|Photo courtesy of Scott Chrostek
Divinity student Scott Chrostek says leading a small church was "one of the best experiences of my life."
March 7, 2005
By Bob Wells*
N.C. (UMNS)—Many new pastors are discovering a well-kept secret: Small
congregations can be places of extraordinary ministry.
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.
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
his assignment: Dana United Methodist Church, in the tiny western North
Carolina mountain town of Dana, with an average weekly attendance of
What could he possibly learn there? he wondered.
Just about everything, as it turned out.
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.
though, Chrostek learned that despite enormous obstacles and often
overwhelming odds, small churches can be places of vital ministry.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“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.
their nature, small churches are built upon close human relationships
and, under the right circumstances, offer the chance for genuine
Christian community, he said.
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
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.
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.
|A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Nearly 73 percent of United Methodist churches have 100 or fewer worshippers on Sunday, according to the 2000 General Minutes.
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.
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
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.
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
“experts” have been predicting their demise since the 1920s, small
churches endure and likely will do so for a long time to come.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
United Methodists, Carder contends, are best positioned to reach out to the world.
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
|A Web-only photo courtesy of Scott Chrostek
Scott Chrostek shares a word with the children during worship at Dana (N.C.) United Methodist Church.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.