One of the primary reasons churches under 1,000 fail to grow is their Senior Pastors have never called into question, then systematically dismantled, the “close to the pastor syndrome” in their churches.
The “close to the pastor syndrome” is a wonky dynamic where long-time members feel that for “the church to feel like church” they need open, unfettered access to their Pastor at all times.
People in churches of 400 want to spend the same amount of time with their Senior Pastor as they did when the church ran 75.
People in churches of 1,000 want to go to the baseball game with their Senior Pastor like they did when they were 275.
Whatever relationship they had when they began attending the church, their expectation is that that same relationship will continue, even if the church recently added 300 new people.
The problem is as churches grow, access must diminish as the point leader focuses on leading staff and raising up high capacity leaders.
What Senior Pastors typically do as their churches face new growth barriers is they try to do both – they try to lead the congregation in growth (by narrowing their focus on finding high capacity leaders and mentoring staff) AND maintain the same relational patterns with long-time members as they had in the early years.
Why do they do this?
They don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
They don’t want to make people who have fought alongside the Senior Pastor in the “war years” to feel used, like they are being tossed aside as better and brighter people occupy their time.
They try to keep those relationships with longer-term members “trapped in time,” and exactly the way they’ve always been, primarily because things are easier that way. Why cause undue stress and relational turbulence as long as they can “keep certain people thinking” that things haven’t changed between them when, in fact, things changed quite a long time ago?
This, my friends, is the “close to the pastor syndrome.”
Why the “Close to the Pastor Syndrome” Can’t Be Ignored
Here are a few important reasons why this cannot be ignored.
1. You Will Never Have a Relationship with More than 120 People at Your Church.
I don’t care what denomination you belong to. How extroverted you think you are. What unique philosophy of ministry you bring to the table that demands that the role of “pastor” means helping people in a one-on-one capacity ad infinitum.
You can memorize names, stand at the door and shake hands, and even call everyone in your church on their birthday like a friend of mine does – but none of those things will change the fact that you will never have a real relationship with more than 120 people at your church.
The quicker you accept that fact, the sooner you’ll be able to set into motion what is needed to reach lost people and help them become self-feeding and reproducing disciples of Jesus.
At the end of Jesus’ ministry – after speaking to thousands over three years – there were only 120 people left in a house in Jerusalem trying to figure out what to do next (Acts 1:15).
It is obvious these were the people who actually knew him.
His actual friends.
People he actually spent time with.
Those in which he actually invested his personal time and energy.
This group was comprised of his twelve apostles, their wives and kids, and a wider band of disciples like Stephen, Phillip and the others who comprised the 72 sent out in Luke 10:1.
Could there have been more? Of course.
But after coaching dozens of Senior Pastors – people intent upon expending themselves in the pursuit of kingdom expansion – I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.
After a Senior Pastor’s schedule has been maximized, priorities aligned, and energy bolstered, the average Senior Pastor can juggle no more than 120 actual relationships.
My hunch is that Luke’s recognition that there were only 120 people left in the upper room after Jesus’ crucifixion was not just a trivial fact.
If Jesus could only manage to personally connect with 120 people, why would we expect to be any different?
Take your 2016 attendance and subtract 120 from that number.
Let’s focus, for instance, on a hypothetical church: Community Christian Church in Topeka, Kansas, led by Pastor Steve Johnson. Last year Community ran 300 a week in attendance.
300 people (2016 attendance)
Every single attender at Community thinks that in some way they have an actual relationship with Pastor Steve.
The reality is they don’t. They just don’t realize that yet.
Steve, like every person reading this article, is not capable of having actual, personal relationships with 300 people at the same time. There is not enough time, nor does Steve have enough emotional energy (no matter how extroverted he thinks he is) to interact relationally with so many people on an ongoing basis.
The problem at Community is they’ve been flatlined at 300 for the last five years. Unless things change, they’ll be running 240 or less in another five, so Steve knows he needs to act fast.
2. To Grow You Must Invest in Leaders.
If you haven’t lead your staff and leaders through a study of the first chapter of Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism, they’re in for a paradigm-busting experience.
Coleman begins his book by saying,
“It all started by Jesus calling a few men to follow him. This revealed immediately the direction His evangelistic strategy would take. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow… hence, as the company of followers around Jesus increased, it became necessary by the middle of His second year of ministry to narrow the select company to a more manageable number.
