Navigating Size Transitions in the Midsize Congregation

Image of butterfly transformation.

By Alice Mann, Deborah Weiner

Keynote Address by Alice Mann

(Atlanta, GA, 2000) Following a morning worship service, Alban Institute consultant Alice Mann was introduced to lead the day's learning experience on "Navigating Change in the Midsize Congregation." Mann, the author of "The In-Between Church," is an Episcopal priest who has been involved in congregational ministry for 19 years.

Mann presented models of behavior found in different sizes of churches, as developed by Arlin Routhage. The family sized church, with attendance of 0-50 is followed by the pastoral size congregation, with 50-150 in attendance for a service. Following this comes the Program sized church, with 150-350 in attendance; followed by corporate sized congregations, with 350-500+ present for worship. Mann suggests, 'count everyone except the cockroaches, whether they are upstairs vs. downstairs—you want the total attendance of all ages at the Sunday experience.

Program sized churches, said Mann, contain significant membership from different populations; people from different demographic groups may enter. Part time staff gets added as programs expand. Community outreach, small group ministry to others are added. Opportunity for democratic participation is added.

Corporate sized churches are significant institutional presences in the community, and may operate associated institutions with staffs of highly skilled professionals. This large congregation can provide something for everyone…a variety of worship opportunities and an opportunity for a visitor to be anonymous for a while. Sometimes the organization draws key leaders from around the community.

Size Differences

Most churches find themselves fitting in one descriptive frame in particular. In times of transition, however, churches try to live more than one description at a time…"When we are trying to be more than one paradigm," said Mann, there exists in the church "energy but also some tension. If there is a big mismatch between the numerical category in which people identify and the dynamic category, it might mean that [the congregation] is in an unusual situation." In Episcopal traditions, Mann said, one sometimes finds a program-sized operation in a pastoral-sized church. In such a situation, there is often a large endowment being pulled from, or small groups of people putting up large amounts of money. So, Mann suggested, "If you feel that there is a dichotomy in the two types, you might want to examine what that is about. The authority to answer these questions comes from within the congregation…not from a consultant."

Size Change

When a church is changing sizes, it has to dismantle one way of doing things, and construct a new way…that's called transition, and it is always uncomfortable. It can be stimulating and life giving, but it is always uncomfortable. Sizes can go upward and downward…but it is hard to be in a growing church that doesn't want to let go of the old way of doing things. People need to sociologically 'rearrange the chairs' to accommodate the change. Often, people have a memory of being a different size at some other time in the congregation's life—usually in the 1950's—where the memory of that great institutional presence and the well-filled and rich program, has not met the current standard. And that adaptation is hard.

Size Plateau

Mann suggested doing a 30-year attendance chart for a congregation as a way of seeing the history of the church, past and present. In one example, there was a time of rapid growth when a new minister came, for five years. The church added a service, a second church school opportunity, and ran with the potential in the community. After five years, the senior minister said, "we need an assistant minister to respond to the growth, and the board said, no." And the attendance fell back into the plateau zone, and stayed there for most of the next 30 years. There were two other times when the minister asked for the assistant, and each time the board said no, and attendance went down. Mann said, "I don't assume there is any automatic 'right size' for the church. It depends on the congregation's sense of vocation and purpose, and the community context.

"If we aspire to grow and it doesn't work, that is a clue to our future path, but if we don't aspire to grow, it won't happen. There is significant research that says that not every church that intends to grow, will grow. But it is also true that churches that don't intend to grow, won't. It is hard work making room for more people…and if we feel that in our community there is a need for the religious values that the church represents, and that the tradition has something of real value to offer to those who are ready at any given moment to say 'yes,' it means that we must have a vocation to make room for more people."

Charting the plateau zone of a church requires a lot of digging, Mann said. There may be a lot of records that don't show worship attendance, but do show other things, like religious education registration…do the best you can to construct data. The first goal is to count very carefully. And make notes on how you are counting….are you counting choir, are you counting Religious Education (RE) attendance, or registration.

There are some dynamics of behavior found in churches that are in the plateau. Typically, you find lots of discontent, disagreement, and unhappiness. The level of unease and collision of different views of who the church is at a particular time in history tends to increase during a size transition. The church is stuck between one way of 'being church' and another way of 'being church'…you already have outgrown the one way of being church that already isn't working…our militant defense of such behavior, said Mann, "is a sign of the fact that it isn't working…like saying, 'we all know each other,' when that isn't true. What that can mean is, 'we would like to get rid of 25 or 30 people so that we really did know each other…"

Conflicted Expectations of the Clergy

In the church in transition, said Mann, one also typically encounters large conflicts of expectation around the clergy and what the proper role of the minister is. Ministers are faced with a series of questions: should they spend the limited amount of discretionary time they have visiting more shut ins, preparing a better sermon, attending a wedding reception, going on a retreat with parish staff.

