by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 6/29/16.
To lead an organization, you must first understand how the organization “behaves” and then begin to “manage” the “organizational behavior.” Here are comments about church organizational size, behavior and management edited together here from my writings.
To lead an organization you must begin by analyzing how the organization behaves. It is like a child, you adjust your parenting as they grow and behave differently. So, to lead a church effectively you must first step back and watch how the organization behaves.
The first step in doing so is to look at how the church is made up of many smaller groupings. Some of these groupings are small groups (around 12 people, but they can get larger), clusters (groups of 20-75 with an extended family focus) and sub-congregations (group of 30-150, notice the overlap) that function as tribal group focusing (usually) around celebrations.
Three Organizational Structures in Most Churches
- Size: around 12 people, but they can get larger
- Focus: intimacy, accountability
- Ministry: UP-IN-OUT (typically):
- IN = strong
- UP = moderate
- OUT = weak
- Size: groups of 20-75, usually a cluster of formal (or informal) small groups
- Focus: an extended family feel of interreliance and task orientation.
- Ministry: UP-IN-OUT (typically):
- IN = moderate
- UP = moderate
- OUT = strong
- Size: group of 30-150, notice the overlap
- Focus: function as a tribal group (Dunbar Group) often focusing around celebrations
- Ministry: UP-IN-OUT (typically):
- IN = low
- UP = strong
- OUT = moderate to strong
More Details About Small Groups, Clusters and Sub-congregations
See these articles on small groups: https://churchhealthwiki.wordpress.com/?s=small+groups
In fact, Mike Breen (former rector of St. Tom’s Church in Sheffield England where cluster terminology developed) told me in a personal conversation that “Clusters are like the movie: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That is because the cluster is made up of many nuclear families, which we call small groups, and this network of nuclear families creates an extended family feel – that’s what we call a cluster” (personal conversation, Peak District, UK, May 2005).
In Mike’s mind you could think of the small groups as each a circular grape, and when you get a bunch of small groups together you got a “cluster” (often sized 30-75). So, a cluster is a network of small groups linked by a tribal or extended family identity.
But, Mike and his colleague Bob Hopkins felt the key to healthy clusters, is to “missionalize” these clusters is by addressing three elements.
Online you can find the book by Bob Hopkins and Mike Breen titled “Clusters: creating midsized missional communities” (3DMinistries.com and Alderway Publishing).
“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”
This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.
It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.
These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”
A sub-congregation is a group within the church, that functions, in Asbury Professor George Hunter’s words, as “a church within a church.” (For a definition of a sub-congregation, click HERE)
…I have noted in some of my other wiki- postings (CLICK HERE), that sub-congregations form as a natural “organizational behavior” and that we must recognize them if we are to “manage” their behavior. Thus, I think many students have found it helpful to look at their emerging sub-congregations (which are currently of small group size) so they can manage them into growth and eventually a full-fledged (and larger) sub-congregation.
The idea of sub-congregations is found in church organizational writers such as in my books (2000:25-30; 2007:50-71) as well as:
Eddie Gibbs (I Believe in Church Growth, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981: 276-280),
Pete Wagner (Your Church Can Grow, Oregon, Resource Pub., 2001:101-102 ),
Larry Richards (A New Face for the Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 1970: 34-35)
George G. Hunter (The Contagious Congregation [Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press] 1979:63) of which Hunter said that every congregation is a really “a congregation of congregations” (p. 63).
Many non-consultant leadership writers are largely unaware to this because they are students of leadership but not necessarily of organizational behavior. Most management scholars believe that you must first understand an organization’s “behavior” before you try to manage it. Thus, while working on my Ph.D. at Fuller I had Kent Miller of Michigan State as a professor (he is a Professor of Strategic Management there). Dr. Miller stressed that church leaders often fail at leadership because they don’t first analyze and understand the organizational behavior they are trying to manage. All that is to say is that the writings on this are not massive (but they should be).
The student also wrote, “But I also notice that the sub-congregations that I do have (boomer’s and GenX) seem to be moving together well – at what point do you beginning looking at their inherent differences and start strategizing for it?’”
SUB-CONGREGATIONS & How To Use Them to Grow a Small Church in Just 6-Steps Take a look at that posting. Also, here is a quick synopsis:
1) Locate emerging sub-congregational cultures in the community.
2) Mentor an indigenous leader from the culture you identified in Step 1 who will bring together a small group for Biblical discipleship of this indigenous culture.
3) Get the existing small group to plant another group like themselves. Don’t try to force them to divide. Rather, encourage them to reach more people by starting another group like themselves at another time or place. This is called “seeding” a new small group, where a couple leaders and a few people volunteer to start this new small group.
4) Cluster or network your small groups at least once a quarter. By this I mean get your small groups from the same emerging sub-congregation together at least once every three months for unity building.
5) Create more small groups as new ones approach 12 in attendance. Use the small group “seeding” strategy of Step 3 above. And, use Step 4 to keep these new small groups “clustering” once a quarter with other small groups of their cultural sub-congregation.
6) Once you have a total of 50 people in your small group network, or cluster, create a new and regular worship encounter for them. This then becomes the new worship encounter for this emerging sub-congregation. (Notice that like John Wesley, small groups [class meetings] are created before big worship gatherings [society meetings].)
I am usually stretching students with ostensibly non-traditional strategies, but the typical strategies (making everyone melt into an indistinct grey-green cultural goo) is not working. And, the strategy I outlined above is working in churches that are growing amid disinterested and unfriendly cultures, such as St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield England (http://www.sttoms.net ).
Gary McIntosh in “Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” In the book and conference he outlined Church levels as such:
The Relational Church: 15-200 worshippers
The Managerial Church: 200-400 worshippers
The Organizational Church: 400-800 worshippers
The Centralized Church: 800-1,500 worshippers
The Decentralized Church: 1,500-plus worshippers
Whitesel Typology = McIntosh + Dunbar
Gary McIntosh has helped by delineating different types of churches. But he knows that I disagree with him on one aspect. And that is that you don’t have to have that number of worshipers to be that type of church. In other words, some of us have seen churches that are overly organized in the 150 range. And we have seen churches that exhibit all the hallmarks of the centralized church in the 300 range.
What I think is a key is that churches can be “decentralized” much before they’re up to 1500 worshipers. What Gary is saying is that churches typically are decentralized once they get over 1,500 worshipers.
But, I have seen many churches that are over 1,500 worshipers which really are structured like an organizational church. Gary knows I disagree with him and that is because I tend to work with more different varieties and sizes of churches. But I think the personalities of these five churches are valid … but just not that these personalities are limited to these size ranges.
Now, why is this important? It is important because the “decentralized church” is for McIntosh the goal of churches. And, I agree. I just think you can be “decentralized” for health and growth much earlier … even around 100 attendees.