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Nintety-four percent of churches in America are under 500 people. That’s a real statistic.
Go ahead. Look it up.
This was surprising to me because most of the time it feels like we only hear about the largest 1 percent of churches. To be fair, those churches are creating amazing content and sharing incredible stories that need to be told. Those are churches doing kingdom work, and they deserve to be celebrated. We need that 1 percent. But we also need the 94 percent.
I’m a young pastor. Like a lot of young pastors, I had stars in my eyes as I entered ministry. My church will explode with growth. My book (that I’ve never written) will be a best-seller. I’ll be a regular on the conference circuit. These are common dreams for young pastors, and I’m no exception.
As nice as dreams are, they don’t always match up with reality, and the reality is that I’m in one of those churches under 500 people. A great church. A healthy church. A Christ-centered church that I love deeply. A small church.
So, I want to share some lessons that I’ve learned about being a young pastor in a small church. These aren’t necessarily lessons that are specific to being young, but from my experience, it’s we younger pastors who need a reality check. Reality is good, and here are five things I’ve learned that have helped me love the reality God has placed me in:
1. Patience is an underrated virtue. This cannot be stated emphatically enough. Young pastors (and I’m preaching to myself here) are full of energy and excitement and ideas that we’re ready to implement right now. We’re ready to overhaul ministries, throw away traditions and add programs left and right. And that’s a good thing!
It’s good to be excited and to have fresh ideas and perspectives. But the best way to have all of those ideas and initiatives spectacularly crash and burn is to rush into things without taking enough time on the front end. It’s hard to be patient, to have all the conversations and meetings and meetings before meetings that are required in order to gain consensus. But it’s worth it. Oh, baby, is it worth it. If you can cultivate patience and be willing to do the hard work of paving the way for your ideas and ministries, you and your church will be much healthier and happier in the long run.
2. Not everyone will like you. Everybody wants to be loved. It’s just the way we’re wired. Unfortunately, not everyone in your small church is going to love you. Or like you. Or even respect you. Early on in my ministry, I figured this out, and it was a hard lesson.
We had a family in our church that just did not like me. And as much as I tried to figure out why and worked to gain this family’s love and respect, it always seemed out of reach. I wasted a lot of time and energy seeking affirmation and value from people who didn’t like me, and it left me empty.
Regardless of why someone doesn’t like us as pastors, our focus must always be on Christ. When we take our eyes off Jesus and the mission that He’s placed before us, we’re going to lose our way. Working for the approval and adoration of people is always an empty endeavor. Our value and ultimate affirmation has to flow from God.
3. Your family is more important than your ministry. Before I entered the ministry, I worked at a bank. I worked hard and did a good job, but I knew that ultimately I didn’t want banking to be my future. Because of that, it was always easy to leave work at the door and not bring it home.
Whether we like it or not, ministry is not just another job, and if you’re not careful, ministry can start to take you away from your family.
As small church pastors, members of our congregation have a lot of personal access to us. That’s great, until it’s not. Be vigilant about creating boundaries for yourself and maintaining a schedule that prioritizes your family. How many nights are you doing ministry each week? How many hours are you spending in the office every week? How much of that sermon prep do you bring home with you? These are important questions that help keep our priorities in order. The first ministry God has given you is to your spouse and kids. They deserve the top spot.
4. Embrace your church the way it is. Your church is not perfect, but no church is. It’s good to grow and move forward, but it’s not good to obsess over fundamentally changing the DNA of your church.
When I came to candidate at my church, I didn’t (and still don’t) fit the model of what pastors look like in our small, rural community. In an area where clean-cut is the norm, I stand out by wearing my hair long and my jeans skinny. At first, I was worried that the church might have an expectation that I change before they could call me. But that didn’t happen. The people accept and appreciate me for who I am both inside and out and didn’t expect me to fundamentally change to be their pastor.
God has given your church a unique opportunity just the way it is. Trying to fundamentally change your church will only end with heartaches and headaches. Embrace what makes your church unique, and minister to those who God has called you to.
5. God loves small. In 2 Samuel 16, we find the story of Samuel being sent by God to find and anoint a new king over Israel. Saul (who happens to be very large) has been rejected by God, and a new leader has to be found. Samuel happens upon Jesse and his family and is certain he’s found the king in Jesse’s oldest son. Why? Because he was big! God even has to tell Samuel to stop looking at “appearance or height” because that’s not a good indication of someone’s spiritual health. Instead, God ends up choosing David, the youngest—and presumably smallest—of Jesse’s sons.
We all know the rest of the story. This runt ends up killing a giant, ruling Israel, and is described as a “man after God’s own heart.” That’s just one example of many where God chooses to use the small to accomplish the big. It is no different in our churches.
Just as Samuel looked at size and appearance as an indicator of ability, we small church pastors can sometimes look at bigger ministries and assume they’re doing it better or have more of God’s blessing. Meanwhile, God is trying to tell us to stop looking at them and to instead see our church how He sees it. God has big plans for your small church! That’s the way He works.
Small churches are used by God to do amazing kingdom work all over the world. My encouragement for young pastors is that we would be proud of the ministry God has given us—and lead our churches with all the passion and energy that they deserve.
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