The minister feeling split between these choices often marks a symptom of size transition. All leaders, lay and ordained, make these kinds of choices all the time…and the choices usually reflect a pattern that is more similar to the family/pastoral size church or to the program/corporate size church. "And," Mann said, "if you are in the congregational plateau zone, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't… the congregation has to be something, or be about becoming something…and if you don't take a position as to what you are becoming, you are stuck with an insoluble debate about time use."

Another behavior which is typical of congregations in the plateau zone is a deep ambivalence about newcomers: aren't they wonderful…but I used to know everybody. Isn't it great that the church school is burgeoning…I don't want to pay for a half-time religious education director. Ambivalence is one of the biggest hallmarks of a size transition, and it is a horrible place to be. "It is energy draining," said Mann. But you can't resolve ambivalence without facing into the conflict, facing it squarely and saying, 'there is a choice to be made here." Churches, she said, sometimes face this by 'voting'…on whether to grow or not. That does not resolve the question…it is about grappling over questions of identity and purpose. Churches that break through these zones and get on with it…while listening to the "still small voice inside that gives guidance," are often the ones that are able to navigate through this uncertainty.

Numbers are one way , but not the only way, of holding ourselves accountable for what is going on within our faith community. And if we are in a faith community and we have plateaued and the congregation has a rhetoric about being a welcoming church, maybe the words and the music aren't going together. Mann asked, "What is the nature of our commitment to make these values available to the people around us?"

Passive Barriers Found in Midsize Congregations

  1. Vocation: lack of clarity about whether we have a vocation to make room for more people—those who aren't here yet? This is a spiritual question.
  2. We are unclear about size concepts and realities: many of our members don't know that change is going on. If we don't keep good records, that presents a passive barrier…you can never definitely state what is going on. The statistics may not bear that out.
  3. Space:

    • Worship seating—if you are 80% full, you are full. That is the fullness sense that the newcomer reacts to. You count space on the basis of 30 to 36 inches per person. X out the seats, says Mann, that "you wouldn't sit in on a bet…the pew in the balcony with no cushion, for instance."
    • Parking: Mann suggests that a congregation send someone out with a camera and look at how far away people are having to park. If a visitor comes to church five minutes before the service, what will they see, and does it convey any space for them...if it's a hassle, why would they bother? Some people put out a sign and say "parking help here," with a person to help park cars. Not every church does this...but how do you convey to people that you don't want them to go away?
    • Education space: is it packed and hectic, with parents having to climb over them?
    • Fellowship space: can people get together and have a pleasant social interaction, or is coffee hour like 'the New York subway at 5:15PM?'
    • Office space: are you under-equipped for an adequate staff life and for productive work for the people working on behalf of the congregation?
  4. Staff: Think in terms of needing one program staff person for each hundred adult attendees. That doesn't count musicians, but it means one program person per hundred, or one ordained person per 150 adults. Office support also has to grow to avoid having expensive envelope lickers. Building maintenance staff must also be examined. So must the office technology: is it productive enough? Is the office team functioning?
  5. Budget: our concept of what is an adequate budget may be left over from the previous size of the church. Can we confront the difference between what is a lean budget vs. what is an emaciated budget?
  6. Infrastructure—new member incorporation as an example: if things are done passively, they are probably done badly.
  7. Gift identification and volunteer/ministry development: this needs to be a center of energy and programmatic function with real focus and strategy.
  8. Small group ministry—becomes a way of making face-to-face relationship in a system where everyone can't possibly know everyone else.
  9. Pastoral care: The ministry of caring belongs to the congregation, not to the minister.

Mann then posed four questions for reflection by the group:

  • Size wise, where is your church numerically?
  • Where is your church dynamically and do they match or not?
  • Do you think you may be in a size plateau?
  • What would be your top three passive barriers to growth?

Following a lunch break Mann entertained questions from the audience, and then discussed another way to help congregations break out of the transition plateau and achieve greater vitality and growth.

