Willimon’s Take on the Small Church

Photo by Kevin Bauman

Photo by Kevin Bauman

In a recent edition of the Methodist “Circuit Rider” (Aug.-Sept., 2013), William Willimon  shocked readers a bit by writing his  brutally honest assessment of the small church as having a “deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers.” Ouch.

Willimon is widely respected as a Duke University professor of Christian Ministry Practice, while also serving as a Methodist Bishop.  In this article, he suggests that the endurance of small churches is not something for Methodists to be especially proud of:

Eighty percent of these small churches have not made a new disciple in the past two years. Their median age is higher and their diversity is lower than our larger churches. Because of the rapid decline of our medium size churches, we gain five times more small, dwindling congregations each year than we plant new churches. Virtually the only membership growth we are showing in our denomination is in our larger congregations.

I am tempted to rush to the defense of the small church here.  Some are located in places where demographic change alone makes it very difficult to attract new members, for example.   I want to defend all the fine Christians in small churches who may not have won a new disciple in the last 2 years, but who have done other heroic things for the cause of Christ.  I want to remind him that a few large churches are pretty dysfunctional, too.  Should they also be condemned?

But Willimon, more than blaming the small churches themselves, seems to blame the Methodist hierarchy, which offers “the world’s most expensive program of subsidy for small churches” (through the equitable salary system) and forces pastors to serve small churches “even when those churches show few visible marks of a faithful church.”

And on this point I think Willimon is on to something.  We are sentimental about “the little church in the dale” that has become a languishing club full of old friends.  This is not the highest purpose of the church, and we should be cautious about investing in such churches at the expense of more creative models of ministry that can nourish deeper discipleship.

But, while judicatory life support for dying churches is probably not wise, Willimon’s criticism of the small church is a poor way to come at the issue.  He might also implicate clergy, who sometimes protect their income sources from evaporating.  Or he could point at the seminary, which offers little or no training for clergy who will be guiding churches through closure in the next ten years.

I think it must be difficult to straddle the worlds of academia and judicatory.  In the one setting, we are bathed in images of what the church can and should be, while in the other setting, we are drowned by the reality of what it actually is: the cracked earthen vessel that houses the treasure.

Rev. Willimon might do well to read the text for this week from Exodus 32:7-14.  Like God, he is tempted to condemn all those “stiff-necked people” who never live up to God’s expectations.  But like Moses, I keep remembering an old promise God made, and I want to hold God to that promise, to not give up on us, any of us, even the insufferable, stiff-necked ones.

11 responses to “Willimon’s Take on the Small Church

  1. Thank you, Gail, for this carefully nuanced response to Willimon’s article. Knowing how faithful small churches many small churches are, I, too, was tempted to fire off a quick response. However, I also agree that judicatories’ sending out what some call “welfare” in various forms is certainly not a creative or faithful way to encourage small congregations. Judicatories as well as congregations have a lot of repenting to do.

  2. Thanks for this article, Gail. When it came out, I ignored it because of its clear cultural and class bias. Willimon has made clear his disdain for small, rural churches in the past – see the afterward to Jason Byassee’s book. If this kind of antipathy was directed in a racial way rather than class, we might call it for what it is – prejudice. His sweeping generalizations do not match my almost 20 yr. experience pastoring small churches.

  3. An interesting take on an “interesting” article.
    Yes, the small church is all those things and more. But if we say that the “church belongs to God, not to us,” as many (like myself) are wont to do, but have no faith in that statement, and grouse and point fingers at the small church and its clergy, I have a hard time taking it as more than a frustrated rant.
    It is also certainly true that there are those of US clergy serving small churches “who sometimes protect their income sources from evaporating.” But at the same time WE are the ones “in the trenches”, pulling, pushing, begging, praying, seeking, learning, crying, leading, failing, inspiring the small church to find and continue a vital ministry. When was the last time Dr. Willimon served as the sole pastor of a small church?
    The denominational structures in the UCC are just as liable to Willimon’s criticism as the UMC. Yet the resources for “welfare” assistance to small churches are drying up quickly and, in the Wisconsin Conference anyway, there has been movement to putting those dwindling resources into programs that may help churches “turn around” and find new forms and new ways. Again, not always helpful to those of us in the small church “trenches,” but at least a start.
    I know this is turning into my own “rant” but my 36+ years of ordained ministry has all been in the “small” church and while it may be dwindling, it is also, often out of necessity, finding new ways to express itself. Those churches that have irretrievably turned in upon themselves will certainly implode and die. But there are MANY of us who continue to try to refocus the church beyond itself and encourage it to stop feeling sorry for itself. I would hate to think that we all get lumped together.
    I once asked Dr. Tony Jones from Minneapolis if he thought that an old, established yet dwindling church could change enough to become “emergent and/or missional,” whatever that means. He was doubtful and I probably concur. But a church might find new life in the trying.
    My 3 cents.

