Tiny church administration: the right sized space

Even small churches need a place to worship and carry out the work of formation and mission that makes them into full (if not filled) places. The smallest churches tend to fall into one of two solutions:

  1. Rented or borrowed space
  2. An owned space, often built when there were many more members

Given my choice, I’d rather meet in a conference room for two hours a week than be part of a little crew rolling around an enormous edifice like bbs in a box. For one, the former is easier to maintain and small congregations are already inconvenienced for participants. The second reason: a near-empty church signals an unhealthy congregation, even if it plugs along satisfying its own members. (Not necessarily an unrelated phenomena, but for consideration another time.)

But how much space?

Be sure to grab the Air Force’s Religious Facilities Design Guide from Archives.org (the original Air Force site is down) for a steely-eyed idea. (Does anyone else have a suggestion?)

Space too big? Other than decamping within the building to a parlor or workroom — unpopular ideas I’d imagine — I’ve seen big buildings/small congregations partition off the nave with screens and plants to keep the worshipers within hymn-singing distance of one another. But that won’t save you a cent on heating bills.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thank you for your recent posts on the tiny congregation. At times I have to smirk when I see what falls into the “small congregation” category. We are a tiny emerging congregation of about 19 members, 3 of which never comes to church, about 10-12 more regular visits than that, and average about 15 at each service, although 33 is a record attendance.

    We have so many issues that seem unique to our congregation, though I doubt they are. Space is a big one. We were blessed with a large building donated to us, but its a mixed blessing at times, for all of those reasons you stated above.

    At times it feels like we are barely floating along, and our key volunteers might sink at any moment. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth it at all, but then something always happens to show that it is very worth it.

    Anyway, from one member of this tiny congregation, thank you.

  2. “Space too big?…”

    That would be us — average attendance 50 in a building that seats 300+ comfortably. Meeting in our chapel doesn’t work (capacity 50, if we’re over our average attendance we’re sunk). Dividers mess with the superb acoustics, one of our biggest assets — and some of our people have been sitting in the same pew for generations (you know what I mean), so they won’t move anyway. At this point, we don’t have a good solution except to be even more welcoming to whomever comes in — which so far seems to be working, we saw 10% growth in average attendance last calendar year.

    But really it’s a huge problem. We have a gorgeous neo-Gothic building that we don’t want to lose (fortunately we have a big enough endowment that we can keep the roof leak-proof). But yeah, from a practical standpoint we’d be better off meeting in a rented storefront space.

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