DIVINITY Online Edition

A Force to Be Reckoned with
The faithful witness of small churches

by Bob Wells

Scott Chrostek D’06 was disappointed and upset when, midway through his first year at Duke Divinity School, he received his first summer fiel education assignment. Surely, it was a mistake, he thought. Or maybe some-body’s idea of a joke.

Photo by Alex Maness

 The Rev. Janet Balasko D’04 preaches during Advent at New Hope Methodist Church, one of two small churches she pastors 4 Divinity in rural Caswell County, N.C. The church was founded in 1779.

Chrostek, 26, had assumed he’d be given 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 committee.

But his assignment: Dana United Methodist Church, in the tiny western N.C. mountain town of Dana, with an average weekly attendance of 51.

What could he possibly learn there, Chrostek 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 week-long 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 one of the best-kept secrets in modern American Protestant Christianity: Despite enormous obstacles and often overwhelming odds, small churches can be places of extraordinary ministry.

The “smallness” of small churches lies at the heart of both their strengths and weaknesses.

- Kenneth Carder,
Director Center for Excellence in Ministry

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Chrostek. “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, say divinity faculty and others.

Distribution of mainline Protestant senior or solo pastors by average weekly church attendance. Source: Pulpit & Pew, 2002

Numbers alone make small churches hard to ignore. While large and mega-churches make headlines, the simple fact is that most churches in America are small. Overall, 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 Methodists, the numbers are even smaller: Almost 73 percent of UMC congregations have 100 or fewer worshippers on Sunday, according to the 2000 General Minutes of the United Methodist Church. Median membership for UMC 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 National Congregation Survey.

What all this means for Protestant clergy, of course, 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. The “church” that most pastors serve looks very different from the “church” that most churchgoers attend.

According to Kenneth Carder, former UMC bishop of Mississippi and now the director of the divinity school’s new Center for Excellence in Ministry, the “smallness” of small churches lies at the heart of both their strengths and weaknesses.

“There is great strength in small groups,” says Carder. “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 groups.”

Photo by Alex Maness

 Worship during Advent at Purley United Methodist Church in Caswell County, part of Janet Balasko’s two-point charge.

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.”

“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?’”

- W. Joseph Mann,
Director Rural Church Division, The Duke Endowment

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.

“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.”

Photo by Bruce Feeley

 Pleasant Green UMC, Durham, N.C.

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.”

With one retreat held last fall, Courage to Serve is just getting underway, but Virtue is optimistic that the program will create an authentic, mutually-supporting community for at least 23 United Methodist pastors. If the program is successful, the challenge will then be to replicate it on a larger scale.

One thing for certain is that there will be no shortage of small churches needing sustenance, says Carder.

“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.”

The Transformative Power of Mission

The North Wilkesboro District of the United Methodist Church is much like any other UMC district in rural North Carolina and many other regions in the South. Its 100 churches are dotted across eight counties in Appalachia. Most are small, with 46 percent served by non-ordained pastors. It’s a region that lags economically behind the state’s urban areas, a place where good-paying jobs are hard to find, and poverty and unemployment rates are often high.

But unlike many similar districts, North Wilkesboro decided to do something about it. Churches within the district decided to look beyond their own congregations and out into the community, to step out in mission and try to change the world around them.

The result? A host of new programs that are improving lives throughout the region, a renewal of life within and among the district’s churches, and an amazing example of the transformative power of mission.

It began about four years ago, when churches throughout the district decided to take a long hard look at their region, what District Superintendent Alan Rice recalls as “a painful assessment of the current reality.”

With assistance from Janice Virtue, associate dean for continuing education and strategic planning at Duke Divinity School, the district conducted an in-depth analysis of community needs within its entire eight-county region. They eventually compiled a long list of needs that included housing for the developmentally delayed and the elderly.

When the group realized that no existing entity had the ability to meet those needs, they created their own non-profit corporation, the Northwest Alliance Community Development Corporation. With funding from The Duke Endowment and other organizations, the non-profit already has built a group home for developmentally delayed adults, and plans are well underway to construct an affordable independent living center for the elderly. They also have conducted financial literacy classes to help people become homeowners and created new avenues for local craftspeople to market their wares.

As those and other programs have progressed, individual churches in the district have started other initiatives, including soup kitchens, community computer labs, food banks, and Habitat for Humanity houses. And in turn, churches are growing: there have been three new church starts, and 12 former charges have achieved station status.

“When we started this effort a few years ago, we printed t-shirts that said ‘The Great North Wilkesboro District,’” says Rice. “The idea was that, despite our many problems, if God was in our district, it had to be great. And now, we’re beginning to live that out. I truly believe God is on the move in the Great North Wilkesboro District.”

For information on the North Wilkesboro District and the Northwest Community Development Corporation, visit their Web sites at http://www.nwilkesdistrict.org/ and http://www.northwestalliancecdc.org/

Copyright © 2005 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved
magazine@div.duke.edu :: (919) 660-3552