  4. I view the article and subsequent conversations through the lens of my 6 years as a district superintendent in the Kansas West Conference (now part of the Great Plains Conference). The states of Kansas and Nebraska, and most of their districts, are losing population; small, rural churches are the rule rather than the exception. Some of them fulfill their purpose as worshiping and serving communities of faith. When a church reaches the point, though, when fewer than a dozen attend worship, when nothing else happens, when the stated goal is “to keep going as long as we can” for memory’s sake, then it’s time to thank God for the lifespan and plan a faithful ending. We don’t do that well; we’d rather kick the can down the road until next year if at all possible. The UMC enables this “life support” with equitable compensation funds and with our polity of finding any kind of credentialed person to preach on Sundays and be responsible to the DS. I participated in the discontinuance of 7 churches over 6 years, and they required a disproportionate amount of my time and energy. It is indeed hard to work compassionately with such churches and also acknowledge that we must invest our human and financial resources in places where the church can and will reach beyond itself into the community and world, for God’s sake.

  5. Marty Toepke-Floyd

    Having served a small church that did close it doors in a small town in ND, Willimon’s words got my attention. I have read and used his sermon notes for years and regard him highly, and even got to hear him in person this spring at an event in Sioux Falls, SD. Yes, the words stung when I read the article last week, and I agree with the perspectives shared above that Willimon discounts some of the fervent faith still expressed in small churches. He’s also partly right in the insular nature of some small “family” churches.
    Here in the Dakotas the kid gloves are gone when it comes to subsidizing small churches. At the 2013 AC meeting, the delegates with little discussion or dissension, voted to scrap the old apportionment formula that subsidized small church parishes and instituted a new formula of direct billing to parishes for all benefits (health insurance and pension and disability) for their appointed pastors and a 16% levy on all income by the church for their operating budget. The result for my two point charge is to raise their expected contribution in 2014 by 25% over 2013 levels — meaning they can’t afford to pay me as a full time elder any more, unless they dramatically increase their levels of giving or deplete their reserves. Larger churches in the Dakotas are seeing tens of thousands of dollars reduction in the money they have to send to the Conference.
    The times they are a-changing, and while Willimon is a bit harsh, he heralds a new reality that folks in the large churches have been advocating for a long time. There are likely some rough sailing ahead, but then Jesus isn’t afraid of wind and waves like we are.

  6. Quite a response from you and your readers, Gail. I think there is a lot of truth in what everyone is saying. Let the conversation continue!

  7. Thank you all for your insights! Marty, I am surprised to hear about the changes to your apportionment system. I guess I’m out of touch with what’s happening in the UMC. The link Wayne has provided gives more perspectives on Willimon’s article, including reflection on the “connectional” quality of the UMC. Our UCC Conference and Winnebago Presbytery both have systems for “equalizing” the health care costs and my churches and I benefited from this for many years. It could be argued that if those churches had to cover my entire health care bill I would never have been able to stay employed by them. Do the large churches resent this system? What do you suppose the large churches will do with the money “saved” by not sharing with the small churches? On the other hand–isn’t it a little greedy of the small churches to expect quality pastoral leadership at their doorstep instead of a 15 minute drive to the church in the next town where they can pool their resources for the hiring of adequately paid clergy? There are a lot of angles on this one! Maybe someday in the future, cutting edge churches will operate without the need for a paid clergy leader. But until then…?

  8. The 2014 changes to the apportionment formula in the Dakotas only affects the churhes and pastors in the Dakotas Conference. There are probably other Conferences in the US doing this, but it is not universal.
    What would help us in the Dakotas is being able to be part of a bigger pool for health insurance. The General Conference rules constrain all Annual Conferences to be self-insuring. For smaller conferences that forces the price and premiums up. (sorry if there are typos, but the screen did not adjust correctly on my computer)

  9. I like your take on things. It is very difficult to decide at what point a church should be allowed to die. Many small churches are indeed turned inward in many ways, yet often these same congregations meet needs in their communities that make their existence worthwhile.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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