Church Leadership: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the April 28, 2008 issue of the Christian Courier)

In the two decades since Rev. Tom Bomhof graduated from seminary and entered parish ministry, he has served three churches of varying sizes and demographics. His first congregation was a small church of just over 100 members in a quiet rural town—quite a contrast to his current charge, a much larger congregation with over 800 members in the bustling Vancouver suburb of Surrey. While in his first parish Bomhof flew solo, in his current church he is part of a staff team made up of three full-time pastors, a part-time worship coordinator, and two-part time administrators.

“In my first church, I was able to go along on every elder’s visit,” Bomhof says. He recalls with fondness how the small size of his early congregations allowed him to be deeply involved in pastoral care and visiting. He could attend most social events hosted by members. He was hands-on and knee-deep in the needs of the congregation. But as a leader he sometimes felt isolated and alone.

“In my first two churches, where I was the only pastor, I often wished I had more people to talk to and collaborate with about ministry,” Bomhof says.

He says that, over the years, experience has taught him that no type of ministry – big or small – is challenge-free. While ministering in a smaller church can be isolating, larger churches also have unique challenges. “Sometimes serving in a larger church can be a little overwhelming because there is a lot more need in the congregation and it can be difficult to stay on top of things.”

Different Congregations Require Different Skills

Bomhof says he has learned that serving a larger congregation requires different skills than he relied upon in his smaller charges, and he’s intentionally sought out opportunities to hone those much-needed skills. He is not alone in that. In fact, he is part of a growing number of pastors who are gathering in peer-learning groups with other pastors from similar-sized ministries.

Some churches have a thousand members and state-of-the-art facilities, are located in growing urban areas and require a team approach to ministry. Other churches serve communities where populations are in decline, where a handful of worshippers meet in buildings that date back to the previous century. Different sizes and types of congregations call for different skills and strengths in a pastor.

Rev. Walt Brouwer is a pastor of a 630+ member church in Edmonton, Alberta. He, along with Bomhof, is one of 14 pastors meeting and learning together in a peer-group called “Leading the Larger Christian Reformed Church in Western Canada.” Brouwer says organizing peer groups for pastors based on congregational size simply makes good sense. “It’s just like in small groups,” he says. “The single greatest element for successful small groups is affinity. In our peer-learning group, we have affinity because we have a lot of the same issues to contend with, many of the same highlights and frustrations, so our conversations can have much greater focus.”

Like Bomhof, Brouwer acknowledges that the need for pastors to develop skills appropriate to congregational size and type is “huge.” Being part of a peer group with other pastors serving similar-sized congregations has been a real blessing, he says. “It’s been great working with colleagues, rubbing shoulders with them. It has been a huge encouragement and practical ideas flow from that,” he says. The affinity of the group and their shared experiences allowed them to quickly identify topics that were a priority for all of them, including governance, leadership, pastoral care, staffing and spiritual health. “We’ve read a number of books and had a number of guest speakers,” he says.

On a practical level, size-based peer groups have to be creative in their structure in order to bring pastors together over a larger geographical area. It might seem less complicated to form a peer group around geography (i.e. southern Alberta or Greater Vancouver) rather than congregational demographics. But size-based groups can work well using new models. For instance, Bomhof’s and Brouwer’s peer group involves pastors from three provinces, with thousands of kilometres dividing them. For this reason, they’ve organized into “regional cluster groups,” or small groups of three or four pastors who are close enough in distance to meet more regularly for study, networking, and mutual support.

“We meet three times a year as a larger group, and six times a year in smaller, regional clusters,” says Bomhof. “We had our big meeting in October, and we invited [author and teacher] Alan Roxburgh to speak on becoming a missional leader. We look forward to our smaller meetings in which we are able to share our lives with each other and encourage one another on a more regular basis.”

Rev. Henry Kranenburg is pastor of a 650-member congregation in Hamilton, Ontario. He, too, felt drawn to forming a peer group based on congregational size. His peer group, entitled “Leading the Large Multigenerational Missional Church” brings together 13 pastors from throughout southern Ontario.

A Sense of Relief

“We all got together and realized we were facing similar questions,” says Kranenburg, who notes that the peer group has brought a sense of “relief” to him and other pastors, who realize that many of the challenges they’re facing are professional, not personal. “We’re discovering that the ministry issues that we’re facing are not unique to our ability or inability to minister but are related to congregational size. In larger churches the pastor can’t do everything, but it’s also important not to lose sight of equipping the people for ministry. For instance, in our next retreat, we will be looking at pastoral care. What does pastoral care look like for the pastor who may be preaching but not as involved in the direct care of the congregation?”

Bomhof says his peer group involvement has made him a more confident leader of a large church. “We now understand the strengths and weaknesses of a large church and know what we need to be and do as leaders,” he says.

Peer groups based on size are also helpful at the congregational level. When pastors are encouraged and grow more confident in their understanding of governance issues, for instance, this knowledge is often eagerly absorbed by council members and church volunteers.

Staying Focused

Bomhof notes that his congregation recently went through a restructuring, and being able to apply his peer-group learnings to real-life situations has been rewarding. “I report to my council about what I’m learning, and it’s amazing how open they are to this. The peer group has given us some encouragement to make the changes that are needed in our congregation.”

Kranenburg says the peer group helps pastors and their churches stay focused on mission. “In getting together, we’ve recognized that we’re looking at issues that are important to all of us in building the church; they are not unique to our ministries. We’re learning that we need to just try things and make some adjustments and that’s OK.”

Making those adjustments is all part of the journey, say these pastors, and it’s a journey that looks quite different from the helm of a larger vessel. “If we going to be a big church, then we’re going to have to act like a big church,” Bomhof says. When it comes to ministry, one size definitely does not fit all.

Reading List for Leaders of Larger Churches

Can a Pastor Do It Alone? by Dr. Melvin J. Steinbron
Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels
Developing the Leaders Around You by John C. Maxwell
Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths by Dan B. Allender
The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World by Alan Roxburgh
One Size Doesn’t Fit All by Gary L. McIntosh
Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God by Greg Ogden