From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
UMNS# 05138-Small churches represent opportunity for ministry,
Mon, 7 Mar 2005 15:54:57 -0600
Small churches represent opportunity for ministry, pastors learn
Mar. 7, 2005 News media contact: Linda Green * (615) 7425470*
NOTE: Photographs and links to related resources are available with this
story at http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=6898.
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
But his assignment: Dana United Methodist Church, in the tiny western
North Carolina mountain town of Dana, with an average weekly attendance
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
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
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
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
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 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."
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service
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