What is the optimal size of your congregation?

Maximizing give and take

What is the right size for your congregation? Consider the different ways people experience God, each other and the world in a church of 20 compared to one of 200 or 2,000. Congregations of every size can be vital as long as they facilitate authentic relationships with God, each other and the world.

Yet, within each relative size category, there is an optimal size for each congregation. Zaleski & Zech used economic club theory to create a formula that calculates an optimal size which varies by congregation and context. It’s about achieving a balance between what members give and what they get. The optimal size is achieved when the marginal benefits of adding a new member (in terms of contributions gained from that new member) equal the marginal costs of that new member (in terms of contributions lost from existing members).

For example, churches that are too small for their style can’t support the core activities members need from the congregation. Leaders feel stretched thin and easily burn out. Churches that are too large for their style lose their appeal because the congregation’s resources are stretched and there may not be enough ways for members to participate. Here it is often hard to find places to fit in and find community. At some point adding more members reduces how much each contributes (time and talent) to the point where free riders become a problem (those who show up and enjoy benefits without contributing). The goal is to find the size or number of members maximizes total contributions to the congregation as a whole (not per member). That signifies satisfaction with the congregation implying that members are getting what they want from the congregation without free-riding.

So, what is the right size for your congregation? It depends on what kind of experience you want people to have and the cost of providing that experience.

Zaleski & Zech assumed a “traditional” programmatic congregational model and determined the size needed to maximize efficiency. This model requires substantial resources, which in turn requires at least 100 members to maintain. It is therefore not surprising that they found that typical Catholic parishes tend to be too large while typical Episcopalian, Lutheran and Methodist congregations were most often smaller than their optimal size.

However, this is not the only faithful way to be church. Consider describing the kind of faith community God is calling you to become and then determine the necessary resources (instead of the other way around). That will help you determine the best size for your congregation.

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