Particularly in rural areas, small churches offer pastors opportunities for leadership both in and beyond the congregation. These pastors are looked to for leadership not just on religious matters, but also educational, business, civic and other issues. Pastors in such settings can make a significant difference in their communities and can often see the results of their ministry more easily, notes Carder.
As Chrostek learned during his field education experience at Dana UMC, small churches are places where pastors can be fully 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 also 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 to a 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. Indeed, rising costs have forced many small churches out of the clergy job market altogether. Increasingly, more small churches are doing without fulltime ordained clergy, turning instead to other options, including part-time pastors, lay pastors, retired pastors and others.
Six months into her first pastoral appointment, the Rev. Janet Balasko D’04 already has seen many of the ups and downs of small church life in her two-point charge in rural Caswell County. Both churches—New Hope UMC and Purley UMC—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 in extraordinary ways.
“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.
Somehow, despite the odds, small churches survive. 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.”
The question then is not survival, but how well, and in what fashion, these churches will continue. How can more of them reach their potential and become places of rich and exciting ministry?
To Carder, the future of small churches is ultimately an ecclesiological issue, a question of how we understand church, its nature, mission and ministry. Over 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.
“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 Methodist conferences across the country.
Small churches should also be more intentional about reaching out into the community, according to Carder. Mission changes things.
“We underestimate the power of being involved in mission,” he 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.”
Methodists, Carder contends, are best positioned to reach out to the world.
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