The Church Size Matrix (Part 2)

New Life Christian Church (Chantilly, Virginia) regularly sponsors free, family events for the community.

By Kent E. Fillinger

The Church Size Matrix looks at six types of organizational change that take place as a church grows. In Part 1 of this article (April 10/17), we looked at two of these changes, Orientation and Structure. This week we consider the remaining four.

Minister’s Role

In his book One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Gary McIntosh wrote, “As the size of a church increases, the perception of a pastor changes from an emphasis on relational skills, to functional skills, to leadership skills.”

It is essential, therefore, to understand the progression of roles required by the senior minister to avoid bottlenecking the church’s growth potential and to successfully transition the church to the next size category. Many times the elders or church board, because of preconceived notions or expectations of a senior minister, can hinder the church’s potential by imperceptibly restricting a senior minister’s opportunity to transition to the next required role.

The small church minister functions as a pastor or shepherd who is expected to know and love his flock. The medium church minister must transition some into the role of an administrator who can manage more ministries and staff. As the church evolves into a large church, the minister must become a leader who can envision and implement a ministry growing ever more complex. In the emerging megachurch, the senior minister’s role shifts to that of being a better teacher, and his communication gifts continue playing a more vital role. The increasing size of the church and staff combined with a growing level of organizational complexity demands that the megachurch minister function more like the CEO of a successful, growing corporation. The gigachurch (attendance 10,000 or more) senior minister takes on a larger-than-life persona and receives celebrity or icon status in spite of his best efforts and intentions to spurn such associations.

Leadership and Decision Making

Who sets the direction in the church? In the small church, leadership and decision making normally is driven by a few key families, a couple of strong personalities, or a congregational vote of the entire church. In a medium church, the direction of the church falls to several major committees.

As new leaders are assimilated into the large church, the source of power resides with the elders and staff, with the elders typically taking a stronger leadership role in decision making. This scenario flip-flops in the emerging megachurch, as the church transitions to a more staff-led, elder-protected leadership structure. This adjustment frees the staff to make decisions within defined boundaries, allowing them to be more nimble and responsive to trends when making needed changes.

In the megachurch, the decision-making circle shrinks to the senior-level staff, which is managing various staff teams; elders offer input and feedback only in major policy or organizational change situations. The gigachurch relies on an executive core of staff to set the direction of the church, and the role of the elders or church board varies according to the agenda item and the professional expertise of the eldership or board.


Gigachurches use a smaller percentage of paid staff, as the staff-to-attendee ratio changes with increased size. The average emerging megachurch and megachurch has 1 staff member per 80 attendees, compared with 1 staff member per 131 attendees at a gigachurch, according to Leadership Network’s 2010 Large Church Finances and Staffing Report.

In the small church, the senior minister is often the only person on staff and must function as a generalist by wearing many hats. Multiple paid staff members are increasingly common, though, for churches with fewer than 250 in attendance, with staff typically hired to serve a particular generation within the church. This can sometimes result in additional growth that moves the small church into the medium-sized category.

The medium church often employs several specialists to lead certain high-priority ministries within the church, and the senior minister moves from being a shepherd to being a rancher. A large church continues to add more specialists, as more groups in the church feel a need for professional staff attention.

The emerging megachurch sometimes moves toward hiring a few ministry generalists to integrate with the specialists on staff, based on the priorities and passions of the church and its leadership. In the megachurch setting, staff members are grouped into teams of specialists, with multiple people focused specifically on certain ministries within the church. And in the gigachurch, given the scope of the ministries, there are multiple layers of staff with highly skilled division leaders providing oversight for specialized areas of ministry.


In Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code, Samuel Chand writes, “Organizational culture is like the air; it’s all around us, shaping every moment of every day, but we seldom notice it at all.” And Keller noted, “Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture.” Knowing that people tend to have a “size preference” helps explain why sometimes a positive, key leader at one stage in the life of the church chooses not to continue on as the church grows to the next size category.

The small church is marked by a traditional, or static, culture where change is often avoided out of fear of disrupting the relational life within the church or the fear of losing members.

