In going through some files recently, I came across a church newsletter from April 1976. It provided an interesting snapshot of this particular church at that time. This county seat Baptist church in a southern state was averaging over 650 in Sunday morning worship. What caught my attention was that they had only three full-time staff members! Today we talk in terms of a church needing one full-time staff member for every 100 worshippers. The same church today runs about 450 on a Sunday and has the equivalent of six full-time staff ministers. What changed?
A lot has changed in three and a half decades. Let me suggest five primary changes that have impacted churches, their staffing expectations, and their effectiveness in mission.
First, society has changed. In this particular case, what was once a small county seat town is now part of a metropolitan area made up not only of individuals commuting 45 minutes to an hour to work but of professionals and blue-collar employees in locally situated medium-sized and even large industries. Lifestyles have changed and people are busier with more personal and family activities. The community has a number of dynamic service, educational, and recreational organizations. Church participation is now just one of many options from which residents can choose.
Second, as a result of the first change, there are fewer volunteers available to lead in programs and those who do are often pulled to other activities as well. The church of 1976 included fathers who worked in the community, stay-at-home mothers, and a strong tradition of volunteer service. None of those things is true today. This is not meant to be negative, but it is a fact. People have more choices of where to invest their time and energy.
Third, the church scene has changed. Let’s be honest: there is more competition between churches for members than there was three decades ago. Although we don’t want to admit it, most churches are growing by transfer growth rather than conversions. In this particular community, there was one large Baptist church; now there are at least four large Baptist churches with multiple staff ministers. And the competition is not only between churches of the same denomination. This community has a number of nondenominational churches that draw people of Baptist background and believers seem more willing to check out other denominations when they seek a church home as well.
Fourth, congregations expect more of their ministers. Perhaps due to the competition among churches, more is expected of ministers. In the fast-paced media age in which we live, ministers must not only be competent but extraordinary. We expect to be “wowed” whenever they speak before the congregation, do leadership training, or initiate a new ministry. We want specialists in every area of church life—preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, college, young adult, singles, married young adults, median adults, senior adults, and so on. The stress this creates in the life of a minister is a downside of their service.
Fifth, an accepted church growth strategy is to staff for the growth you want and your church will “grow into it.” This is not a bad concept, but sometimes a church staffs for numerical growth and the growth doesn’t happen. Population shifts, emphases change, and the economy tanks. This results in more staff members than the church can support and unwanted decisions about downsizing.
The primary challenge I would make to churches today is to be realistic about where you are and what you can expect of staff leadership. Culture, people, needs, and methodologies have changed. Competent staff members want to address the issues of today and not those of yesterday in order to encourage church health. At the same time, they cannot do it alone. Church members must step up and accept responsibilities with the support of these professional staff ministers. There are some things that staff ministers can do and should do, but the church is made up primarily of lay believers not professionals. The best staff members are both ministers and equippers, but the church needs those who are willing to be equipped.