I have heard from many small church pastors that they feel forgotten and overlooked.
My own journey has given me the opportunity to be a part of several small church ministries.I have had the unique opportunity to shepherd a small church that grew and planted several other Free Churches and to oversee a church plant that was just moving into their first permanent building that grew to be a midsize church. Throughout my 40 years of ministry I have found my heart deeply drawn to realize the impact of ministry in smaller and sometimes forgotten places.
I can clearly remember in my early ministry years looking at seasoned pastors who were willing to lead smaller churches. These men were my heroes: faithfully serving and shepherding well in churches that were either small in number or located in more rural communities. As I have been part of the Eastern District Pastoral Support Team, I have had the wonderful opportunity to come alongside many pastors in smaller churches to encourage them in their lives and ministries. What a privilege that has been!
Statistics show that the majority of American Churches are small. In the 2012 Association of Religion Survey of Sunday AM attendance: 43% of American churches had fewer than 50; 67% had fewer than 100; and 87% had fewer than 250. A 2015 EFCA survey reveals a very similar picture of Evangelical Free churches. The EFCA is still a small church movement.
Now my heart for the small church does not in any way cause me to look at larger churches negatively but to believe that we need each other. Our smaller churches and pastors need the perspectives, resources, and encouragement of larger churches, yet I also believe that our larger churches need the perspectives, stories, and unique ways that God is at work in small places and small ministries. I like what Francis Schaeffer says: “With God there are no little people, no little places.”
I must admit that I, too, struggled with certain feelings while pastoring in a small place: Does anyone know what God is doing in this place? Does anyone know how God is using me? To be honest, I felt forgotten and isolated. After all it was the larger church pastors who were asked to speak and larger church ministries that were highlighted at events and conferences that I would attend. I had to search my heart and come back to the call of God on my life and to the place where I was serving. As I share with small church pastors, I have heard these same feelings expressed many times. Do we really value and affirm small church ministries? Let me share a few ways that small church ministry has great value and small church pastors can find encouragement.
1. Pastors of small churches are often seen as shepherds not solely of the local congregation, but of the whole community. One of the unique values of being a pastor in a small church in a small community is that you are often looked to to provide care to the larger community. In my pastorate, I found that I was called upon by the local police and the local school to come alongside them when tragedy hit our community. I was invited to be involved in the local prison, personally sharing with some of the inmates. What a privilege it was to be called upon in this way. Small communities afford these kinds of wonderful opportunities to declare and live out the Gospel.
2. Small churches afford the opportunity to focus on community and communion (relationships). In small settings the pastor gets to know everyone in the congregation well. There is a place for everyone and everyone has a place. In the small church, ministry is about one person ministering to another person. Because people know each other they are able to serve each other based on personal relationship. Therefore, the small church can become a model of what community looks like. The strength of the small church is intimacy and involvement. It is in many ways a family of believers worshipping and living together well.
3. Success in ministry is not dependent on numbers but on transformed lives. It is God’s presence that determines the success of the church. In small and forgotten communities, this is essential. Because people are so well known within a small community, when transformation happens because of Christ, it is very clearly seen. I have had community people come up to me and share how meaningful the ministry of the church has been when they see lives of people in the community radically changed. The church is seen as a valued and important part of the fabric of the community.
4. Pastors of small churches can feel lonely, therefore it is critical for them to develop partnerships with other pastors. While serving in Vermont, I felt these feelings and knew that I needed to develop pastoral connections for encouragement, opportunities to think together how to pastor well, and support. During those years we developed a close connection. Though we would only meet once a year for a retreat, this created valuable relationships and allowed us to know that we were not alone. This has led to lifelong relationships that have been most meaningful in my life. I found that it was worth it to travel great distances to develop and maintain these friendships. In the EDA we are seeking to develop these partnerships through our cluster group ministry. We desire to let all pastors of small and large churches know that they do not serve alone.
In our EDA movement, we need partnerships where large church pastors and small church pastors come together to learn from each other and strengthen each other in the ministry to which God has called them. The church I attend is a large church yet my pastor meets together with a pastor of a small church to partner together in developing sermon series and other common efforts. We also need to hear from and listen to those who shepherd our smaller churches. What they have to say to us is important as we see the full work of God in all places. Wherever God leads you to minister is a significant place, for Gospel transformation takes place wherever the presence of the Lord is. He is the God of our large churches and the God of our small and forgotten churches. Let’s rejoice in His work in all the regions of our district.