Why don’t more small church pastors attend church leadership conferences?
It’s not because we’re lazy, uninformed or don’t want to learn. It’s because of several significant, but removable roadblocks that keep most of us from coming.
In recent years, church leadership conferences have had a much bigger impact on my life and schedule as I’m being invited to speak at more of them. Attending all these conferences – as both a speaker and an attendee – has also taught me a few things about what most conferences are doing well, and how we could (must) do better for the average-sized church.
While as many as 90 percent of churches are small, the registrations at most conferences often have less than 50 percent of attendees from smaller churches.
Because of that, those who hold conferences aren’t getting an accurate picture of the church. Since they have far more attendees from bigger and urban/suburban churches, the average church seems bigger, newer, richer and younger at a major conference than it is in everyday life.
If you oversee church conferences, here are 9 ways to reduce that disconnect and remove some of the roadblocks that keep many small church pastors from attending your events:
1. Take Small Church Realities Into Account
At a recent conference, I saw workshops for breaking the 200 barrier, the 500 barrier and the 1,000 barrier, but not a single one for how to pastor well while we’re under 200.
Yet as many as 80 to 90 percent of churches are in that category.
Don’t just help us break through barriers, help us know what to do before we break though.
2. Have Some Speakers Who Look Like Us
We can only learn so much from someone who has blasted through growth barriers in their church.
While we appreciate their stories of numerical increase, we also need help from those who have learned how to lead a church to health and effectiveness while staying small. Pastors who have overcome the frustration of trying to get bigger. Churches that have found a niche of powerful, effective ministry on a small scale.
3. Stop Making Assumptions About Us
One of the few times small churches are ever mentioned at many conferences is when we’re told how many churches are dying, stagnant or stuck.
This is important information that should never be ignored, but we need to get past the assumption that all small churches are stuck, or that all numerically-steady churches are stagnant.
4. Stop Speaking Down To Us
In the south, they say “bless your heart.”
It sounds sweet. But if you’re on the receiving end of it, you’re not being praised, you’re probably being pitied.
When conference speakers talk about growth, then throw in a line like “of course, there’s nothing wrong with being small,” what we hear is “bless your heart.”
Quit telling us there’s nothing wrong with being small and help us do small better!
5. Give Us Better Pricing Options
When a conference registration costs $300, it’s not costing $300. After adding food, travel and hotel, it’s going to be $1,000 and up. That is way beyond the affordability of most small churches. (Actually, so is $300 for many.)
Then, for bivocational pastors, when you factor in the loss of income and/or vacation days from their paying job, the price quickly becomes impossible to meet.
Even when conferences let you bring your whole staff for one price, it helps very few small churches, because most of us don’t have any staff.
Start by offering tiered pricing for different size churches. And make that front-and-center in your advertising.
Find sponsors who can cover the food, travel and hotel costs for small churches. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve been witness to the grateful, tear-filled responses from pastors who have been blessed by it.
One great way of reducing the price is by holding conferences in smaller towns, instead of bigger cities. The cost is far less for hotels and food that way.
And using a campground opens up even more possibilities, with options for hauling an RV or pitching a tent with the whole family.
6. Come Closer To Us (IRL And Online)
Many groups are holding the same conference in two venues on opposite ends of the country to make travel easier. For big churches, this makes their trip doable.
Small churches need even more options to make the time and travel expenses affordable.
The closer you can bring a conference to where we live, the more likely we’ll be able to attend.
Plus, give us more online options. This is happening more often, but still not enough.
7. Stop Making Unrealistic Promises
“If you do this, your church will double in the next two years!”
Stop. Just stop.
Maybe the Lord did that in the church you’re pastoring. If so, I celebrate it. I truly do.
And maybe (probably) a big part of that growth happened because you made necessary changes structurally and spiritually to prepare for that that growth. If so, I want to learn what you did.
But a move of God can’t be bottled and sold.
I know you can point to a couple other churches with similar successes, but unless the average church that tried your good ideas had the same explosive success (with stats to support it), please stop making outrageous, unsupportable claims about it.
Teach us, encourage us, help us.
But stop making promises to us.
8. Incorporate Size Dynamics
In a previous article, Responsive Design: If Your Church Leadership Ideas Don’t Adapt For Size, You’re Behind The Curve, I wrote about the importance of making sure your ideas are adaptable to all sizes of churches.
Size dynamics are ignored in far too much church leadership teaching.
Don’t just tell us what works in larger churches, help us see how that idea can be adapted for smaller churches, too.
If it can’t, that’s fine. Not everything works for all sizes. Just let us know that so we don’t waste time and energy on something that doesn’t fit us.
9. Make Them Less About Developing Systems And More About Deepening Relationships
Systems change for different sizes. But relationships work everywhere.
If you keep that in mind when you teach us, more of what you say will fit more of our situations.
The Disconnect Is Unnecessary
Most church leadership conferences don’t intend to exclude small churches as much as they do.
What it takes is a determination to keep small churches in mind as you plan the location, schedule, price, speakers and content of your next conference.
We want to learn from you. We know you work hard at these events. We know your content is good.
But our needs, strengths and concerns have to be acknowledged if we’re going to receive real value from the hard work you’re doing.
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