Academic Programs 

 Strength at Any Size:
Exploring the Qualities of Large and Small Congregations

Winter/Spring 2010

Half of US churches have under 100 attenders but half of all attenders are in very large churches. What is to be made of this? Congregations of all sizes have distinctive strengths and weaknesses, but exactly what are these and can their strengths also be their detriment to reaching new persons? Using recent national surveys of congregations, this course will explore the issue of size and its effect on congregational life. Attention will specifically be paid to the role of a church’s size in relation to issues of commitment, growth, and spiritual vitality both in the national surveys and in a local congregational context.

Meeting Day, Time and Dates:*

Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Jan. 26, Feb. 23, March 16, April 13 and May 4

Scott Thumma
Professor, Sociology of Religion and Director of Distance Education

Contact Information:

phone: (860) 509-9571


Course Syllabus

Course Web Site

Course Objectives & Syllabus :


  • Identify the differences that size makes in contemporary U.S. religious organizations using contemporary surveys of congregations.
  • Explore the key characteristics of congregations of different sizes and how structural, programmatic and leadership dynamics are changed by size.
  • Address changes that have taken place in American society in the past few decades, which shape congregations of all sizes but also make size more critical.
  • Understand basic sociological concepts and theories relevant to congregational organization.
  • Develop a strategy of addressing size and its influence on a local congergation’s program, approach and leadership.

Course Requirements:
1.  Class presentation on an aspect of congregational life and the affect of size on this
reality   20 percent
2.  Attendance and class discussion – active participation    35 percent
3.  Reading summary    10 percent
4.  15-20 page paper exploring a theme from the course - due after the course, topic and
date to be determined.     35 percent 

Further instruction on requirements will be posted as the course date approaches.  The final paper should conform to the Seminary’s “General Guidelines for a Research Paper.” 

Expectations - Given that this is a 5 meeting course, I would strongly suggest that students NOT miss any class meetings, even for a few hours.  One absence, with a very good reason and, ideally, prior approval, might be tolerated but anyone who misses more than one class period will lose a full letter grade or more off their final grade. 
Please come to class well prepared.  Since we only meet five times, and I will be basing over a quarter of your grade on participation, come prepared by having done the readings and ready to engage in the discussion.  The reading assignments must be completed prior to the class meetings.  You may need to take good notes and refer to them during our class meetings. 

*** NOTE:  I welcome auditors in the class but I expect any auditor to do the reading and participate in the class discussion as well as perhaps do a class presentation. 

If anyone has any questions, suggestions, difficulties, or comments I would love to hear them and am always available by email or during my office hours posted on my office door at 80 Sherman Street. 

The standard Seminary policies regarding plagiarism and writing style apply to this course.  For more information about these policies see the student handbook or the Seminary’s web site.

Schedule of Topics and Readings (actual schedule of readings and topics will be posted closer to the beginning of the course.)

Primary texts: (additional books may be required)

Sizing up a congregation for new member ministry.  Arlin J. Rothauge 

Effective small churches in the 21st century.  Carl S. Dudley

Middle-Sized Church: Problems and Prescriptions.  Lyle E. Schaller

The very large church: New rules for leaders.  Lyle E. Schaller

Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations.  Cynthia Woolever & Deborah Bruce

A number of articles on size dynamics in organizations are also required: (additional articles may be posted)

Congregational Economies of Scale  Kenneth Elzinga and Colin Page  Available electronically on sonisweb site

Eiesland, Nancy L. 1994  "Contending with a Giant: The Impact of a Mega-church on Exurban Religious Institutions."  In Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader.  Penny Edgell Becker & Nancy L. Eiesland (eds.) AltaMira Press. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Chaves, Mark 2006, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context.” Review of Religious Research, 47:329-346.  Available electronically on sonisweb site

Finke, Roger. 1994. "The Quiet Transformation: Changes in Size and Leadership of Southern Baptist Churches." Review of Religious Research 36:3-22. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Pinto, Leonard J. and Kenneth E. Crow. 1982. "The Effects of Size on Other Structural Attributes of Congregations within the Same Denomination." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21:304-316 Available electronically on sonisweb site

Stonebraker, Robert J. 1993. “Optimal Church Size: The Bigger the Better.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32:231-241. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Wilken, Paul H. 1971. “Size of Organizations and Member Participation in Church Congregations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 16:173-179. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Zaleski, Peter and Charles Zech. 1992. “Determinants of Contributions to Religious Organizations.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 51:459-472. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Hougland, James G., Jr., and James R. Wood. 1980. "Control in Organizations and the Commitment of Members." Social Forces 59:85-105. Available electronically on sonisweb site

Organization strategy and structural differences for radical versus incremental innovation  JE Ettlie, WP Bridges, RD O'keefe - Management science, 1984 -

Is bigger better? Explaining the relationship between organization size and job rewards  AL Kalleberg, ME Van Buren - American Sociological Review, 1996 -

Does the size of the organization matter for knowledge management? 

Organizational size and innovation  AONE Full Text @ iCONN  F Damanpour - Organization studies, 1992 -

Use of statistics and data will be required for the course – reading tables, charts and understanding what recent surveys of congregations show about the differences between congregations of diverse sizes. 

Reading summary – Each student will select a book off a list provided by the professor to read and then write a 3-5 page review summary and critique distributed in class.  Details and the list will be handed out in class. 

Research project - Each student will choose to research an aspect of their congregation and the role size plays in determining the dynamics, strategy approach, leadership and expectations of success.  The student will gather information about this aspect of the phenomenon or church for presentation to the class toward the end of the course. The purpose of this presentation is twofold: 1) to uncover primary sources related to this case study dynamic, and 2) to introduce more information about the congregation’s context and your approach to addressing the size factor to the class.

Students will use this material, plus other scholarly sources to write a 15+ page research paper on a topic related to this exploration of size within their ministry and congregational leadership. This paper must explore information about the size of the church in relation to larger patterns of culture and societal changes that have taken place in America in the past decades and relevance for the future of religion in the US. 


Hartford Seminary  77 Sherman Street  Hartford, CT  06105   860-509-9500