In the big church down the street, this year’s plans were drawn up many months ago. The January sermon series has been running promos for weeks so they can take advantage of the huge Christmas attendance bubble. The annual budget was approved months ago, needing only minor tweaks from the pastor’s five-year vision.
Meanwhile, in most small churches, the pastor will be doing the Saturday Night Scramble again after working a secular job all week. The Christmas bubble? It was a bust. And the only thing we know about the annual budget – if we have one – is that it we’ll have to get by with less this year than we did last year.
Is that why small churches stay small? Or is there something else going on?
Certainly, there are churches that stay small because of incompetence in both planning and execution. It would be naïve not to acknowledge that. But that’s not the case for most small churches.
Small church pastors are just as passionate, wise, hard-working and called by God as our big church counterparts. But long-term planning is harder to do in a small church. And there are very few resources to help us do it better.
That's not an excuse. It’s a reality.
So why is annual planning harder in small churches? Here are five reasons:
1. Small Churches Are That Different
Large crowds behave more consistently than small groups. The bigger the crowd, the more you can predict their needs and their reactions. So you can plan with a relative degree of certainty.
But the smaller the church, the less predictably it behaves. And the harder it is to plan for.
Not only are small churches different from big churches. Small churches are very different from each other. What works for one may not work for another.
2. Small Changes Have Big Impact
In a small church, minor events have massive impact.
For instance, every church should have an annual budget. But that budget can becomes useless if one or two givers get laid-off or transferred out of town. Or if a water pipe bursts.
The same thing can happen with your children’s ministry, worship leading, youth group and so on. In a big church, people can come and go with barely a ripple to the overall church. But in a small church the addition, subtraction or change in plans of just one person or family can cause massive changes that you can never adequately prepare for.
3. Who’s Got the Time?
If you don’t take the time to plan, it will cost you far more time in the long run. Only a fool would argue against that principle.
So yes, planning will save you time. But first, it will cost you time.
That’s why a lot of small church pastors – especially my bivocational peers – often find it easier and quicker to do things on the fly. We know we shouldn’t. And we don’t want to. But finding the time now so I can save time later can seem almost impossible.
In small churches, short-term urgency wins the day over long-term planning almost every time.
4. Who’s Got the Volunteers?
Once the planning Is done, someone has to implement it.
Most big churches can hire people to execute and oversee the implementation of plans. But in small churches, all the work has to be done by volunteers. And the only person to oversee them is usually the already-overworked pastor.
Like in the previous point, we know it’s easier and better to train volunteers for the long term. But that long-term payoff requires a whole lot of time and energy right now.
Finding, convincing, recruiting, training and overseeing volunteers for a long-term plan that may have to change mid-stream (see Point 2, above) is really hard. That’s why there are so many small church pastors who, despite knowing better, do it themselves year after year.
5. Most Planning Ideas Are From a Big Church Context
I’ve heard a lot of great ideas about long-term church planning.
Almost none of them have worked for me.
The advice isn’t bad. It’s worked in many churches. But it’s almost never based on ideas that have worked in small churches.
For instance, I’ve read great ideas about how to run staff meetings better, how to take a few weeks away to plan an annual preaching schedule, and more.
But in the average small church there is no staff. And the idea of taking a few days away for sermon prep? I can hear the laughter of my fellow small church pastors from here. Especially the bivocational ones.
Small church pastors need long-term planning ideas designed for small churches.
Better Annual Planning Is Possible
Now for some good news.
There is hope.
Despite these challenging realties, small churches can do annual planning better.
For one idea of how to do this, check out The 3-2-1 System for Better Annual Small Church Planning.
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