The 5 P’s of Sustainability for Small Churches

by | Oct 18, 2021 | 2 comments

Small churches are the heartbeat of their communities and neighborhoods. The oft-preferred site of weddings and funerals, they offer spiritual community and support to people in transition. They are extremely important institutions in small towns—as essential as the gas station, grocery store, bank, hospital, and post office.

But small churches have an inherent problem.  They are small.  The question is, how do you know when your small church is sustainable, or if it’s time to call it quits? In this article I will reveal the 5 P’s of small church sustainability. Plus a word of encouragement if you want to learn more.


Small Church Problems

The pandemic has been particularly challenging for small churches, because the needs they fill have been in greater demand than ever, even as resources have been similarly pinched. In many cases, small churches have become even smaller.  Have they reached the tipping point where it’s too late for them to be sustainable?


The Most Dangerous Myth for Small Church Sustainability

Before I share the 5 P’s of small church sustainability, I need to warn you about one myth.  This myth, if you fall prey to it, can be the deal breaker for congregational sustainability.  This is the myth that in order to be sustainable, small churches have to be all things to all people. This idea is based on the megachurch model that one congregation can provide programming for every life stage, while addressing every physical, social, and spiritual need.

This myth is not only wrong it is dangerously wrong.

When small churches emulate the megachurch model, they set themselves up for failure. It’s almost physically impossible for small churches to meet every need of each life stage. Especially if their back-to-church numbers are smaller than their pre-pandemic numbers. The key to small church sustainability is to make sure you have the 5 P’s of sustainability in place. Then, to choose a few things to do well.


Small Churches Fight to Stay Alive

Ever since the industrial revolution of the 1800s, not to mention the Walmart revolution that put mom and pop stores out of business in the 1990’s, small communities have been economically challenged, making it harder than ever for small churches to survive and thrive.

I’ve been studying this phenomenon for the last 25 years.  While small towns are now making a comeback, churches have to be careful about how they position themselves to best serve their communities.

In my work with Creating a Culture of Renewal participants I have worked with pastors of churches as small as 6, and as large as 600. Most of our congregations tend toward the smaller in size. Through our work with church leaders, I have compiled the 5 P’s of small church sustainability.

circle of praying hands

The 5 P’s of Small Church Sustainability


The most important feature of a small congregation is its people. There are three factors to consider when evaluating how many people make for a sustainable congregation. First, churches with less than twenty committed members or participants will have a hard time staying afloat or being in ministry to others. Second, congregations need at least three generations—not counting the pastor and the parsonage family—to be sustainable. Third, consider the culture of the people.  Are people closed off or caring?


After people, the second most important factor is prayer. Without a spiritual foundation, your church is not sustainable, no matter the size or the budget. In addition to a prayer chain, do you begin meetings with prayer, pray for guidance during decision-making time, and then follow the guidance? Prayer is the key to cooperation with God, as well as to sorting through the many choices that are before you. Your congregation must be firmly grounded in prayer to succeed.


Sustainable small churches support themselves financially. Often through a combination of tithing, memorial gifts, endowments, special funds, and fundraisers. Beware a few pitfalls.  First, big givers should contribute no more than 25% of the congregation’s budget for long-term sustainability. Your large givers will eventually move or die.  Second, endowments should not fund more than 25% of the church budget. Endowments relieve the urgency for attenders to become givers, or to give sacrificially.  Third, don’t rely on in-person giving only; this dynamic undermines sustainability. Instead encourage people to set up automatic withdrawals to the church or other forms of online giving.


Churches with people, prayer, and provision need to form community partnerships to ensure sustainability. As you transition out of the pandemic, create ways for your building to become multi-use. Some common ways are to rent space to a pre-school, a local non-profit, and/or one or more 12-step groups. But first, don’t forget to clean out the closets, re-configure storage space, and let go of items that have fallen out of use.  This will create more space for your partners.


Now that you have people, prayer, provision and partnership, it’s time to amplify your community presence.  Establish and keep up a Facebook page as well as a website. But if the website can’t be maintained, better not to have it.  Don’t forget small town newspapers, radio stations, and grocery store bulletin boards. The more you show up in the community, the more people will know where to turn when they need you.


Is Your Small Church Sustainable?

Now that you’ve evaluated your congregation on the 5 P’s of Small Church Sustainability, take heart. No matter your score, cultivating sustainability is an ongoing process. Learn how to develop your ability to grow and thrive through Creating a Culture of Renewal.


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  1. josh Gill

    I am wondering about your comment that churches needing 3 generations. Is this based off your experience or is this based off reading/research? It would be helpful to understand the context of this statement.

  2. Rebekah Simon-Peter

    Great question, Josh. It is based on both my personal experience as a pastor, and the combined experience of the church leaders engaged in our three-year group coaching program, Creating a Culture of Renewal. Here is what we have found. Three generations is the minimum for a sustainable congregation as it allows for the transfer of knowledge, power, and institutional memory between the generations. It also allows for healthy rotation of service and leadership positions. Fewer than three generations will make it harder to successfully transfer the reins of leadership and service to newer or younger folks. While the number of people in each generation does not need to be equal, the more balanced the ratio, the better. Based on the above rationale, four or five generations is even better than three. Again, the proportions don’t need to be even. Even two or three people who represent a particular generation gives you a place to start. Hope this was helpful.



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