…Why? Why did Jesus deliberately concentrate His life upon comparatively so few people? Had he not come to save the world?…The answer to this question focuses on the real purpose of His plan for evangelism. Jesus was not trying to impress the crowd but to usher in a Kingdom. This meant that he needed men who could lead the multitudes.”
And that, my friend, is the primary reason why we must call out, and dismantle, the “close to the pastor syndrome” in our churches.
Jesus had his inner circle: Peter, James and John.
Then the disciples.
Then the broader 120, of which people like Mary, Martha, his mother, and others were a part.
And that’s it.
That’s all he had time for.
And he changed the world as a result.
Remember our figurative leader, Pastor Steve?
Steve realizes that if he’s going to lead the church forward, he’s going to have to lead like Jesus and invest in what I call “A Leaders” – leaders who can lead leaders. He’s going to have to find and mentor 12 close leaders (his emerging staff and elder board) and a broader group of 100+ others.
Steve knows the future will come not by adopting some unique model of ministry, as much as finding the right people who, in the words of Robert Coleman, “could lead the masses.”
He realizes that utilizing a chaplaincy approach to church leadership (“I’ll just be a hands-on pastor to as many people I can as time allows”) has kept the people who have been members for 10+ years happy, but few people are coming to Christ. Giving is declining. Momentum is gone.
Steve decides that given the limited time he has, he’s going to devote a disproportionate amount of that time to seeking, leading to Christ, discipling and releasing high capacity leaders into the church’s ministry who will, in turn, lead the future yet-to-be-converted masses.
When that happens, the 180 people who never had a relationship with Steve in the first place (and a sizeable number of the 120 people with whom he did), start to feel like Steve is inaccessible to them.
Steve doesn’t have as much time for them as he used to.
Steve doesn’t call them up to do things together anymore.
Steve doesn’t get the wives together.
Steve just doesn’t text like he used to.
People get frustrated.
The fact that the majority of the 300 church members “thought” they had a relationship with Pastor Steve, but did not, was never a problem, until now.
3. Your Pastoral Theology Is Terrible.
Sorry to say it like this, but it’s the truth.
The average small church board is under the impression that to be a Senior Pastor who is “doing their job” we need to run around and be an on-call chaplain for every single pastoral care emergency.
Do you want to know who’s to blame for this?
We must teach our boards that this is NOT what godly, New Testament servant leadership looks like.
God has called Pastors and Teachers to do what? “Equip God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12). That means we can’t “hoard” the works of service meant for God’s people by doing it ourselves.
The entire body was designed to do pastoral care.
The entire body was meant to be there for people in a crisis.
The entire church body was meant to do 99.999% of the things small church Senior Pastors do themselves.
As Tim Keller so masterfully notes,
“The larger the church, the more decision making is pushed up toward the staff and away from the congregation and lay leaders. Needless to say, many lay people feel extremely uncomfortable with this. On the other hand, the larger the church, the more the basic pastoral ministry such as hospital visits, discipling, oversight of Christian growth, and counseling is done by lay leaders rather than by the professional ministers.”
In other words, as new converts emerge, our role shifts from a doer of ministry to a trainer of ministry.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of pastors in churches today grew up in churches under 200 and were trained by professors that grew up in (and led) churches under 200. It makes perfect sense why we’ve inherited a pastoral theology that reinforces a “ministry hoarding” approach.
As a mentor of mine told me years ago, “Throw away all your pastoral theology books. They were all written by people who have never been Senior Pastors, and if they were, their churches were never larger than 200 in size.”
Am I saying that all churches must grow beyond 200? Of course not. I have a friend that leads a church of 100 in a rural area that has fifty people in a 10-mile radius. That’s more impressive to me than mega-churches of 20,000+.
What I am saying is that churches disobey Ephesians 4:12 when their point leaders refuse to lead their congregation for fear of being criticized.
In his book Reinventing Leadership, Warren Bennis puts it this way,
“You cannot personalize the things you’re going to hear, because you can’t do a job as a leader if you’re not going to overthrow the system, if you’re not going to open things up, if you’re not going to rock the boat – and then you have to handle the criticism that such measures invite. I mean, if there’s one thing that’s true of leaders today, it’s that they have to change the system.”
How to Address “Close to the Pastor Syndrome” in Your Church
Why do we keep up appearances that we’re “friends” with people when we’re not? The answer is simple.
We don’t want them to leave.
