No one is hiding anything from you.
There was a long season of ministry in which I had to tell myself that a lot. I had gone through a near breakdown after trying, but failing, to see the kind of growth in our church that I had been assured was inevitable if I only did the right things.
I spent decades working, praying, and learning how to be a better pastor. In addition to that, I learned and applied every church growth method I could find. In a three- to four-year span, the church grew—fast—from just under 200 to almost 400 in about 18 months. Then, faster than it had grown, it went into free fall. In less than a year we had far fewer people attending than before the explosive growth had started.
There was no visible reason why. I don’t know how small we ended up being. . .let’s just say, I didn’t need an attendance sheet to see there were fewer than 100 people in front of me on Sunday.
I almost left the church and the pastoral ministry during that season. Instead, I found health and healing with the help of God, my family, a great counsellor, and some extraordinarily loving and forgiving church leaders and members.
It took me years to discover why the free fall happened. Some of it was because of strategic errors we made that any church growth expert could have spotted, but mostly the cause was one only I could have seen, yet missed entirely.
During the church’s short, but fast season of growth, I was spiritually and emotionally unhealthy and unhappy, but I didn’t know it.
When Bigger Isn’t Healthier
To move the church through the 200 barrier, I did what I needed to do. I shifted from being a shepherd/pastor to being a coordinator/manager. But it turns out I’m not built for that.
I’m called to pastor people, not to manage systems. So, even though I made the necessary growth transition willingly, even successfully, I was spending almost all my ministry hours doing tasks that I disliked or wasn’t called to and that sucked my soul dry.
Eventually, others started sensing that something was off, even if they couldn’t put their finger on it, so they filtered out to other churches and our numbers started to fall.
The underlying reality is that you can’t build a healthy church under the leadership of an emotionally unhealthy pastor. During the season when we were growing from 200 to 400 I was miserable, but I didn’t realize it, because the church’s numerical success was hiding my misery from me. After all, how can a pastor be miserable with that kind of growth happening over such a short period of time?
Today, I thank God every day that he stepped in and did not allow the church to keep getting bigger. If it had, I might not have noticed my own increasingly toxic emotional and spiritual state until I found myself burnt out or worse. I might have ended up being one of the pastors you know about for all the wrong reasons, the one who sabotaged his life, family, and ministry over a moral failing that leaves people shaking their heads and wondering “why?”
Now, when I hear of the “fall” of an otherwise gifted and sincere pastor, I have nothing but sympathy. If the church had kept going the way I wanted, that could have been me. Instead, for reasons I will never understand, but will always be grateful for, God spared me, my church, and my family from that grief by using those collapsing attendance numbers to stop my spiritual and emotional downward slide, wake me up, and force me to find another way to do pastoral ministry.
Digging For Small Church Truffles
It was during that healing season that I began to explore the foreign, almost exotic idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s a way for a church to be healthy and small. But I had to dig for that truth myself.
At first, the search for a different model of church health was exhilarating. I discovered so many ways that small churches can be strong, missional, and vibrant! Then I got frustrated. As I scrambled for morsels of truth about healthy small churches, I felt like a pig digging for truffles. The treasure was great when I found it, but the search was often unpleasant, to say the least.
If so many churches are even smaller than the small church I was pastoring, why did I have to search so hard to find them? Why weren’t these principles front-and-center in every seminary, church leadership conference, and book?
Then I got mad. After one particular “aha” discovery, I found myself yelling at an empty room, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this?!”
That’s when I had to reassure myself, “No one is hiding anything from you.” That’s just how truffles grow. . .in the dirt and waiting to be discovered and shared. That’s what makes them so valuable.
No one is hiding small church essentials from anyone. They just can be hard to find.
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