“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. Indeed, small churches often are located in areas of great need.
In North Carolina, for example, small towns and rural areas have largely lost out on the decades-old boom that created prosperous mid-sized cities lining the Interstates from Raleigh to Greensboro to Charlotte. Textile mills and furniture plants have closed, tobacco is no longer king, agriculture is in disarray, and manufacturing jobs have moved overseas.
“But this is where it becomes exciting for pastors, because the church is often the only major institution other than local government left in many communities,” Mann says. “The hospital is gone. The schools have consolidated. The church is the only one who can call people together and ask ‘What are the issues we face, and how can we do good in this community?’”
The North Wilkesboro District of the Western North Carolina Conference is doing just that. After conducting an in-depth assessment of community needs throughout the district’s eight counties, the district created its own non-profit 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 District Superintendent Alan Rice D’96. “We tried to believe that if we were called to mission, the resources would follow.”
At First United Methodist Church in Williamston, N.C., the Rev. Taylor Mills D’01 has found parishioners more open to mission than he had anticipated when he arrived three and a half years ago. Like many mainline congregations, his parishioners remember a time when everyone attended church on Sunday. They now struggle to adapt to a new world where they must constantly reassess the reason for their existence.
“As pastor, I might have to interpret to the church leadership why it’s important to look into doing something for children in the community, or why we should think about having a service that can reach people who are not interested in a traditional worship service,” he says. “And usually, they respond favorably, making real efforts to grow, adapt and change.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge regarding small churches, however, 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, says Carder.
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,” Mann 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.
“Courage to Serve,” a program being piloted by the divinity school’s office of continuing education, is one attempt to support those who pastor small and medium churches. Funded by The Duke Endowment, the program is bringing together 23 pastors from rural churches throughout North Carolina for a five-part series of threeday retreats. Using a formation approach to ministry, the retreats are aimed at giving pastors time apart from their churches to develop friendships with other pastors and, through study and reflection, revive their calling and find “the courage to serve.”
“Many pastors serve in this forgotten landscape of small and medium churches,” says Janice Virtue, associate dean of continuing education and strategic planning at the divinity school. “So how do you keep them feeling positive about ministry and not settle into mediocrity? I don’t think anyone feels called to mediocrity or enters ministry to allow the church to become a social club.”
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