What I Learned in My First Year of Pastoring: The Tyranny of Numbers

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As a small church pastor, it’s tough to completely ignore numbers. In this article, Kirk Taylor opens up about his struggle to focus on the things that really matter in his first year of pastoring a small church, and how this surprised him.

I am a small church pastor.  Despite the many surprises and challenges that come with pastoring a small church, a fixation on numbers has been my biggest obstacle throughout my first year.  Small church pastors hear countless voices saying that our churches must grow because bigger equals better, and we can look out from the pulpit and know with a single glance if we are bigger and better that week or not.

Bigger isn’t bad, but when it becomes our goal we can develop some unhealthy habits.  For me, however, it wasn’t just the pressure to grow that fed my obsession with numbers.  I began to pay attention to numbers because my church MUST grow.  When I say my church is small, I mean that my church is TINY.  We actually have a very vibrant and productive ministry for such a small group of people.  Yet, if we don’t grow, our existence beyond the next five years is uncertain because we may not have enough people, money, or energy left to keep going.

I felt like I had to pay attention to numbers.  I thought my concern was justified.  But I am afraid that sometimes I unintentionally served the numbers more than I served God.  I’m not proud of it, but I also know that I am not the only pastor who struggles with this tension week after week, no matter what size their church.

A fixation on numbers is dangerous because numbers have the power to control everything about our ministries. Numbers have the power to influence which outreach we do, what programs we start, and who we spend time with.

Instead of focusing on the least of these, I was tempted to focus primarily on those with influence.  Outreach ideas became about attracting people to our weekend service.  Sunday mornings were reduced to numbers in my mind, and at home on Sunday afternoon I would measure the success of the service based not on how people met God in community and were equipped to go and minister in their worlds that week, but rather on how many faces were looking back at me from the pews.

The tyranny of numbers has the power to make every aspect of ministry about what is in it for my church and me.  It twists ministry so that it is no longer about serving people with Christ’s love and instead about serving my ego, my paycheck, or my church’s year-end statistics.

But here’s the thing: I thought I knew all of this.  I knew going into ministry that a number fixation could completely derail the plans that God had for my church.  I have always desired to work in small churches because I value their intimacy.  I was prepared to succeed in a small church and not be bothered by the small numbers.  I thought I would be immune, and that is why my struggles have surprised me so much.

Chances are that you thought you would be immune as well.  Hopefully you were, but if you find that the pressures of ministry, big or small, have you looking with hope at your attendance records each week, it’s time to look elsewhere for a solution.

I’d like to say that now that I have realized this, I have found an easy fix and broken free of numbers’ tyranny.  Sadly, it hasn’t been that simple.  I can’t just change some programs at church. I’m the one who needs to be fixed.  I find new ways every day that I must continue surrendering to the Spirit’s work in my heart, until even the motives behind my ministry reflect the selflessness of Jesus.

After reading my above confession, it may sound like I got everything completely wrong in my first year, and that I would do everything differently if I could go back and start over.  That’s not necessarily true though.  I would do many of the same ministries, but with different motives.

For example, our new youth programs have been incredible for the teens in our community, and we plan to continue improving them in the year to come.  Yet, if I could start over, I would do the same programs with different motives.  I would start out by asking what the teens need rather than what my church needs.  I wouldn’t start a youth program because it might help our church grow.  I would start the program because our teens’ spiritual well-being is important to God, and I want to work beside him.

As a small church pastor, I’ll never be able to completely ignore numbers. But going forward, I hope that I remember that I am not here to grow a church. I am here to serve others, seek their good, and introduce them to Jesus.

11 COMMENTS

  1. As a pastor of a church plant I really liked what you said. As people started to attend our church and the did grow, it was easy for our core group to get all excited. But I would remind them, our vision was conversions and not butts in the seats. At the end of year, how many baptisms have we had? How many people are actually discipling someone? The true health of a church can be measured by how many members are investing their lives into some elses spiritual walk with Jesus? Are we making disciples as a church community or is the church dumping on the pastor and the “leaders.”
    Thank you for your words and authenticity.

  2. I left ministry just because of this very issue. My District Superintendent told me I had to grow the church, numbers and apportionments were the only thing that mattered in this day and age. He told me it was not about ministering to the people, but it was about growth. He then told me, my future in ministry was hinging on GROWTH only.
    My concern is that the church has become just like a corporation, not the body of Christ. Individuals no longer matter, just the greater church.

  3. Great article, Kirk! You’ve discovered a perspective that will go a long way toward making your ministry a success. Blessings on you!

  4. Every number has a name. Every name has a story. When I look out Sunday mornings, I want to know the story of the “missing cherished.” If I can connect their story to God’s story then the numbers are what they should be…just numbers. God’s interested in the stories of people…so should we. This is a great article, just an idea of how to get out of the mentality of looking at the numbers. I wonder when the church started to focus on numbers all the time?

    • Thanks Karl. I read your book earlier this year, and it’s been a great help for me while working through this challenge. It also inspired my opening sentence!

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