How was church attendance yesterday?
In our church, we started the first service with more people on stage than in the audience.
It filled in to a normal summer crowd later, but for a while it was looking rough.
That’s the way attendance is in a small church. You can have a 50 percent drop one Sunday, then a 100 percent increase the next for almost any or no reason.
The smaller the church, the bigger the attendance swings are. That makes events harder to plan, conduct and assess.
The bigger the church, the less severe the attendance percentage swings are, so they can plan for events much more easily.
And when you get to megachurch size, there’s very little up-and-down variance in week-to-week attendance figures. Aside from special days, most of which can be anticipated, big churches know what a typical Sunday’s attendance will look like.
When a big church says they average 1,000 people on a weekend, they’ll have 900-1,000 people every time. So they know how many leaders they’ll need, how many bulletins to print up, how many ushers to have an hand, and so on.
But if a small church averages 50, that can mean an attendance high of 75 or an attendance low of 25 (or fewer) on any given Sunday, depending on a variety of factors that are impossible to anticipate.
How many bulletins do you print for that? How many ushers do you have on hand? The truth is, sometimes you’ll have too many bulletins left over, and other times you’ll run out early.
So how do we lead well in such a situation? Here are 5 principles I’ve learned over the years:
1. Count church size by range, not average
A church of 50 is not a church of 50. It’s a church of 35-65. So why not acknowledge that range?
Of course, you can’t do that on your denominational report, if you have to fill one out. But you can in conversation. And you need to do that inside your own head.
If you know attendance can go anywhere from 35-65, acknowledge that and plan for variances within that range.
2. Think relationally not programmatically
Highly programmed people have a hard time in small church leadership. Highly relational people do much better.
When numbers are small, and week-to-week percentage swings are highly variable, you can’t lead with a fill-in-the-boxes mentality.
In small churches, everything is done relationally. Our planning needs to be, too.
Small church leadership is more about having conversations than planning meetings, and celebrating stories more than statistics.
3. Leave a lot of wiggle room in your plans
Most planning principles are based on exact numbers. But when you don’t have exact numbers, you can’t plan that way.
Instead of saying “we need X number of ushers, greeters or nursery attendants”, talk with the members of your church about the importance of being ready for anything at a moment’s notice.
For instance, in most small churches the need for nursery workers can vary anywhere from two or three to none on any given weekend. So sit down with those who are willing, including the parents, and lay out possible scenarios.
Ask families with kids to let you know if they’re not attending on an upcoming weekend. Have a schedule of, say, one nursery worker per week, with one or two as backups.
4. Designate a floater
You know that person who’s enthusiastic about helping, but very unreliable about actually showing up when they’re on the schedule? Don’t fight it, use it.
Make them your designated floater.
A floater is someone who is trained and ready for a handful of tasks, depending on the changing situations.
Ask that friendly, helpful, but not-so-reliable person if they’d be willing to serve as an usher, a greeter or clean-up crew on any Sunday they’re at church and you need an extra hand.
Don’t put them in charge of anything. And don’t make yourself dependent on them. But use them as backup when they’re available.
5. Don’t live and die by week-to-week numbers
This may be the most important point of all.
If you’re a planner by nature, this will be hard, but it’s necessary.
Things seldom go as planned in a small church. People don’t show up as promised, heaters die on Sunday at 7am, and worship leaders (if you have one) call in sick at the last minute.
Roll with it.
I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary for our spiritual and emotional health.
Jesus knows who will and won’t be at church this coming weekend. He’ll be there with you. And he can be honored in a service filled with last-minute change-ups just as much (sometimes more) than one that goes exactly according to our plans.
And maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all for small church leaders. Just because church didn’t go according to our plans, doesn’t mean they didn’t go according to his.
Copyright © 2018 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.