We don’t want them to stop giving.
We don’t want them to think we’re trying to become celebrities.
We don’t want them to create problems with other people.
I’m here to tell you that very little of this will happen if you are willing to address the “close to the pastor syndrome” in a truthful, but gracious way.
1. Make a List of Your 120, but Recognize That Your List Will Constantly Change.
These will be your staff, elders, key advisors, and high capacity leaders you are mentoring.
Keep in mind that WHO comprises this group constantly changes.
Who you spent time with at 200 is different than who you’re spending time with at 400 and 600.
Who you spend time with at 2,000 is different than who you spend time with at 1,000, and so on.
Recognize that the larger you get, the more focused you must become on being intentional with your 120, but that group will morph over time.
In fact, as your church grows, you will not only spend less time with certain church members, you will spend less time with certain staff members.
I have a friend who is a Senior Pastor of a large church in Los Angeles. His Executive Pastor tells every new hire, “Please understand it may be a very long time before you even meet [Senior Pastor].”
As bizarre/sinful/weird/unhealthy as that might seem to some people, it’s just a reality.
The larger you become, the less access people will have to you.
2. Increase Your Pastoral Presence for Everyone Else.
I tell Senior Pastors that I coach that while they will only be a hands-on pastor to 120 people, they will also forever be a “pastoral presence” to all of their people.
Each Senior Pastor must determine how best to accomplish this for themselves.
For me, that means trying to hug as many people as I can on Sunday morning, and standing at the front of the room after each service and praying for people as long as they need to talk. I stay until the last person is gone.
Do I do pastoral care? Of course, just like every other staff member. I visit hospitals. I do funerals. I perform weddings. Just like everyone else. The difference is I only do these things for people in that group of 120 (and again, that group is constantly changing).
For everyone else, I pastor them on Sundays.
3. Take Practical Steps to Divert Requests for Your Time to Other Leaders in Your Church.
Our goal is not to isolate ourselves, but to get our people the help they need.
That inevitably means that as needs arise, we must divert requests to other leaders in our church. This is nothing more than Acts 6 in action.
Here are some practical ways to make this happen:
- Change your cell phone number and don’t give it out to anyone who is not on that list.
- Keep your current email address, but route that to either a paid assistant or to a volunteer, who will handle your communication. Consider this your “public” email address.
- Create a private email address that you only share with your staff, leadership, and the leaders in which you are investing (your 120).
- Stop setting up meetings with people who are not in that group, except for Thursday afternoons (see my article How Senior Pastors Can Schedule Their Week For Maximum Impact).
- Push requests to meet with you to other staff and leaders.
- Don’t let people guilt you to death for making these changes.
4. Have the DTR (“Define the Relationship”) Talk When You Receive Pushback.
What happens when someone who fought alongside you in “the war years” is now someone that you’re thankful for, but is not someone you feel God is leading you to invest in going forward?
What happens when, let’s say, a man named Jim approaches you after service one day and tells you “The weirdest thing happened this week! I tried calling you, and it said that you have a new, unlisted phone number. What’s your new number? I want to text you the information for a golf outing.”
What do you say?
The old you – the one focused on keeping everyone happy – would have given that number to him on the spot.
But not the new you – the one who realizes that future kingdom expansion necessitates that you’re honest with him.
The new you says, “Jim, to be the Senior Pastor this church needs moving forward, I have decided to get a new number and give it to only our staff, elders, a few leaders, and my family. If you need to reach me just send me an email. My assistant is now managing that email for me and will get me the message.”
The temptation to buckle.
You want to blurt out, “Just kidding.”
But for the sake of reaching lost people…
For the sake of obedience to Ephesians 4:12…
For the sake of healthy boundaries…
…the new you resists the temptation to give in.
You smile, tell him you love him, give him a hug, and then leave him to deal with the fact that your relationship has changed.
Jim now has two choices.
First, he can leave the church because “things have changed” between the two of you.
Or second, he can stay and adjust to the new reality.
My experience has been the majority of people will stay, a few will complain, and a handful will leave.
You will have addressed one of the single greatest threats to kingdom expansion at your church.
Your relationship with this valued child of God has just changed, and the more you do this with others, the more your church will be able to grow as a result.
The bad news is you will never have a relationship with more than 120 people, no matter how hard you try.
The good news is you can corporately pastor as many people who will buy into your vision.
There is no limit to that number.