As a church grows, it is subject to more frequent and sudden change. As a result of these changes; growing churches tend to lose more members. But usually leaders of growing churches are more willing to lose members who disagree with the direction and decisions of the church.

The medium church is in the midst of a turnaround culture as it tries to grow beyond the single-cell structure and stretch the church toward continued growth. Inherent with the turnaround culture are significant structural and stylistic changes that often result in conflict, as the once influential core begins to realize its power is diminishing and attempts to push back to maintain control. A church’s elders and staff must be united in their ownership and support of the church’s vision and direction to effectively navigate this change cycle, while also being willing to give up some people to continue on the journey.

The large church is transitional in nature as it strives to continue to grow and evolve. This is the stage where many churches plateau because they develop a level of comfort—the churches have added a team of ministry specialists to serve their various groups, and the churches feel large enough to be exciting without being so large they are overwhelming or unfamiliar to longtime members.

The emerging megachurch is best defined as a transforming culture. Such churches wrestle with feeling like an oversized large church that has attracted a diverse group of members. The compounding impact of changed lives and an increasing diversity of personal needs are more evident in such churches, as the leadership finds its footing in this new culture while it attempts to continue to grow.

With a cadre of specialists on staff and an awareness of, or connections with, other like-minded churches, megachurches excel at creative imitation; they adopt and adapt ideas that have worked in other megachurches while adding a personal signature that makes the idea feel homegrown.

A culture of innovation marks the gigachurch, as the wealth of staff time and resources enable them to explore new realms of ministry creativity while carving a path for other churches to follow. The innovative ideas employed by gigachurches often are sold in prepackaged resources to much smaller churches that hope to realize similar results.

Closing Thoughts

Lyle Schaller said in 44 Questions for Congregational Self-Appraisal, “The majority of North American Protestant congregations founded before 1970 are in a state of denial.” Too many churches and church leaders have resigned themselves to “do church” rather than striving to “be the church.” This has resulted in the American church’s declining social role and influence, and has left the church grasping to maintain a presence in people’s lives and the cultural landscape.

Organizational arrogance among church leaders is often connected with this denial. In Equipped for Adventure, Scott Kirby says, “Arrogance means that we think that we know all the answers and understand all of our problems and their solutions. It means we don’t need advice or input because we already have it all figured out. . . . The longer people are in a position of leadership, the more susceptible they are to this.” In Change Is Like a Slinky, Hans Finzel puts it this way: “We naturally think we become experts by virtue of longevity. Yet a common effect of all those years of practice is an isolation and conformity to traditions.”

Henri Matisse said, “To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.” In other words, as the saying goes, “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” So while we often talk of “insight,” a better goal might be “outsight,” that is, perspective from those outside your church or decision-making team to help you accurately gauge your church’s status.

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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  1. Bob
    April 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Sadly to me, this article, like so many, still seems to generally trend towards the idea that big is better. Why do we feel this way? Yes, for some being big is a good idea—certain communities, natural attraction, etc. However, the tendency seems to be that the churches below 1,000 always feel like they are “supposed to get bigger.” Getting bigger does nothing, per se, for the kingdom. Bringing nonbelievers to the Lord is what we are supposed to be doing and I don’t see that “big” necessarily [achieves] this. It is about serving the Lord and doing what he has asked—share the gospel. If this naturally produces “bigger,” then so be it. But God is not blessing “big” or “bigger,” he is blessing those who bring others to him and to his Son.

    Can we do something to let the smaller congregations know without a doubt that they are OK where they are as far as size? Don’t try to grow just because society and the larger church community seem to imply that you are less successful in the Lord’s eyes unless you grow bigger. Let growth happen naturally and, of course, adjust to it appropriately—this article does help to make the adjustments. But focus at all times on obeying what we have been called to do—preach the gospel to the whole world!

    P.S. — the article was enlightening!

  2. November 22, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    We are a multisite church with an 18-month-old second campus. It has grown from 80 adults and 30 kids to 275 adults and over a 100 kids. When the campus was planted they used a campus pastor and then shared staff for the rest for Childrens, Youth, and Worhip ministries. We have gone through many key volunteer leaders because of lack of support. Is there anyone using the shared staff model for mutisites?

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