A Disturbing Trend For Preachers of Large Congregations
I recently spoke with a friend who shepherds a congregation in another state. As we were conversing, he informed me of the numbers they had on Sundays which were far less than I’d ever known them to be. When I inquired as to the cause, he stated that their minister bore a part of responsibility because he wasn’t very personable. He wouldn’t get close to people, and because of such attendance had declined as folks sought to worship with the saints elsewhere. I also heard a year or so ago of a minister in another state who was no longer with the congregation because of issues related to integrity. I was informed on the backhand that this particular minister had as a part of his employment agreement that he didn’t make visits to either homes or hospitals. This struck me as particularly odd.
I could tell a few more stories along this vein, but allow me a caveat—not every minister of a large congregation does this. When I heard the most recent tale of such aloof behavior, it immediately took my mind to other stories I’d heard with similar issues at the root of which was a minister who wasn’t a visiting type or personable. I will add that just because these particular brethren have such personalities doesn’t mean that they are bad people or poor ministers. They may be dynamite in the pulpit and have strengths elsewhere, so what I offer hereafter is intended more as a word of encouragement and caution to ministers in large congregations. I suggest this not as an expert, but as a fellow Christian who hates seeing my fellow laborers either let go or forced out because of such.
Glendale Road, where I minister, has a roll of nearly 1,000 members with about 700–750 worshiping on Sundays—the latter number including several visitors which we tend to have weekly. Many members are shut-ins, unwell, or unable to come at all due to extenuating circumstances. Some, as you might imagine, just do not see it as a priority. I have not built the congregation to what it is, mind you. It actually used to be a wee bit larger years ago.
Nevertheless, I am a steward of the congregation. I am to minister to those here, and also preach the gospel to such an extent that I might help either plant or water so that God may give the increase. As the minister of a large congregation, I see it not as a time to lay back and take it easier but to work harder.
I only hope that when my tenure here is finished—which I hope will be several decades from now—that I will have faithfully served God, a part of which I believe entails loving people. When I came to Glendale Road a couple of years ago, there was indeed the temptation to think that I had arrived and that all I need do is be a dynamic speaker. However, I haven’t ever been a member of a congregation where the minister wasn’t personable and where I didn’t know that he had a genuine interest in my family and me. My father gave me a piece of advice that stuck with me when I first began preaching. He said, “You can be the poorest speaker in the world, but if the people know you love them, you’ll always have a job there.” I’ve always operated with that in mind.
I would encourage all ministers of large congregations, and any congregation for that matter, that while I know that it can be challenging to be personable or out-there, one can certainly do it and not be disingenuous. You can be yourself, and still be a people person. It seems that we know how to do that with smaller congregations, but we think that we have to change things once we go to the larger congregation. Remember, for many of us, what led us in part to the large congregation was what we did at the smaller ones. It’s as essential for me to do what I did in years passed. I still make in-home visits for no other reason than to spend time with brethren. I even will take people to the airport to drop them off. I also invite people to my house on occasion where we give them hospitality. I still go to events that don’t require a suit and tie or me behind a pulpit. I attend local games and am involved with the local chamber of commerce, rotary club, and other great causes in the community—all of which helps me to maintain a public profile. I don’t do this for personal attention, but to let my light shine as much as I can. When we hid in an office behind a closed door all the time, we essentially are putting our lamp under a basket. If we’re not out there, we’re not letting our light shine, and to God’s glory must we shine.
As much as I love God, I also love His people, and the community in which the congregation I serve rests. I invest my time, energy, and service to those people and the community. This is not to the suffering of sermons or prayer, because those always come first. However, without people to whom I may preach, there’s no purpose in lesson preparation other than for personal edification. We must remember that it’s better to hear godly counsel from an old friend than it is from a paid professional. An old friend knows you have their best interest in heart and mind. Jack P. Lewis told this story in his autobiography:
[Professor] Sperry insisted that he had learned from his mother that the preacher should be in teh home of every family in his congregation at least twice a year so that when calamity struck he could go to them as an old friend and not as a stranger. He insisted that the preacher should have a fixed period of his day for study when he was not accessible to anyone.
While with a larger congregation it may be difficult to be in the home of each member twice per year, we can be sure to be available in other ways. I often attend events the congregation has that I have no part in for no other reason than to visit with people—something that pays dividends. I leave you with the advice given by one of my teachers, Phil Sanders: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Be sure that the people where you serve know that you care. This is not a profession, it’s a divine calling.