Small Church Focus: 7 Tips to Keep Your Ministry Practical, Personal, and Sustainable
What do you need to recognize about shifts in culture now that will affect your church in the coming year? How can you find unity within your church? How can you keep running the race? These are questions we explored in a recent conversation with Karl Vaters, one of the leading voices for equipping leaders of small churches. Karl is the Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship and author of several books including, The Church Recovery Guide: How Your Congregation Can Adapt and Thrive after a Crisis, which was released this summer.
Whether this week finds you racing with renewed vigor or struggling to walk another mile, Karl offers practical insights to consider as you lead your church through the end of 2020 and into a new year. Here are seven tips to keep your ministry practical, personal, and sustainable:
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1. Your Small Church Is Not a Mistake
As church leaders, it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of wanting more. More financial resources, more people, more staff. It can even distract from our overall mission. Karl shares his own story of initially feeling dissatisfied: “I live in Orange County, California, eight miles south of Disneyland. We have a tiny little building, but it's on a main thoroughfare with tens of thousands of people passing by in their cars every day. Twenty-eight years ago, I thought, we won't be small for long. We'll get healthy. We'll get strong. Then, we'll get really, really big.”
He remembers turning to various resources related to church growth and finding many of them helpful. But the results he anticipated didn’t materialize. “We got larger than we were, but we settled in on a size that seemed to work for us. Then, it got frustrating for me because [I thought] if we're as healthy as we appear to be, shouldn't we be getting bigger?
“I recognized there were a lot of churches and pastors who were in the same position. We got to a place of health, and we got to a place of effectiveness. We were doing well on mission. We were discipling people, but we didn't get past certain numbers. I discovered that the small size of our church wasn't a problem we needed to fix, but it was part of a strategy God wanted to use. If 90% of the churches in the world are small—under 200—then maybe that's not a mistake. Maybe that's part of a strategy. I wanted to figure out what that strategy was and how to be a part of that strategy.
"I discovered that the small size of our church wasn't a problem we needed to fix, but it was part of a strategy God wanted to use."
“I dove into the whole idea of what a healthy, thriving, and missional small church looks like. I looked for a book and couldn't find it. So I wrote a book, and that's how I ended up where I am today,” he says with a smile.
2. Responding to Trauma
It’s important to recognize that many people in our country are in a state of trauma right now. As we combine the pandemic's effects with extreme racial unrest, intense political division, and more, everyday life can feel completely overwhelming. Karl notes the hyper concentration of multiple issues that, in the past, might have been spread out over years:
“I have a friend who has a doctorate in neurobiology and happens to be a small church pastor's wife as well. So, she has her feet in two very interesting spheres. I had a chat with her a while ago and asked if trauma was what we were experiencing right now. She said that virtually everyone you meet right now is at a heightened level of trauma from where they usually are.
In contrast to 9/11, where we experienced a singular traumatic event together, Karl notes this has been a continuing series of challenging experiences.
It has been one event upon another. You are just working through the trauma of the first thing. And the second thing hits you, and you are working through the trauma of that. Then, a third thing hits you. We are all in these multiple stages of trauma from multiple traumatic events.
My friend shared what happens when people are in trauma or coming out of trauma has been mapped in the brain. Two things happen. Our logic centers start to go dark, and our action and emotion centers light up like a Christmas tree. We’re in a situation where action and emotion are elevated, and logic is physically in our brains powering down.
As small church pastors, we have to realize that explanations don't work as well. She told me that people in trauma can't hear explanations because that logic center is going down, and the action and emotion centers are lighting up.
What we need to do with people now, more than offer explanations is to give them places of comfort and familiarity as much as possible because that helps bring them the kind of calm they need during a time of great urgency and disturbance in their lives.”
3. Simple but Meaningful Connections
Whether your church is meeting in-person or online, Karl encourages church leaders to find ways to personally connect with people, even if the approach is as simple as making five-minute phone calls to check on them and offer to pray with them. He notes one of the benefits of being part of a small congregation is that the pastor can make calls directly and likely will know the person well.
“When they say, ‘Yeah, I'm fine,’ we can hear that little tremble in their voice that's a little different than usual.” This is the time to offer additional care and support. He shares, “They need that soft place to land right now, more than they need arguments and explanations. What we need is a place of steadiness and consistency.”
Encourage your congregation to continue helping with the care of others as well. Karl notes that within his congregation, younger people have been delivering groceries to senior adults who haven’t been able to shop for themselves.
“I've talked to seniors in our congregation over the last few months who have told me they know young people in our church better and feel closer than they did before the pandemic. Before, it was just a wave in the hallway on Sunday morning, but now they're bringing things over.” He shares this is a time to intentionally build and cross bridges in places where walls would typically exist.
4. Choosing Rest Regularly
As we’ve highlighted during Pastor Appreciation Month, it’s vital for church leaders to set aside time for rest as a regular component of self-care and to help sustain their ministry for the long term.
“I like to compare it to the young mother of a child that has just been born a couple of weeks, or a couple of months ago,” says Karl. “The rule that everyone tells the young mom is ‘when the baby naps, you nap’ because there is so much going on. This is [similar to] my advice for the small church pastor, which is really hard, especially for those who are bi-vocational.
