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Small churches represent opportunity for ministry, pastors learn

 


Small churches represent opportunity for ministry,
pastors learn

March 7, 2005

By Bob Wells*

DURHAM, N.C. (UMNS)—Many new pastors are discovering a well-kept secret: Small congregations can be places of extraordinary ministry.

Scott Chrostek, 26, made the discovery after being disappointed and upset when, midway through his first year at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School, he received his first summer field education assignment. Surely, it was a mistake, he thought, or at least maybe somebody’s idea of a joke.

Chrostek, who is expected to graduate in 2006, had assumed he’d receive an internship with a large church similar to the one he attended growing up in a prosperous suburb of Detroit. A former financial analyst with a business and economics degree from the University of Michigan, he pictured himself spending the summer advising a large-church finance committee.

But his assignment: Dana United Methodist Church, in the tiny western North Carolina mountain town of Dana, with an average weekly attendance of 51.

What could he possibly learn there? he wondered.

Just about everything, as it turned out.

He learned how to preach every Sunday. He sang in the choir. He started a church youth group and led work teams of kids who repaired roofs, mowed yards, cleaned gutters, and did other chores for elderly church members and others in the community. He helped start the church’s first weeklong vacation Bible school. He even learned how to wring a chicken’s neck—or, more accurately, how to accept with gratitude and grace a 99-year-old parishioner’s gift of a freshly killed chicken.

Mostly though, Chrostek learned that despite enormous obstacles and often overwhelming odds, small churches can be places of vital ministry. 

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Chrostek says. “I’ve seen what church can be. Those people had more faith and strength for their size than any church I’ve ever seen. If we could get large churches to have the kind of discipleship and faith and humility these people had, the church would be a force to be reckoned with.”

Though often overlooked and subject to stresses as never before, small churches remain an essential part of the American landscape.  Finding new ways to support and sustain both these congregations and the clergy who serve them is one of the most important issues facing the church today, Duke Divinity faculty and others say.

Numbers alone make small churches hard to ignore. While mega-churches make headlines, 71 percent of U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adult members, according to the National Congregational Survey, a 1998 sample of congregations from across all U.S. denominations. The median congregation, the survey found, has only 75 regular participants.

For United Methodists in the United States, the numbers are even smaller. Nearly 73 percent of the congregations have 100 or fewer worshippers on Sunday, according to the 2000 General Minutes of the United Methodist Church. The median membership for United Methodist churches in 2000 was 112, while the median worship attendance was 53.

If those numbers surprise even churchgoers, it’s because most attend large churches. For Protestant churches generally, the bulk of membership is clustered in a relative handful of large churches. While only 10 percent of U.S. congregations have more than 350 participants, those congregations account for almost half of all churchgoers, according to the survey.

What this means for Protestant clergy is that most pastors will spend a substantial part, if not all, of their ministry serving small or medium churches, notes Jackson Carroll, director of the Pulpit & Pew project and the Williams professor emeritus of religion and society at Duke Divinity School.

Strength in smallness

The “smallness” of small churches lies at the heart of both their strengths and weaknesses, according to Bishop Kenneth Carder, director of Duke Divinity School’s Center for Excellence in Ministry.

By their nature, small churches are built upon close human relationships and, under the right circumstances, offer the chance for genuine Christian community, he said.

“There is great strength in small groups,” Carder says. “Jesus called 12, and Wesley brought people together in small class meetings. We can hold each other accountable and hold each other in love more easily in small groups.”

Particularly in rural areas, small church pastors are looked to for leadership not just on religious matters but also education, business, civic and other issues. Pastors in such settings can make a significant difference in their communities and often see the results of their ministry more easily, Carder notes.

As Chrostek learned during his field education experience at Dana United Methodist Church, small churches are places where pastors can be immersed in ministry. Without the division of labor that comes with a large church staff, small church pastors do everything from preaching to counseling to visiting the sick.

But small churches can be tough places to pastor. Usually located in small towns or rural areas, they can be isolating for pastors and their families. Often insular, small churches can be narrow and confining, with members set in their ways, unwilling to try anything new. Their pastors are much less likely than pastors at larger churches to take a day off, attend continuing education classes or ever take a sabbatical leave, according the nationwide Pulpit & Pew survey. For married pastors, finding employment opportunities for a working spouse can be a major challenge.

One of the biggest issues facing small churches is money. Many lack the resources to pay clergy salary, building maintenance, insurance premiums and other operating costs. Rising costs have forced many small churches out of the clergy job market altogether.  Increasingly, small churches are doing without fulltime ordained clergy, turning instead to other options, including part-time pastors, lay pastors, retired pastors and others.

