the physical plant are likewise beastly specters. Such realities prompt all sorts of questions in my mind around the issue of stewardship. How can we continue to spend so much of the funds God has entrusted to us on buildings? When is a skyrocketing maintenance budget simply too much? Just because you can afford to build—and to keep up your large building—should you? The world’s people are crying out for food, medical care, and an economic “hand up.” There are undoubtedly people in our own communities who struggle to pay the light bill, and who must conclude, while gazing up at hundred-foot spires (or crosses), that the Christian faith is more about empire building than sharing tangible love.
And let’s face it, aren’t there other options for the overbuilt church? How about selling off church buildings that no longer meet the needs of particular congregations but have instead become financial “millstones,” actually serving to prevent congregations from fulfilling the call God extends to them today? I’m not suggesting here that an inner-city church hang out the white flag and flee to the “’burbs.” It may be possible to purchase a smaller, more efficient structure that is also located downtown, if that remains the church’s locus of Spirit-confirmed ministry. Such a change, while difficult and potentially controversial, may in fact enable the congregation to experience new life with a more profound witness and the financial ability to carry out its mission.
By the same token, for those congregations seriously considering upgrading to megachurch “digs,” I would offer a cautionary word. The popularity of particular congregations rises and falls with the fickle tastes of human beings, real estate cycles, and pastoral personalities. (While I have known this to be particularly true in the Bible Belt, the same may also be applied to other regions of the country.) I have seen the “in” church (with all of the “bigger barns” invested in a decade or so ago) become the “out” church in a matter of months. The result, regrettably enough, is staff transition, financial crisis, and, in dire circumstances, buildings that become stone-cold mausoleums. Why not move to having multiple worship services, home cell groups, or planting a new congregation in another part of town rather than undertaking a multi-million-dollar building program? In light of the needs that call to us both near and far, from the standpoint of stewardship and Biblical priority, I have a tough time justifying such an extreme expenditure.
While the sheer size of church edifices begs all sorts of very practical questions, as suggested above, large congregations also pose a myriad of pastoral challenges. Let’s now get personal about the ministry dynamics inherent in large congregations.
I have to admit, in retrospect, that when I first began to explore a move to a much larger church family and ministerial staff, I rather naively assumed that I could smoothly transition from solo pastor generalist to senior pastor specialist. I thought that a large staff would free up my time for preaching, teaching, and otherwise leading. I imagined from afar that, rather than having to do it all, I could invest my time in a few particular aspects of ministry. Well, guess where I ended up focusing my time and energy? On the ministerial staff! While clergy literature encourages senior pastors to replace the attention they once gave to the entire small congregation with enabling the work of the staff of the large congregation, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of time this required. And in our particular context and circumstances, I also had the dubious honor of having to downsize the entire church staff by 50 percent! Imagine the time and energy that facilitating that difficult transition took, both in handling congregational politics and exercising compassion in my relationships with staff, both those who left and those who remained.
I somehow expected that, with the significant staff support that was still in place, I would be able to leave behind the heavy administrative and organizational responsibilities of my solo pastor days, and instead concentrate on things I loved. This was not to be. Two realities stared me in the face: One, there is only so much time given us in a certain week. Preparation for sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, funerals, and weddings, while enjoyable and rewarding to a point, occupied an amazing amount of my time. Two, administration merely grows in proportion to the size of the institution. While we had in our employ a very competent church administrator, there were some substantial issues and projects that I simply could not hand off. And, as in a smaller church, it was still necessary to attend an array of important meetings (with the deacons, trustees, finance committee, and personnel committee, to name a few).
A related naive expectation was that a large ministerial staff would afford me the opportunity to do quality praying, reflecting, and visioning, but this did not happen with any consistency. Perhaps my priorities were out of whack, or I simply was not disciplined enough to take regular time for retreats away from the office (a must if one expects to achieve any depth of reflection or visioning). Any visioning I did accomplish was squeezed in on my days off, when recreational diversion probably would have been the healthier personal option.
Ministers, as human beings, are limited by space and time. While this is the case in every ministerial context, this truth must become the mantra of every senior pastor of a sizable congregation. In this context, ministry must become more representational than personal. For instance, in the smaller church family the pastor does pastoral care directly. She goes to the hospital, spends time with the family, and offers the prayer. In a larger context, the senior pastor simply can’t cover all of the pastoral care needs personally. And if one picks and chooses, favoritism (whether deliberate or otherwise) becomes the charge.
Representational ministry requires that pastoral care be done en masse. Identifying the hurts and needs of the congregation in general and at arms length must replace the hands-on approach. Acknowledging those who have passed away over the past year, say, in the course of an All Saints Day worship service, or as part of a Memorial Day service, would take the place of phoning all of the bereaved, not to mention visiting each of them in their homes. Significant changes in one’s orientation are a must if large church ministry is the choice.
Having said that, it concerns me that large church pastors—as well as some others—who do not spend time with people in the church who are hurting, have little idea how to preach and teach and lead their particular congregations. Preaching requires a visceral connection with people and their needs. Otherwise, whether evangelical or mainline, contemporary or traditional, pulpit activity is merely conceptual, just empty theory.
As a pastor who thrives on personal ministry, who wants to know everyone’s name and be able to be with them in their times of joy and sorrow, large church ministry presented me with a dilemma. The impossible choice was between limiting the exercise of my gifts of pastoral care for the sake of time management or continuing to pastor individuals to the detriment of best fulfilling other responsibilities. In certain respects, I continued to pastor as if the church were smaller. This certainly enlivened my preaching! But it left me pulled in far too many directions. And, while satisfying to me and eagerly received by the congregation, this was not the ideal way to lead the church. I could do the work. I was well loved and respected. But I knew I was not at my best. Which leads to the question of whether pastoring a large church fits everyone.
“How are you wired up?”
No, the large church context is not appropriate for everyone. The adage, “Bigger is better” (which Jesus seemed to refute in his parables), has led to the expectation that one should increase the size of the congregation to be served in tandem with one’s age and years of ministerial experience. “Moving up” to a bigger church is seen as a kind of promotion. This should not be the case. Depending on one’s gifts, orientation, and preferences, the smaller congregation might be the context of choice.
Such questions as, “Do you prefer to know everybody’s name?” “Do you prefer to be a solo act?” “Are you more of a generalist?” and “How do you feel about investing in a staff rather than the congregation as a whole?” might serve as a starting point as one considers the alternatives. While I have serious misgivings about the stewardship issues inherent in large institutional churches, and while representational ministry has its potential pitfalls, there are many senior pastors who thrive in the large church context. I have decided, however—after having a taste of large church ministry—that, personally, it’s just not for me.
I treasure my time with that particular larger congregation. I love the people I left behind. I do not, however, miss the budgeting challenges of maintaining an historic building that covers an entire city block. I do not miss the dissonance I experienced in being able neither to do it all nor to sufficiently specialize. Having learned a great deal more about ministry and about myself in the process of serving a large church, I now truly celebrate the pastoring opportunities daily afforded me by the smaller church. I have found my place.