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Resource to aid smaller-church pastors


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Leading a smaller-membership church can be a lonely, difficult job. A pastor often mediates chronic tension between members and wrestles with church traditions that prevent new outreach efforts -– all the while working an outside job to provide for his family.

In a congregation of several dozen people, a pastor rarely feels he can turn to anyone in the church in times of frustration or discouragement, said Mitch Martin, bivocational ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Because his congregation isn’t large, a pastor may feel his local association or state convention staff is busy with “more important” issues and can’t be bothered by the problems of one pastor in a “little” church.

“A group of bivocational pastors was on their way to a meeting at their Baptist state convention office,” Martin said. “As they approached the front door, one of them stopped and said, ‘You mean we can just walk right in there?'”

Martin said that misperception is disappointing. “Most of our state conventions have someone on staff whose ministry is focused on helping pastors,” he noted.

“These pastors need to know that their churches and ministries are not substandard. They need to understand how to lead their congregations into the significant, effective ministry God created them to have.”


That’s why LifeWay is collaborating with state conventions and local associations across the country in a new initiative called “Significant Church FOCUS,” a leadership development process designed to help pastors find the unique strategy that will breathe new life into a congregation.

Smaller-membership churches are not inferior ministries; they are actually the norm in Southern Baptist life, said Ray Gilder, bivocational ministries specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Their problems, he said, are the entire convention’s problems.

“Only 1 percent of Southern Baptist churches averages more than 1,000 in Sunday School. About 75 percent of them average less than 100,” Gilder said. “Most of the churches that are plateaued or declining are bivocational and smaller-membership churches.

“Helping bring new life to these struggling congregations is strategically very important for building the Kingdom of God throughout Southern Baptist life,” he said.

Pastors and their wives from several smaller-membership churches got a sneak peek at Significant Church FOCUS during a weekend pilot project workshop at Cookeville, Tenn., in mid-September. Similar workshops were held in June and September in Louisiana; others are planned for coming months in New Mexico, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Significant Church FOCUS introduces a simple process called “The Leader’s Cross,” which guides a pastor in evaluating his church’s situation and its values and priorities, planning to achieve a few key goals and engaging the congregation in the work of ministry. The effectiveness of the initiative lies in helping pastors understand who God created them to be as leaders, then showing them how to enlist and work with core ministry partners in their church.

“Pastors basically do three things: lead, care and proclaim,” Martin said. “My research indicates that pastors feel their greatest need is knowing how to be more effective leaders. Too many pastors find themselves in the situation of being ‘Lone Ranger’ ministers. Although they don’t talk about it openly, many are quietly unhappy in their ministries.”

Martin noted that the subtitle of the initiative is FOCUS, which stands for Finding Our Church’s Unique Strategy. “I want pastors to know how to develop ministry teams in their churches and work together under God’s leadership to discover their unique ministry approach,” he said. “I want these pastors and teams to have a tool they can use to continually and indefinitely lead their churches forward.”

Many pastors mistakenly believe that preaching by itself will solve a church’s problems, said Billie Friel, interim director of missions for Wilson County Baptist Association in Tennessee.

“After the conference, one pastor told me he had thought he could preach his way out of pastoral needs and problems,” Friel said. “You won’t get there just by preaching; you have to be a leader.

Friel said Significant Church FOCUS “helps you understand that church leadership is a team effort between the pastor and his people. The only Lone Rangers in the Bible -– Jonah and Samson -– did not have effective, happy ministries.”

Dysfunction in smaller-membership settings is a problem that has been camouflaged far too long, said conference participant Dan Wilson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Bethpage, Tenn.

“Significant Church FOCUS brings us back to the basics of scriptural truth and the practical spiritual application of those truths in doing God’s work God’s way,” Wilson said. “If these principles of church mechanics are followed through, I believe it will completely change how we ‘do church.’ We will have healthier churches and ultimately see explosive results in all areas of church life.”

Noting that Significant Church FOCUS has great potential to revitalize congregations, Martin said, “There are approximately 30,000 Southern Baptist churches that average 125 or less in Sunday School. If all those churches started just one new Sunday School class with an enrollment of 10, that would mean 300,000 new people reached for Bible study. If they baptized just three additional people next year, that would mean almost 100,000 souls for the Kingdom.

“Smaller-membership churches are not only the backbone of the Southern Baptist Convention, they are the heart and soul, arms, legs, and feet of our work,” Martin said. “When God renews the leadership of 30,000 churches, we’ll see lives and communities transformed all across this country.”
Mark Kelly is a freelance writer in Gallatin, Tenn. For information about Significant Church FOCUS, contact associational directors of missions; state convention offices; or Mitch Martin at [email protected]