"You have a regular job, and you're trying to catch up, and there are more things to do than usual. That’s why it's even more important to take a rest, take a Sabbath, and make sure you have one day a week that you get away from things.” He also encourages pastors to carve out a little time each day for the same purpose—and if you haven’t take a vacation this year, it’s time to schedule it.
“If you don't create rest, the rest will find you through sickness or through burnout. That is not healthy. We cannot help others get through trauma if we are raw in trauma ourselves. Trauma demands rest. You are going to nap more than usual.
"In addition to resting, we need to make sure we are in good physical shape. As we've all discovered during COVID, we're going to eat more than usual. When we are not resting, we need to get up and move to take care of our physical bodies, our emotions, and our own spirits. We won't have something to offer to others if we are not doing that. Now, more than ever, it's important to stay physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.
“We cannot help others get through trauma if we are raw in trauma ourselves. Trauma demands rest.”
“This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. You run a sprint and a marathon with very different energy levels. If you slowed down to grab a drink from a table while you're running a 100-meter sprint, you'd be crazy. But, if you don't do that several times during a marathon, you're going to hurt yourself.
"Rest, refreshment, and pausing are parts of how to run a marathon. You do it at a slower pace and take breaks so you can make it to the end, but too many of us are still operating in sprint mode. Slow your pace down. Find those places of rest. Do the work that needs to be done. Then, at the end of the day, what you don't get done, you have to be okay with and realize that God's got the rest of it.”
5. Unity Over Uniformity
How can we find unity within our churches right now? Is it even possible in a time when emotions are high and opinions so varied? Karl points out that some churches are doing this well and are finding ways to move together in unity.
“One of the factors is they are united in mission, even if they're not united politically. In our congregation, for instance, whatever [the result of] this election is, I’m going to have some very happy and some very sad people. We have people in our congregation who are pro-mask and people who are anti-mask. We have people who are on different sides of all the issues. Yet, we haven't had any screaming fights, or people leave the church. We've had some interesting conversations, but we've agreed we are united on mission.
“We are united on telling people about Jesus. Even if I don't like a mask, if wearing a piece of cloth over my face is the way I get to tell somebody about Jesus, that is a pretty low price to pay. Unity is not uniformity. We are not all from one ethnic background, age group, or political stripe. We are all over the map on those things in our congregation. The one and only thing that unites us is Christ, and him crucified.”
6. Returning to Biblical Essentials
Within the church, there can be a natural tension between standing on God’s unchanging principles and leaning into constant change through transformation. Karl points out the importance of churches fully embracing both of these ideas. As we continue to return to that foundation, we embrace the priority of discipleship.
“We have to re-establish biblical essentials, and one of those biblical essentials is discipleship,” Karl says. “Small church pastors ask me, especially if they're bi-vocational, ‘Where should I put the bulk of my time after I'm done with my secular job, and I actually have time to pastor? If I spend an hour with my congregation, that's an hour I don't spend reaching others. If I spend an hour reaching others, that's an hour I'm not spending tending to my congregation. If I have to choose between the two, where should I concentrate?’
"Here is my answer: You need to disciple your current congregation to reach the people who aren't in your congregation. Teach the people you have to reach the people you don't have. Then, nobody gets left out. The burden of evangelism, reaching out, and mission is shared among the entire congregation. You're discipling people who become disciple makers.”
“You need to disciple your current congregation to reach the people who aren't in your congregation. Teach the people you have to reach the people you don't have.”
7. Responding to a Changing World
While we know there are unchanging truths to hold onto, we also recognize the Gospel has always been about transformation. Within churches, there can also be transformations over time as the ministry seeks to respond to the changing culture's needs. Karl mentions this is especially true for smaller congregations. What are some ways the church might seek to learn, react, or adapt?
“The first thing that hits me is we have to reduce our overhead,” he says. “And secondly, we need to rethink our buildings. A lot of us are not using our buildings well. In The Church Recovery Guide, there are two chapters—one about finance and how to reduce your overhead, including rethinking your building and using it better. Then, the second to the last chapter goes into the tough questions we need to ask if our church is about to close.
"How can we do it proactively so the resources of the church, including the building, can be transferred over to another ministry, so it continues to be used for the glory of God—rather than being reclaimed by the bank and turned into condos?
"We have to be more proactive about it. It’s kind of like the nap thing. I proactively choose to take a nap so burnout doesn't overtake me. If we are about to close a church, let's do it proactively so we can intentionally put the building toward ministry use rather than reacting.”
At Aspen Group, we have been in conversations with churches in recent months helping them rethink building design and usage, prompted by changes brought on by COVID. As we move into the future, churches will be seeking to create more space for training and equipping centers. It could be less about having a large sanctuary or auditorium and more about constructing a broadcast or community center.
We believe we’ll continue to see a shift in how churches are using their square footage to meet community needs, perhaps by dedicating more areas to serve unmet needs, host community activities, or even to use as preschool or educational space. It is our privilege to continue walking alongside churches as we explore the future together.