Serving her first pastoral appointment, the Rev. Janet Balasko has seen many of the ups and downs of small church life in her two-point charge in rural Caswell County, North Carolina. Both churches—New Hope and Purley United Methodist churches—struggle to meet their budgets and sometimes resist innovations, Balasko says. But they are also deeply caring communities whose members look out for one another.

“This is a wonderful place to enter ministry,” she says. “I know every church has problems, but I’m seeing wonderful family connections and down-to-earth people who struggle with the simple tasks of putting food on the table and finding people to help tend their fields for them, and they’re not all bogged down by other worldly matters.”

Both churches understand the challenges they face, Balasko says.

“Their hope is that we can together figure out ways to help relight the fire and get some new things going,” she says.

Ability to hang on

While “experts” have been predicting their demise since the 1920s, small churches endure and likely will do so for a long time to come.

“Small churches have tenacity and an ability to hang on and keep going even when everything else is disintegrating and disappearing,” says Carl Dudley, a professor of church and community at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and a leading writer on small churches. “They’re like mom and pop stores that have a certain
constituency, and people just keep coming. They can hang on without visible means of support.”

To Carder, the future of small churches is ultimately an ecclesiological issue, a question of how we understand church, its nature, mission and ministry. In the past 200 years, he says, Methodists have slowly changed their view of church from the connection to the local congregation.

“Particularly in the last century, with increasing urbanization, we began to understand the church as the local congregation, and we became committed to stationing pastors in every congregation,” Carder says. “Pastors began to identify and feel affirmed if they were the pastor of only one church, and churches felt inferior if they were on a circuit.”

Refocusing on the Methodist connection, reviving the tradition of the Methodist circuit rider, could be effective in ensuring the continued vitality of many small churches, especially those that struggle to find ordained leadership, he says.

“If these congregations could see themselves more as class meetings than as full service churches, they could maximize their contribution,” he says. A key lay leader—a church patriarch or matriarch—could work in partnership with an ordained circuit rider, Carder contends.  Many such partnerships of lay and ordained leaders are already being tried in United Methodist conferences across the country.

Mission changes things

Small churches should also be more intentional about reaching out into the community, according to Carder. 

“We underestimate the power of being involved in mission,” the bishop says. “God is present in special and powerful ways with those in and among the margins. Every church needs to look around and see and ask who is on the margins.”

United Methodists, Carder contends, are best positioned to reach out to the world.

“The United Methodist Church is the most widespread, present denomination in the country,” he says. “We’ve already got mission stations in every community, but we don’t see them as mission stations. Instead, we see them as family churches that are looking to the pastors to meet their needs.”

W. Joseph Mann, director of the Rural Church Division of the Duke Endowment and an adjunct professor at the divinity school, agrees that small churches have tremendous potential to be in mission. Small churches often are located in areas of great need.

One place where this is occurring is in the North Wilkesboro District of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference. After assessing community needs throughout the district’s eight counties, the district created its own nonprofit community development corporation that, among other things, is building affordable housing for the developmentally delayed, the elderly and others.

“Rather than working from a philosophy of scarcity, we’ve tried to have a theology of abundance,” says the Rev. Alan Rice, the district superintendent. “We tried to believe that if we were called to mission, the resources would follow.”

Greatest challenge

Perhaps the greatest challenge regarding small churches is to do a better job of affirming and supporting those in small church ministry. Too often, pastors have viewed small churches as second-class appointments—stepping-stones to an opportunity to engage in real ministry, Carder says.

In truth, the church has always held up the large congregation as the model to emulate, with the path to successful ministry being a series of moves to ever bigger churches, with bigger salaries, bigger choirs and bigger staffs, says Mann.

“But some of us keep working to find a different way, to say success is something else entirely,” he says. “If you go into ministry looking for a career path that takes you somewhere else, and you’re always looking for that place where you’re fully in ministry, then you’ll never be fully in ministry. Successful ministry is something to be engaged in fully wherever you are.”

Finding better ways to reward and affirm pastors is about much more than salaries and benefits, says Carder, though those require attention. Other ways must also be found to sustain small church pastors in their ministry.

“I’m not convinced that the future belongs solely to large churches,” he says. “There will always be small churches, and they will always be as important to God as the large church. In God’s economy, size is not the deciding factor. It’s how faithful a congregation is in being a visible sign of the presence of the reign of God.”

*Wells is associate director of communications for Duke Divinity School. This story was adapted from an article that appeared in Winter 2005 Divinity, the alumni magazine of Duke Divinity School.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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