Adding a Second Worship Service

"Faith involves risk," said Mann. "And the first thing to understand is that if you wait until you can afford to have a second worship service, you will never be able to afford it."

She suggested that Charles Arn's "How to Start a New Worship Service," (Baker Publishers, available through Amazon.com), presents research which shows that at least half of the congregations in North America are candidates for adding a second worship opportunity. And at least half of those who try it are likely to experience an increase in vitality and an increase in people who feel connected to their faith tradition.

Single cell churches are not ideal candidates for this opportunity, because they are not connected to the diversity of more than one worship experience. If churches have 40 or more people at a worship service, it may be time to start a second service. Do not be impeded, Mann suggests, but the memory of people who are no longer in the pews or attending services. "The older members of the church see the faces of those people not there any more…those people should be held in memory, but not in the pew where other people want to sit."

Competing Priorities

If there is a fight between the building and the people, Mann suggested, "the building always wins. If the building says decline, or failure, the building wins. So if you need to rip out the pews, and put them further apart or closer together, that needs to be given as a message. The point is, a service that does not have critical mass in relation to the space it meets in, probably can not grow."

If your congregation is 80% full, you can probably start another service similar to the one you have….and this probably will involved adding a second worship opportunity for children. Churches that have a space problem where the space problem includes parking, and that do education between the two services, haven't really solved the problem…because the problem of parking hasn't been addressed.

Timing is Critical

If the minister is planning to leave in the next 12 to 18 months (including, to a degree, for a sabbatical period), the time is not right for starting a new programs for worship. If the congregation is rock solidly committed and knows the direction it wants to go in, then worship changes could be engaged in during an interim period. But most churches experience a certain degree of contraction of energy during a period of ministerial transition. You want to give the effort a reasonable chance of succeeding…because if you try it and fail, it will be many years before the church is willing to try such a change again.

When a new minister has been called, many experts will tell you that during the first two years, there is an opportunity to try new things…although this paradigm should be carefully examined. In the first few years of a ministry, you are more likely to be successful at pull off such change that later in the ministry.

Location for the Second Service

A second service, said Mann, should always be started in a room that will never be less than half full at any time…Target getting fifty people as a baseline for building the successful second service.

Staffing for the Multi-cell Style Congregation

If you hire people who are talented equippers, recruiters, programmers of ministry, you are going to get more energy rather than hiring to fill a single job. Solo performers are not as functional in multiple cell churches as individuals with a variety of skills. Where, said Mann, "is the break point when you need another ordained staff person?" Participants suggested that when the congregation is trying to develop special ministries—a Spanish speaking service, a social justice ministry, the demand for a second ministers increases.

Tracey Robinson Harris, Deputy Director for the department of Congregational, District and Extension Services, explained some of the extension ministry programs which are available for congregations undergoing growth, including growth in specialized areas. Mann said, "You really have a treasure here—at the point when you perceive you can extend the reach of your congregation, you have some partners…not every denomination has this kind of support."

Moving into the Risks of Increasing Church Staff

Bill Sullivan, a researcher for the Church of Nazarene, says that you need to be able to account for pledges in hand for at least 1/2 of the cost of an increased staff person before that person comes to the church. If that person is spending time with new members or people who are coming to the church who have been lapsed, the likelihood is there that the funds will be available to sustain the ministry. So you need to think, "what populations do we need to reach," and find a person who not only has that interest, but a proven ability to reach those populations and draw them in.

Mann suggested that ministry area profiles, offered by Percept, Inc (and available through the UUA), are useful in trying to identify which ministry areas need to be focused on and developed and staffed. Congregations need to figure out where the extension potential for a congregation is, and frame a position that is at least half-funded and which gives a staff person the mandate to go out and develop the potential is important for growing and dynamic churches.

The group gathered was highly enthusiastic about the day's learning experience, and went into learning teams to further explore Mann's suggestions. Particular energy was seen around the idea of developing second or third worship service opportunities. Learning opportunities to allow congregational teams to apply the day's ideas will be present throughout the midsize conference.

About the Authors

Alice Mann

Alice Mann is a leading consultant, educator, and author in the field of congregational development, with emphasis on strategic planning, breaking through size plateaus, creating new pathways for small and struggling churches, and helping congregations to discern and care for the “soul” of their...

Deborah Weiner

Deborah Weiner, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, served on the UUA staff as a public relations, marketing, and electronic communications officer from 1989 through 2010. A communications, management, and technology consultant for religious and not for profit organizations, she is a certified...

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