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Small churches are concerned about a lot of things including growth, finances, and ministry programs.  But one issue seems to cut across all of these small church concerns — sustainability. Small churches often do not ask the question, “How are we going to sustain this?” before launching a new program or ministry.

A quick glance at the typical small church’s schedule illustrates the importance of sustainability.  Most small churches have at least two weekly programs — worship and Sunday School.  Think about what it takes to sustain these efforts each week.

First, Sunday School.  If yours is like ours, we have classes for adults, teens, elementary children, and preschoolers.  Each of these classes needs a meeting space, some type of literature, supplies, and leaders.  Our church also maintains attendance records for Sunday School, so there are administrative functions that have to be attended to each week as well.

Our Sunday School spends about $4,000 a year on literature and supplies; has designated rooms for each group to meet in (which involves utility costs and furnishings); and, utilizes somewhere between 12 and 18 leaders each Sunday.  We have all of that infrastructure for an average Sunday School attendance of about 50 each week.

Then there’s worship.  Worship at our church involves the following:

  • a preacher (usually me);
  • a part-time accompanist;
  • a part-time choir director;
  • a choir of between 8 and 15 each week; and supplies like choir robes, hymnals, choir anthems and other special music;
  • meeting space (our sanctuary);
  • part-time custodial services to clean and prepare the space each week;
  • audio-visual equipment and volunteer operators;
  • ushers;
  • a group to prepare for communion and baptism each month;
  • administrative support for bulletins, envelopes, and other printed material;
  • worship participants who pray and read Scripture; and,
  • a flower committee for altar flowers and sanctuary decoration at special seasons of the year.

Each week we involve between 20 and 40 people just to provide worship for 80 to 100 people.

Given the above examples, what guidelines can you use to determine whether or not a ministry is sustainable?  A rule of thumb might be that a church needs 1 leader for every 3-5 participants.  This 20-33% ratio seems to hold true for other programs that we have, including our Wednesday night fellowship meal and the age-group programs that follow it. But remember: the younger the group, the more leaders per participants are needed.

What’s the point here?  Very simply, determine how many leaders and what resources your church needs to mount and sustain a new program.  Of course, specific programs will require different mixes of space, financial resources, supplies, and personnel.  But whatever programs your church is considering, these programs will need some combination of those elements.

As a pastor, don’t do what I have done too many times in the past — start a program by yourself, or one that is inadequately staffed or funded, hoping that others will help.  That approach seldom works.  Believe me, I know.

In my opinion, small churches function best when they realize that they cannot sustain more than a few weekly or monthly programs.  But small churches can supplement their weekly programs with one-time efforts such as special programs at Christmas and Easter; a once-a-year push to feed the hungry, or collect relief supplies; or, special outreach opportunities.  Small churches can rally higher percentages of their congregations for one-time events than for on-going weekly or monthly events.

In planning your church calendar for 2012, consider which programs you can sustain, and what other one-time events your church can orchestrate.  Sustainability is important for small churches.  When adequate consideration is given to what your programs will require to sustain them, your small church can avoid the disappointment of overloaded leaders and failed programs.