Several years ago, I was challenged as a youth pastor to give my leadership away — delegate, delegate, and delegate.
The challenger warned me that I could only reach so many people, but if I delegated and empowered, I could lead larger ministries with longer reaches and greater sustainability.
The challenger mentioned that my personal limit of people I could effectively influence was likely around 120-150.
If I could influence leaders, the ministry could grow beyond my personal limits.
One blog I read (ChrisBrogan.com) shares the source behind the social limit of real relationships that a person can maintain.
There’s a theory called Dunbar’s Number that suggests there’s an upper limit to the amount of relationships we can maintain. If you’re interested in networking, this should be an issue. That number, for the record, is 150.
Source: Beating Dunbars Number | chrisbrogan.com.
Implications for pastors
I know of a church plant that started about nearly 10 years ago. I checked in on it recently, and the pastor reports that it has plateaued about 125-135 people for the past five years and that the turnover rate is about 45% each year.
New people come in, other people leave after about a year or two. The net effect is that the congregation has remained numerically stable.
This church is a single pastorate, and the pastor has a leadership style where his hand is in everything.
Pastor sets the direction (with a board of government), pastor runs the small groups, pastor runs the worship service and no ministry gets started without the pastor’s initiative. Recently pastor split up the small groups into different areas, but he still maintains a pretty tight involvement with the leaders.
Pastor lovingly leads it all. There is joy in the congregation, no complaints, and for this church this type of leadership functions.
It’s not a dictatorship and pastor is not a control freak. He gets joy out of being involved.
Now, before you agree with me that this is
- Not healthy, or
- A recipe for burnout or
- Effective in a small church, or
- Leadership style that hinders further growth
let me connect it to the point.
1. The church will not grow any larger.
If Dunbar’s number holds true, the limit of a single pastor who feels the need to be involved in everything will be about 150.
It seems to me that the congregation has reached the practical end of its growth unless the pastor gives and empowers leadership to raise up their own networks.
2. Leaders leave because they can’t serve or lead.
This church leadership model does not delegate and empower leadership of other ministry. It doesn’t effectively raise up others to lead their own network of 150.
Not having a place to serve or contribute their gifts after a while, solid believers leave for a place where they can serve.
This particular congregation is at a stage of church growth. If it wants to continue its dream of fulfilling its particular calling, one thing that must change is the leadership style.
Implications for Church Planting
I know it’s not as simple as waving a wand to make a solution, but if you are wondering why your church isn’t growing — perhaps you’ve maxed out the social limit of your leaders?
How much leadership can you give away to trusted and respected leaders?
With regards to evangelism training in your church’s DNA, is the pastor in charge of it all, or is that delegated as well to empowered leaders?
One church planting coach that I have gotten to know uses Jethro’s advice to Moses — delegate and empower. Put people in charges of 50s, 100s, and 1000s.
Implications for Church Visitor Retention Rates
There are practical implications here as well to keeping church visitors in your midst.
In the church I describe, the back door is as big as the front door.
People come and perhaps stay connected for a little while, but without the empowerment to lead and serve in ministries, they may likely take their gifting elsewhere where they are needed.
Your church is working hard at retaining visitors and building connections, but the leadership DNA won’t let it grow.
Could this issue — 150 people per pastor — be part of the reason? Take a look and think about it for a while. Add your comments below.
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I’ve known a congregation like this. It reached nearly 180 in worship, but that was a time when there were a few very active elders in leadership, and not long after building the initial structure in a good location. Pastor is quite the evangelist, but there are so many churches around which are larger, and have so many special programs, that people are drawn away. They just don’t “stick”.
It would seem that if more would stick around, that this congregation would have the opportunity to get large enough to offer some of those same programs.
I see it as a leadership problem – but perhaps this shouldn’t all be placed upon the shoulders of the pastor. There need to be leaders who grow and step up. In the congregation I’m speaking of, leaders continued to be educated and lifted, only to have them move away. I’m very serious about this. The congregation has become a sending congregation, in that quite a few have gone from there into seminary or ministry in other locations. Pastor has time and time again lifted up leadership, only to have them leave. One year, half the Elders left for seminary (I was one of them).
I imagine this is rather frustrating at times for the pastor. But now, the congregation is seeking to start a new congregation. It might be another congregation which reaches 150 in worship – who knows. But with a couple more of these congregations, they could support a new missionary, or any number of ministries – with their combined effort. So, maybe a new model is possible out of this limit upon leadership in transitional times?
BTW – there are so many congregations which have fewer than 100 members and fewer than 50 in worship. This is certainly not related to Dunbar’s number – so it seems there is much more to consider than the upper limits to numbers of relationships.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In looking at the church in my example, there could be many other issues. In smaller churches, there could be other issues.
But in this particular one, it seems that pastor had reached the limit of what he himself could handle. In this kind of context, perhaps this is a valid question.
I’m not sure the question could be valid in a smaller congregation, or how it would be valid in a multi-staff / multi-site situation.
Your question about church planting strikes a chord — would the next church spun off have the same DNA and the same challenges?
As it turned out, the church in my example spun off a second congregation. Pastor oversees both.
If pastor oversees both, is it considered multi-site? I would think this arrangement means the total of both congregations will be around 170 together. How long has the new church been meeting, and how are they doing on attendance?
I’m guessing that Dunbar’s suggestion of 150 is somewhat variable – that some pastors will be more at 120, and some can handle 180.
There are indeed gatekeepers who will keep a congregation from getting too large – this is achieved by various means, and generally isn’t a top of the mind intentional driving people away. There are some who like “their” church just as it is – please don’t change a thing. Others are welcome only if nothing changes.
In this arrangement, the second church is actually another denominational tradition, with its own leadership structure and form of government.
Complex animal. There’s more layers of complexity than I’ll go into here, but it is a separate congregation.
In terms of its attendance, I just don’t know. I didn’t get into that conversation last February.
Thanks for chiming in.
I checked wikipedia on “Dunbars Number”, and I see that his research was for populations which were pre-industrial. Another set of researchers came up with 290 as the mean, and 231 as the median.
I think there is something more going on at the plateaued congregation you referred to in the original post.
I recall the congregation where we saw the high rate of turnover. The nursery set a limit on the number of people who can have children. Folks want the nursery available. But when the nursery gets overcrowded, people will leave the church.
There’s also the affect of having too much or too little seating. And the size of the parking lot makes a difference. Once the 80% level is reached, people will go elsewhere. The expectations of the people make a difference as well. I don’t think Dunbar’s Number is indicative of the number who attend worship in a given congregation…
Thanks for bringing some more clarity to the issue. There is likely a lot more going on in the sample congregation I describe. But what this number raised for me was a possible way of looking into the plateau.
In otherwords, the number struck a chord in my mind — it raised a question.
When looking for the answer to the question “Does this apply to this congregation” I began to see the leadership style that I didn’t see before.
In that sense, Dunbar’s number revealed a possible source of the plateau, or one of the many contributing factors to the plateau.