Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Do you have an Ecclesiastical Exoskeleton?

One of the problems of having growing children, is that each time they shed their skin we have to dispose of it in a separate waste container to keep the council happy. I'm joking of course. But churches, that's something else. Churches have exoskeletons, they can grow a bit within current structures/buildings etc., but any serious attempt to change size requires some skin-shedding.

I've just finished 'The In-Between Church' by Alice Mann, (summary here), and it rang a lot of bells. She argues that church growth occurs in steps, rather than a smooth gradient, and the big steps are between 4 exoskeletons (my word). Here are the 4 size categories, the numbers refer to membership, and the descriptions are broad-brush:

Family size 0-50: like an extended biological family, all know each other, addition is by birth and marriage, new members incorporated very  slowly, matriarchs and patriarchs hold authority, clergy part time and short term, function as chaplains to the family. They normally have 1 good community ministry, offered in ‘down home’ style. Clergy are there for pastoral care, but will find it hard to lead change. These can survive both good and bad leadership.

Pastoral size 50-150: multi-cell organism, coalition of several family/friendship networks, unity is based around the pastor. Big enough to look like ‘real church’, small enough to feel personal. 2 or 3 strong ministries, personal touch in worship. Everyone knows the vicar and the vicar knows everyone. Clergy are expected to meet spiritual needs of the members. Works well for clergy with good interpersonal skills, but starts to break down at 130+, as people start to feel they don't know each other. Growth will often depend on the effectiveness/popularity of the pastor.

Program 150-350: Leadership team, has quality and variety in programmes. Critical mass of people from several demographic groups (children, youth, seniors etc) and entry points for people  from various backgrounds. Staff team, often with paid heads of ministry. Basis of unity is a shared vision and programme, rather than shared relationships with leadership/key people. Role of pastor is recruitment, training, supervision, vision & strategy, key ministry is to other leaders, not members. Not a great place for a leader who loves pastoral ministry. 

Corporate 300-500+ institutional presence in the community, key location, big building, large staff. Figurehead leader. In the CofE these are mostly cathedrals, plus a few churches in the larger population centres.

Growth between the sizes can be limited by several bits of the exoskeleton:
 - physical: e.g. parking, cramped buildling, rooms for childrens work
 - community - e.g. fixed population or low-flux culture (church growth is fastest in London, which has a larger population churn rate)
 - organisational: i.e. a plateau between one of these two size categories. A newcomer in a larger 'pastoral' church misses out on a visit because the vicar is too busy. A newcomer in a 'family' church finds they can't break in to the set roles and relationships and gets disillusioned. Etc.

Mann encourages churches to plot their membership/attendance history and note where the plateaus are - are there regular zones where membership levels out, or gets stuck?

Transition from one size to another is a crisis: the church starts to feel the pressure of outgrowing the exoskeleton, and needs to reorient its way of being: from family to pastor focused, from pastoral to programme etc. Evolving through the size stages will be like the Exodus - there'll be times when the cost of leaving 'Egypt' will seem to outweigh the promised benefits, which haven't fully appeared yet. When the old exoskeleton becomes compromised, it has to be shed or the church will hit a ceiling and fall back again. 

It's interesting to compare this to our experience in Yeovil. We have two churches. St. Peters is a 'family' style church, run by a close-knit group of people almost independent of clergy leadership for quite some time. In recent times some of the older members have gone to glory, and several new people have joined us. Several of those, with experience of larger churches, are struggling to work out how things work at St. Peters! The transition is coinciding with a number of new bits of outreach, and some growth.

St. James, the larger church, seemed to be plateauing at 100-120 (combined parish membership 120-140, one vicar, which fits the model). My post was a new 0.5 appointment 8 years ago, followed by a childrens worker 2-3 years later. St. James is now at 160 members, but faces a new exoskeleton, the building. We can't fit the regular congregation into the church, so we're reshaping the building to put in some extra seating. After that, we'll have to look at staffing again, and possibly looking at repeating the main service in another time slot or venue, which will mean identifying and training up some more worship leaders and preachers (which is getting into 'programme' style).

I'd be interested to hear if this all rings true with anyone else, and whether there are particular things which hit particular denominations - Anglicans have lots of 'family' sized churches (240+ of our 500 churches in Bath and Wells are 24 members or fewer). Looking at our recent membership stats (2011-12), out of 37 churches larger than 130 members, only 7 grew year-on-year. In the zone where you''d expect 'pastoral' churches to be compromised (140-200), 20 of the 22 churches in this size group were flat or declining. 

This may also explain one of the findings in 'From Anecdote to Evidence', the report on church growth in the CofE earlier this year. It found that amalgamating parishes was a good way to ensure declining members. Churches in 'pastoral' mode which have to cope with a smaller share of their vicar, will end up with smaller congregations. And it will be very hard for stretched leaders to put the time and energy needed into a church which is trying to shed a skin and grow. 


  1. This rings true, and is a good description of real life! We have gone from a church with 14 older ladies to one of 35 with young families, over 5 years, which followed the Diocese' investment in creating the post I took... can we continue to grow, on a housing estate with low people turn-over, despite being in south London? I don't know, and I don't know if I will be replaced when it comes time for us to leave....

    So much of 'anecdote to evidence' rings true, especially the bit about having a vicar with a vision for growth is more likely to lead the church to growth... which sounds obvious, but the first challenge is to have a vicar (or other main leader), the second is one with vision...!

  2. Personally as an involved pew-sitter I find it hard to feel fully part of a church that is greater than 100 strong. After 150 I start to want church planting to occur. I'm not comfortable in programme-based churches at all - too impersonal and I get frustrated at not being able to know everyone. Also, everything starts to feel like a job rather than a family. On the other hand, too small and you may not have enough people with the right gifts and things can feel a bit ragged around the edges.

    Larger programme-based churches almost seem to me to have turned into service-providers and that's not why I go to church at all. Is this just my personal preference, or are larger churches just too big to be church?

  3. We're a pastoral sized church at St. Margaret's, Edmonton. I know these classifications well as the Alban Institute in North America has been promoting them for years. But I think they could use some serious upgrades. I note two emerging factors, and a biblical observation:

    1. How do you calculate the numbers? Members, or average attendance? I haven't read Alice Mann's book, but the Alban Institute literature seems a little confused on this subject. If it's average attendance, there's a problem. The original Alban Institute material was written in the 1970s, but in the 1970s people came to church more often than they do now. Hence, it takes a large pool of churchgoers to sustain an average attendance of 150 now than it did forty years ago. So the figures could probably use some revising.

    2. I started out at St. Margaret's 14 years ago with the idea that god was calling us to make the transition to a program sized church. But there's a problem; young people today seem to have zero appetite for programs. The young families in our church are scheduled to the hilt, and very few of them can make the time to participate in yet more activities. Sunday worship, and one on one conversations over coffee or lunch with the pastor, plus the occasional home visit after the kids are in bed - they can do that. After a few years of trying to hit my head against a brick wall on this point, I gave up and went back to the one on one relational ministry I learned from my Dad.

    3. There's also the fact that very few NT churches would have been even pastoral size, let alone program size. They needed to be able to worship in a living room; hence, everything essential to church life must be doable in a living room. And most of what the NT has to say about church life presupposes an intimate relationship between the members - which, as Tess has found, get problematic as you get up around a hundred. I'm guessing that, if you really want a church that fits the NT data, you ought to be thinking about church planting when you get to the upper end of the pastoral size category.

    Tim Chesterton

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