About 10 years ago, I met with a group of rural pastors in southern Indiana to hear about the tools and resources that would be helpful to them. “What we don’t need,” one said, “are any more books and workshops that assume everyone’s in a big church.”
“Exactly,” chimed in another. “I’ve been to enough workshops that say, ‘first you convene a meeting of your lead pastor, your worship pastor, and your discipleship pastor . . .”
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to get to know a wide variety of Indiana congregations of all shapes and sizes. And it’s hard to miss that most congregations are small. They have challenges and opportunities, joys and struggles, just like congregations of other sizes do.
The problem, says author, pastor and workshop leader Karl Vaters, isn’t that congregations are small, but that we seem to think there’s something wrong with that! Small membership churches, Vaters contends, are not problems to be fixed. They are not just waiting, hoping, and working to grow. They have purpose and ministry in the size and shape they are.
Vaters contends that most congregations are small because some pretty cool things can happen in a smaller congregations, especially relationships. And pastors who are good at relationship tend to do well in smaller settings, while larger congregations call for more administrative and programmatic skills.
A few days after Vaters’ workshop in Evansville, I attended a meeting in my own denomination, and the group was voting on the ordination of a new pastor who will serve a very small church as a bivocational pastor. “Too bad,” I thought to myself, “that we don’t have more congregations large enough to support a full-time pastor.” And I’ve certainly worked with plenty of congregations that grieve when they can no longer do what they once did, including pay for the services of a full-time pastor.
And then this new pastor got up to speak and explained that she had turned down full-time ministry opportunities in larger congregations because she really felt called to this congregation and to lead ministry in this small setting. How wonderful to hear this personal reminder of the truth that our value as congregations and congregational leaders has nothing at all to do with size.
For resources for small membership congregations, or particular challenges your congregation is facing, contact the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find information for small membership congregations at the Congregational Resource Guide.