The Village Elders

All congregations are faced with decisions that can be made by a small leadership body (the governing board, the staff team, a committee) and decisions that must be taken on by the collective body. In the small to medium sized congregation, when full congregational decision making is required, a church-wide meeting is scheduled and a significant percentage of total membership shows up.  In the large congregation, leaders are continually frustrated by the small percentage of members that turn out for a “y’all come” meeting. It’s not unusual for a congregation with membership exceeding 2000 to have only 120 people show up for a congregational meeting where important decisions are being made.  Why is this? I believe that the answer has something to do with group threshold limits, and the number of people who identify themselves as the “village elders” at any point in time. Let me explain.

The full leadership body of the church is a self identified group of leaders who feel “responsible” for the overall well being of the congregation.  This typically includes members of the staff team and board members. It also includes an inner ring of leaders who are not currently serving in either of those capacities, but still feel a strong sense of leadership responsibility for the church. This group informally functions as the “village elder” body, keeping a watchful eye on the direction of the congregation.  It’s not an officially appointed body, and membership seems to self adjust over time. However, the size of the group always remains rather constant; somewhere between 75-150 people.  This seems to hold true regardless of the size of the total membership body.

Why doesn’t the informal leadership group ever grow larger than this number, even in the very large congregation?  Humans are known to have a cognitive upper limit to the average number of individuals with whom they can form cohesive personal relationships. That limit, known as Dunbar’s Number, is around 150 people.  Having enough memory space to remember people’s names and faces is not enough to manage 150 relationships. It is about integrating and managing information about the constantly changing relationships between individuals within a group.  When a group grows larger than 150 people, members of the group lose their ability to track relationships, and the group loses its capacity to function well as a community.

I would argue that in the large congregation the leadership body is always subconsciously reforming itself around the Dunbar limit. The leadership body must be able to think of itself in some cogent way as members of a single community. This requires that people know one another well enough to communicate around important congregational issues.  In response to this natural group dynamic, leaders are continually stepping into the informal village elder group and removing themselves from the village elder group, based on life circumstances.

In a medium sized congregation, if 150 people show up for a congregational gathering it represents a significant percentage of the membership body. In the large church it may represent less than 10% of membership.  The small percentage may be interpreted as a sign of apathy, but it’s really just the village elder system organizing itself to fulfill an important leadership role on behalf of the congregation.

How does this compare to your lived experience?

Photo Credit:  The Earth Tribe

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