As pastors, we typically spend our time in three overlapping areas of ministry: communication, administration and relationships.
But our time is always limited, so on those weeks when time gets tighter, which of the three should we spend extra time on, and which of the three is it okay to spend a little less time on?
Everyone has a different schedule, skill-set and needs, of course, but as a general rule, I’ve found the following to be true.
The bigger the church, the more important it is to spend time honing our communication skills, the smaller the church the more time we need to spend fostering relationships.
A church’s administrative needs obviously grow as the church gets bigger, but those can (and should) be delegated to others, so let’s look at the two aspects of leadership that most pastors will always have to do ourselves – the balance between communication and relationship-building.
The Big/Small Difference
In a big church, the pastor will have name-recognition relationships with a very small percentage of the people they’re communicating to on a weekly basis. When you add writing, podcasting and other forms of communication, it’s typical for the pastor of a large church to have a personal relationship with fewer than one percent of the people they’re communicating with.
But in a small church, the pastor will know most, if not all of the congregation members personally. Our lives are intertwined. So how does that affect our time management on the weeks when our schedule is especially tight (as in every week for a bivocational pastor)?
When a small church pastor has to choose between spending time on sermon prep, or interacting with congregation members, we should default towards people.
The Relationship Factor
When you’re speaking or writing to people with whom you don’t have a personal relationship, you need to work very hard on every word, every turn of phrase and every nuance of body language.
Because they don’t know you personally (even if they feel like they do), your communication skills are the primary way you teach, inspire and build trust. So it’s important to spend extra time refining your communication skills, getting those nuances right and avoiding miscommunication as much as possible.
But when you’re a small church pastor, you don’t need every word in your sermon or Bible study to be refined and precise because there’s far more discipleship, inspiration and trust-building done through relationships than from the pulpit.
Hanging Out Is Holy
It’s not that precise communication doesn’t matter in a small church. It does. But in a healthy small church the relationship the pastor and people have with each other makes up for the fact that you might not have been prepared with exactly the right wording for every moment of your Sunday sermon.
This is not an excuse for small church pastors to prepare inadequately or preach badly, but an encouragement to use all your pastoral skills and opportunities in the right balance. Because you have far more connection with congregation members than the Sunday morning sermon, you can do at least as much effective ministry away from the pulpit as behind it (or preparing for it).
In small churches, we do most of our pastoring during conversations in the church lobby, counseling sessions over coffee, and chats while cleaning dishes together after a church potluck.
Hanging out with congregation members (you may know it as fellowship) is not wasted time. It’s high-priority discipleship time.
People Over Sermon Prep
My encouragement to my fellow small church pastors today is this.
Do you know what passage you’re preaching from on Sunday? Do you know the main point(s) you want folks to get from that passage?
Get those notes down so you don’t forget them, then set it aside. (If you preach from a manuscript or need more than this amount of prep, I understand – adapt from this for your situation.)
If your week is going well and you have the time, by all means work on refining your sermon as much as you can. But if your time is tight this week (again), and you have to choose between spending a few more hours on the finer details of sermon prep (like getting your points to rhyme or choosing just the right graphic), or spending time building relationships with people (like visiting an ailing church member or playing with your kids) choose people over sermon prep.
Yes, preaching the Word matters. Deeply. Because discipleship matters. Deeply.
But in a small church, discipleship is caught through relationships more than it’s taught through preaching.
Put people first.
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