Everything is about relationships in a small church.

Small churches are family churches. Sometimes the membership is made up primarily of two to four families who are related through blood or marriage. The matriarchs and patriarchs of these families are often the leaders in the church.

If a pastor serving such a church does not understand the importance of relationship in that church, he or she is unlikely to enjoy a productive ministry.

When a pastor begins his or her ministry in a smaller church, it is important to determine who the families are that have influence in the church.

It’s good to study the records of board meetings and congregational meetings to see whose names appear most often.

Those names will often be the persons of influence in those congregations whose opinions others respect.

Pastors need to understand that these lay leaders are the true leaders in that church regardless of what your job description may say.

In order for the pastor to effectively lead, he or she must learn to lead through the leaders.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is that the approval or disapproval of the pastor’s plans will go a long way to determine if the rest of the congregation will agree to them.

Until the pastor earns the right to lead this church, and that can take years, it is best to discuss your plans with these leaders first.

Some pastors reject this advice and say they are not giving such control to these patriarchs and matriarchs.

While it is giving them some control, you need to realize that they already have that control.

You are recognizing that reality, and, more important, you are seeking their input and advice.

They know much more about this church than the new pastor, and they may be able to point out how you can improve on your plans in ways that will make them even more effective in this setting.

I remember my first church business meeting as a pastor. A proposal I made, which was in line with one of the priorities the church had given me, was firmly resisted by every person in that meeting. I went home wondering what I had gotten myself into.

A few minutes later, one of the church matriarchs called and explained some history in that church that caused such resistance.

I had not been there long enough to know this story, but with that information I was able to revise my plans so that they were later accepted.

If a small church pastor will begin by working with the lay leadership, he or she will eventually earn the right to lead the church.

Working with people who have invested much of their lives in the church builds up trust, and that trust is the currency you need to lead.

Do not ignore the importance of relationships in the church. When a pastor draws a line in the sand and asks people to choose between the pastor and the existing relationships in the church, the pastor will lose every time.

One final thought: if you are not a relational person, you cannot pastor a small church.

These churches are not seeking a CEO, a biblical scholar or an administrator. They are looking for someone to be part of their family who will love them and minister to them.

Do that well, and one day you will earn the right to also lead them.

Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. He blogs at Bivocational Ministry, where a version of this article first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.

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