I consider my mentor in Congregational Development to be Lyle Schaller who many see as the Father of Congregational Development in the wider church. Schaller has written extensively on congregations and denominations. His books are full of very helpful information.
I first met Lyle when a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and friend in central Ohio slipped me into a Synod conference that Lyle was leading in the early 80s. When Lyle discovered a single Episcopalian in the mix, we began a conversation that continued for over 20 years.
In 1987, I attend a conference by Lyle titled “15 Key Elements in Growing a Congregation.” It was during this conference that I learned that 80% of the development potential of a congregation can be measured and predicted by the first 3 elements he presented. These three elements form a cluster together. They are Who is the Pastor and what does she or he know? What size is the congregation and how long has it been that way? What are the size limitations of the current facilities?
This “trinity” of dynamics helps me understand a congregation, its developmental issues and growth potential. In this blog, I will share about the issue of congregational size which is really about the present culture of a congregation.
Schaller introduced me to the research on congregations on the then 375,000 congregations in North America. This research showed that congregations tended to cluster around particular sizes based on average Sunday attendance and that this revealed particular ways of “being a church.” Schaller presented 8 different and distinct types of congregations that day.
Arlin Rothauge used this material to develop Sizing Up the Congregation for New Member Growth which was published in the late 80s. Arlin reduced this information to three types of churches. As he explained it to me, “Most Episcopal Congregations are small. I didn’t have to worry about sharing how larger congregations could be divided. Besides, Rectors of large Episcopal Congregations go to ecumenical conferences and don’t rely on denomination material.” I thought this tremendously revealing.
We now use the terms Arlin gave for these type churches: Family – normally around 20 to 40 in ASA but ranging from 3 to 75 Pastoral – normally around 110 ASA, but ranging from 80 to 150 Program – above 200 ASA
In the Diocese of Texas, we refined this adding the fourth size: Transitional – churches caught between 150 and 250 ASA
I wrote a somewhat popular book on the Transitional size (The Myth of the 200 Barrier) in which I described the difficulty congregations faced in transitioning from Pastoral to Program size.
I was asked to revise Arlin’s original booklet for TEC, but Arlin believed that I made too much out of this transition and vetoed the revision. I explained the difference in our approaches this way. Arlin had a PhD and a theory. I had only the practical knowledge of working with hundreds of congregations. Add to this that less than 5% of all Pastoral size congregations make a transition to the larger size, and I think the dynamics of a Transitional size church are significant. (I suspect the real issue was that I hadn’t done a D. Min from Seabury, but that may be a bit unfair.)
What is important here is that Schaller had very different names for these sizes. Schaller called the Family size a “Cat.” He called the Pastoral size a “Collie.” I can still remember the laughter of recognition in the room as he described these essential differences.
“A Cat isn’t owned by anyone. It owns you. It is independent and resilient. It will let you pet and feed it, but at any moment, a cat can turn and scratch or bite you for almost no reason whatever. “
“A Collie is faithful and loyal to its master. As long as you feed it, love it, and pay attention to it, a Collie will flourish. A Collie will even forgive you if you are from time to time a bit stern. It takes a great deal of abuse to turn a collie against you, but once this happens, a collie will have a mistrust of all future masters.” (Note how this description gives us a much better flavor for how clergy relate to these types of congregations and how they relate to us.)
So, what I learned from Lyle was that if you measure ASA for 10 to 20 years, you can answer these two essential questions: What size is the church today? And, how long has it been that way? His conclusion based on a great deal of research was that the longer a church operated within a particular size, the more predictable it would stay that size and resist change. This resistance was both to getting smaller or getting larger.
In more recent days with the advent of “systems thinking,” we now realized that each “size” represents a culture or “way of being the church” that becomes predictable and is maintained by the leadership. So, if you have a pastoral size church in a town that has been that way for 50 years, and yet the town has become a suburb of the neighboring city with a much larger population base, the church will predictably remain in the same size and resist growth. This also means that the denomination can go across town and start a new congregation and almost never affect the current congregation. Congregational Culture, once established, has power and that power expresses itself in maintaining what we know and what we expect.
The converse is also true. The more change a congregation has experienced; the easier it is to grow. It is also true that the newer the congregation; the easier its future can be altered. Schaller pointed out that most congregations have institutionalized their size within the congregation’s first 30 years.
I also learned this from Lyle. There are two types of growth in a congregation. The first is congruent growth. This is growth within the system. For example, a Pastoral size growing from 90 to 130 ASA has grown congruent with being a Pastoral size church. The second is transformational growth. A Pastoral size growing from 130 to 250 ASA has experience transformation from one culture to another. The first is easier. The second is much more difficult.
You may want to ask yourself these two questions. What size is the congregation I serve? How long has it been that way? The answers to these two questions will tell you a lot about your growth potential. In the next blog after Easter, I will focus on how the Pastor fits into this cluster of issues.