Is “BIG” a Core Value?


What are the central essential characteristics that make this congregation unique? This is a question that I frequently pose to congregations who engage me as their consultant. Healthy congregations typically provide a concise response to this question and the response is consistent when posed to different leaders in different venues. Healthy congregations know who they are and how they are different from other congregations.  A healthy congregation might respond with something like this, “We are a congregation that values excellence in worship and the arts. We have a progressive theology and are known for our commitment to the pursuit of social justice.” Or, “We are proud of our intergenerational approach to faith formation and development. We excel in offering a strong Sunday school program and a vibrant small group ministry that thrive side by side.”

Recently, a congregation that I worked with posed this question to their membership, as part of a series of listening circles designed to help leadership listen to membership. A disturbing phenomenon surfaced as we began reviewing the collected data. A significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics by replying with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big”.

As we probed the response a little further we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation.  Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to insure that the congregation was impactful in its ministry. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leadership expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

As you can imagine, this data set produced some interesting dialogue among leadership. Can/should our size be one of the core values expressed by our congregation?  Is size an end unto itself, or a means to accomplish something else? If we cease to be a large and resource rich congregation, will we have failed in our mission? If we are not known for being one of the  denomination’s largest financial contributors to mission, what will we be known for?  Has our image of ourselves as the big and resource rich congregation become an anchor or albatross, holding us down?

I suspect that this conversation could (and perhaps should) take place in any number of large mainline Protestant congregations. What value does your membership place on the size of the congregation? Is “big” one of your core values?

Photo Credit: Gabriele at flickr.com

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