In Jason Byassee’s beautifully written book, The Gifts of the Small Church, he states that “the small church is God’s primary way of saving people.” Jason’s encomium to the small congregation reminds us of the peculiar joys of ministry where few are gathered.
Frankly, my experience of ministry in the small church is more that of George Herbert than that of my friend Jason. In The Country Parson, Herbert says that the most important qualities for the small church pastor are “patience” with pettiness and an ability to endure daily “mortification” at the hands of demanding parishioners. Herbert and I served the same difficult small church, he in seventeenth century England, I in twentieth century Georgia.
What Jason experienced as love, community, and charming, homespun fidelity in his small church I have more often found to be deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers. The small congregation can be a marvelous work of God, a people who stick to the basic tasks of Christ’s mission and keep the main thing the main thing. However, in the United Methodist Church, the small church can also exercise a stranglehold upon the denomination.
We brag that there are more UMCs than U.S. Post Offices; sadly, the future of these congregations is as bleak as that of the Postal Service. 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.
Why do we have more small membership congregations than any church in Christendom? Not because small congregations are uniquely faithful, but rather because: (1) We have the world’s most expensive program of subsidy for small churches, and (2) Because bishops like me force well-trained pastors to serve small churches even when those churches show few visible marks of a faithful church.
If my thoughts on the small churches, though true, sound severe, remember that I speak as one whose office makes me responsible for the privileging of small churches in the UMC. In any other denomination, small churches don’t have a prayer of attracting a supervised, trained pastor the quality of Byassee. Only UMC bishops do that.
Our expensive system of subsidizing small congregations by providing them a network of denominational oversight, protection, and resources is paid for by our larger churches. Equitable Compensation, which the Book of Discipline says is for emergency and missional clergy salary subsidy, is abused to subsidize and hide the rapid decline of our small churches. One Annual Conference routinely wastes nearly a million dollars annually to subsidize the salaries of some our least-effective pastors in our least-faithful congregations.
When I was out and about in my Conference discussing the future of our churches, there was always someone to say, “Bishop, our small churches are bearing an unbearable burden. We cannot afford the clergy salaries and the unfair apportionments the Conference requires.” I reminded them that if a third of our small churches stopped paying apportionments altogether, our Conference mission and ministry would lose no more than ten percent of its funding.
I also reminded them that the main reason why their small congregation is in existence at all is not due to their hospitality to a new generation of Christians (which most do not show) and not due to their sacrificial, Christ-like service to the needs of their communities, but solely because of their District Superintendent. (I therefore urged our DSs not to hold Charge Conferences in congregations that have no ministry to report in the past year and to expend a minimum amount of time working for congregations that have no vision of mission beyond bare survival of their current membership.)
The most threatened congregations in our church are not small churches; they are our middle-sized congregations and our once-large urban congregations. Small congregations are doggedly resilient. Though our seminary-trained, well-pensioned preachers have become too expensive for small churches to pay, and though most new Christians are made in our larger congregations, there is little indication that the myriad of small churches will disappear. My Conference, for instance, in three decades lost a third of its total membership while the actual number of congregations remained about the same. Through our subsidies and the attentiveness of those in the ministry of oversight, our small churches are protected from the tough truth about their situation and shielded from having to ask God to transform them into more faithful instigators of the full mandates of Christ.
I’ll admit that when the creaking denominational machinery has passed into oblivion, when bishops like me have faded into justly deserved obscurity, the good folk at St. John’s in the Wilderness will be there next Sunday praising God, duking it out with one another after pot luck suppers, handing over the faith to those who might pass by, burying their dead, complaining about the District Superintendent, trying to put up with one another in the Body of Christ, and will continue to be the face of much of North American mainline protestant Christianity.
But should they? While we may have a trained, part-time Local Pastor to send to a congregation that has degenerated into little more than an exclusively inward-focused club for the benefit of its members, should we? While a small group of older adults has been lovingly, faithfully worshipping Jesus a few miles from another group of similar composition, have we preachers so misled these congregations that they think this arrangement is a justifiable use of the Lord’s meager human and financial resources?
Lovett Weems says that American Methodism grew spectacularly in its first century because Methodism went where the people were. After the Revolution, older, more established denominations stayed in the new nation’s cities. Methodists headed West. At some point in our past, we decided to love our real estate more than God’s people and lost our willingness to love as expansively as Jesus commands, limiting the scope of the Kingdom to churches we had planted in a previous century, to souls we had won a couple of generations ago, and to those who constrain their practice of the faith to where few are gathered.
Wesleyanism is called by God for a considerably larger vision.