How Many Hats for the Chief?
By: Lyle E. Schaller
Recently, a 47-year-old senior minister named Travis Cole came to see me. The context for his diagnosis of his problem can be summarized in three paragraphs.
Following graduation from seminary at age 25, Travis had been invited to serve a small rural congregation that had been averaging 50 to 75 at Sunday morning worship ever since they had begun to include that number in their annual reports back in the early 1960s. The congregation traced its history back to 1858. Their first building had been destroyed by a fire in 1874. It was replaced by a new white frame structure on a larger parcel of land that also included two acres for a cemetery. In 1906, the farmer who had owned the adjacent land died and provided a bequest in his will of four additional acres on the north side of their site. In 1971, the congregation built a new modern house on a quarter acre of that bequest and remodeled the old parsonage into four classrooms, an office for the pastor, and a nursery for very young children.
Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1987, Travis arrived following seminary graduation. One reason he was attracted was what had been farm land was now in the third decade of that transformation from exurbia into suburbia. The 60 feet of right-of-way for what had been a country road on the western frontage of the congregation's site had been transformed into a 120-foot-wide state highway several years earlier. That had reduced the church site from 6 to 5 acres and also produced $4,800 in compensation from the state. A second reason for accepting the invitation was the parents of Travis' bride lived only 30 miles away. The third reason was he had been born into and reared in a farm family in another state who were pillars in a small rural church. In cultural and geographical terms, he "knew the territory."
While Travis brought 18years of life in rural America with him to his first experience as a parish pastor, he had spent four years in a large university located in a city that housed the capitol of that state. That had been followed by three years in a theological school located in a suburban city that also was experiencing a rapid increase in population. In addition, he had spent three summers as an intern in three different suburban congregations. Finally, his student days and those three internships had provided useful experiences as a leader in voluntary associations and as a public speaker. At least equally important were his extroverted personality and a natural smile that frequently covered his face and also made it easy to fulfill the role of Loving Shepherd.
Those Critical First Seven Years
Their wish was fulfilled! Three years later, the Sunday morning schedule had to be expanded to traditional worship followed by Sunday school followed by a second and more "upbeat" worship experience. Worship attendance averaged 63 in 1986, the last calendar year before Travis' arrival. By the end of 1992, that number had climbed to a combined average of 436 in a room that could accommodate about 250 at one time. Travis was comfortable and happy as chief preacher, No. 1 leader, loving shepherd, and chief strategist.
During those five years, the median age of the confirmed membership had dropped from 59 years to 41 years, and the median age of the elected volunteer policy-makers had plunged from 61 to 38. During those five years, several of the long-tenured members began to grumble, "These new people act like they own this church!" Nine of them left quietly to go to other churches in the area, but perhaps six out of seven of the current membership never noticed the absence of these former pillars. Anonymity can produce benefits as well as problems!
This rapid growth made it obvious to most that Travis needed help. The first addition was creating the position of church secretary and filling it with a 35-year-old woman who was a third-generation member. In 1989, what had begun as a part-time job became full-time. A part-time director of Christian education was added to the staff in 1991. She became full-time in 1995. A proposal to add a full-time associate minister to the payroll came up again in 1991 but was postponed in favor of constructing a new 350-seat sanctuary, the first unit of what was conceptualized as a three-stage building program on the land received as a bequest two decades earlier. This $2.7 million project was completed in late 1993.
Instead of adding a full-time associate minister to the staff, Travis decided the time had come to gradually reduce his role as a loving shepherd. He urged using those dollars to hire four part-time retired pastors. The first joined the staff in 1992 and specialized in pastoral care. The second was added in mid-1994 and specialized in nurturing the small group ministries. The third arrived in 1996. His specialty was the assimilation of newcomers. The fourth came in 1998 and shared in pastoral care. Each one preached one or two Sundays every year. It was not until 1998, when the first of these four chose full retirement and the average worship attendance was approaching 650, that the staff configuration was changed to add a full-time associate minister.
What's the Question?
"That's the point of my visit," replied Travis. "In 1999, we averaged 731 at worship, in 2000 that number reached 819, and in 2001 we peaked at 834. By 2002, our worship attendance averaged 793, and it has dropped by about 2 percent every year since. For 2008, we were down to 719. What do we do to reverse that trend? That's my question."
My immediate response was, "Join the crowd. My data book suggests that out of every six Protestant congregations that achieve an average weekend worship attendance of 800 or more, one continues to grow in size, one plateaus in the 750-to-850 range, and four drop back below 750. A parade of three or four senior ministers over the next decade often drops that number into the 430 to 600 range."
My second question was, "Are you staffed to be a congregation averaging 700 at worship or one averaging 1200 at worship? Are you staffed for 2012 or for 1999?" At that point, I pulled out my file on very large Protestant congregations and handed Travis a copy of the best reference I have read on the roles of senior pastors in very large Protestant churches in America. It was published in the fall 1988 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly. This article by Professor Dorothy Buckton James, "Values, Structure and Presidential Power," identifies the three traditional pillars of Presidential power: Commander-in-Chief, Chief of State, and Chief Executive. She adds a fourth to that list: Chief Diplomat. One value in using that as a reference point is most of the actual "work" that must be done in a self-governing nation is delegated to other paid staff. By contrast, four out of five Protestant congregations in America expect most of the work will be done by the pastor and lay volunteers.
The Presidential analogy is useful when the discussion focuses on the largest 4 percent of all Protestant congregations in America or those averaging more than 500 at worship. What are the four roles of the Senior Minister? An argument can be made that the three that must be on that list are Chief Preacher, Chief Executive Officer, and Chief of Staff. Chief of Pastoral Care rarely makes that list. Chief of Learning usually is delegated. A growing number of congregations also are served by a Church Business Administrator or an Executive Pastor.
Most congregations in American Protestantism averaging more than 500 at weekend worship expect the Senior Minister to be the Chief Preacher, Chief Executive, Chief of Staff, Chief Strategist, Chief of Pastoral Care, Chief Administrator, Chief Teacher, Chief of Interchurch Relationships, and Chief Representative of this church in this community. That is at least twice the appropriate number of hats.
If that traditional hierarchical staff pyramid had been replaced by the concept of a staff leadership team, the Senior Minister role usually has been redefined by the role of Team Leader. The Executive Minister in that team often fills the role of Chief Administrator. Another specialist on that team often is the Program Director, who serves as Chief of Ministries. Another specialist on that team may be Chief of the Group Life, and a fifth may be Chief of Pastoral Care. Too often, the role of Chief Strategist is vacant.
That last sentence introduces the heart of my advice to Travis Cole: "For at least 15 years, you were the Chief Strategist. You really have three choices. One is to decide what you won't do so you will have the time and energy required to continue to be the Chief Strategist. A second is to delegate to another full-time staff member the role of Chief Strategist. A third option is one that is appropriate for those churches averaging 300 to 600 at worship. This is to search for a part-time lay person, who will bring the gifts, skills, and experience required for that role and then delegate that responsibility as Chief Strategist to that specialist. The three areas of expertise that lay person probably will need to acquire are (1) lessons from the experiences of Protestant congregations averaging 900 to 1200 at worship on how to be an effective very large church, (2) the most relevant models in the staff configuration of these very large congregations, and (3) given the limitations in the size of your current site ,the most relevant roads to becoming a multisite ministry. In summary, Travis, you can continue to be team leader of a very large church, but you can't wear more than three or four hats if you want to reverse that recent numerical decline in your average worship attendance."
For many years, church growth expert Lyle Schaller enjoyed the comfort of wearing only three professional hats: parish consultant, teacher, and author.