I have been small my whole life, and it has rarely done me any harm. (Well, there was that one time I had to bark at an unruly parishioner twice my size…then go to my office and cry). Still, I wonder why some people consider smallness to be–a disability? To me, it just means I don’t have to pay for extra leg room on airplanes.
Steve Willis has written a book for the Alban Institute, “Imagining the Small Church” (see the excerpt here), which points out that, in American history, the small church was the norm until urbanization made large downtown churches possible around the turn of the 20th Century. Willis proposes that, in this century, the small, resilient church may have things to teach the rest of us about how to move into the future.
One of my mentors, Rev. Dave King, is a church consultant in the John Knox Presbytery in Wisconsin. He writes in his blog at sandburconsulting.com about some of the strengths of the small church:
Healthy small churches have distinct advantages in this age of post Christendom: they can communicate rapidly and effectively; their relationships are deep and strong; they can be nimble in response to changing circumstances; they have a rich experience of trusting God to lead and support them in difficult times; they know and understand the resources (even if limited) that God has placed at their disposal; they often have a history of strong lay leadership; and, they tend to act without waiting for permission if the need requires.
Small churches that have always been small are used to struggling for vitality and viability. But churches that used to be large and are now small have it even tougher. They have to learn how to do church in a new, smaller way. That means adaptive change.
Some churches may try moving from full time to part time pastors. (See the book “Part Time Pastor, Full Time Church” by Robert LaRochelle on how to make this work). Some make their committee structures more lean. But maybe the most important change required is that of self-image. Your congregation may need to talk about ways you are no longer who you used to be, mourn for your lost identity, and then re-focus on the kind of church God is calling you to be now. Once you accept a new identity as a smaller church, the possibilities for what you can do in ministry may open up.
Here is an interesting leadership model used in rural Australia: one pastor serves half a dozen churches, each with its own lay preacher. The pastor and preachers get together once a month to study the lectionary. The ordained leader rotates between churches on different Sundays and performs sacramental ministry. The lay pastors preach, visit the homebound and carry out administrative duties. In essence, these little churches run themselves.
Is it working? Philip Hughes of Edith Cowan University researched this model and concluded:
“The vitality of the lay-led churches was no different from churches led by ordained ministers. In many lay-led churches there is a strong sense of ownership by the lay people, and those involved in leadership often reported that they had grown in faith through their responsibilities.”
Small can be beautiful, and it is no excuse to stop doing effective ministry!