Leading the small church from the porch swing

October 17th, 2021

“On my first Sunday, I held a church meeting in the sanctuary immediately after worship to tell everyone that we needed to plan programs for the fall season. I just told everyone to sit down after the benediction, and I led the meeting. They really didn’t seem all that interested in what I told them we needed to do…”

So the pastor went to the district superintendant and said, "I’m not sure I'm suited for pastoral ministry.  In the seminary classes I’m taking, I was told that I'm the administrative executive and the ‘CEO’ of the church, but they really seem to have their own plans. I’m not sure where I fit in at this student-local-pastor appointment.”

As a district superintendent and an instructor in "course of study" program for training part-time, second-career, and bivocational local pastors, I've heard several variations of these statements over the years.

My UM conference is in an overwhelmingly rural state filled with mostly small congregations (86% of our congregations have fewer than 100 active members, and 66% of our congregations have fewer than 50 active members). Every church, large and small, has a God-given potential to make a God-sized impact, but congregations cultivate fruitfulness in ways that differ widely based on size and context.

While most church leadership books and training events are designed by and for mid- and large-sized congregations, with ordained elders and paid staff, most congregations are small. A ministry leader cannot simply scale down the leadership principles, methods, and models designed by and for a larger church and then drop them into a small congregation. The leadership approaches that a part-time or bivocational pastor must use are very different than those practiced in a larger congregation. The small church pastor is not the CEO, not the ministry manager, not the program director, and she is not the vision-caster. These types of leadership might work in a larger congregation, but in a small church (particularly a small rural church), they will be perceived as lacking awareness and respect for the church’s natural leadership style, history, context, and reality.

Lead from the porch swing

In the dialogue that began this article, the student pastor wasn't properly prepared for the size and context of the congregation. In the very small “family” church, the organizing principles may be embodied in a matriarch or patriarch (or a family that sustains the matriarch's or patriarch's legacy, if that person has since died).

In slightly larger “pastoral” congregations, the matriarch's or patriarch's legacy may be a ghost from the past, yet there is now a leadership tradition in which the pastor operates like the hub of a wheel, with groups, families, committees, and ministries all connected through the pastor-hub. Sometimes, in this pastoral setting, the pastor operates like a circuit breaker, with everything (including conflict) running through the pastor.  This kind of small church culture is functional for a time, but it is often quite difficult for the “circuit breaker,” particularly when the system is overloaded and the pastor burns out or melts down! Small congregations need a leader, but it is a leader who serves “with” and “alongside” rather than a leader who must be the master of ceremonies or the center of the church’s attention or its relationships.

The smaller the church, the more the pastor’s leadership exists outside the committee meeting room or even behind the pulpit. Instead the leader rests on the metaphorical porch swing.  In my home state, Arkansas, especially in the evening, we enjoy banter from the front porch swing. You sit side-by-side on a porch swing. You can’t sit in the adversarial position across from someone, hoping to win them over or tire them out. Side-by-side it is, looking in the same direction, leaning over and talking with each other, loving each other as fellow servants of God.

Porch swings foster curiosity: What is that we are seeing in front of us? "Tell me what the town was like when you were growing up...What was the church like then?”  

Rather than managers, small churches need spiritual leaders and nurturers who love the congregation and the community where it is planted.  Instead of setting a leadership agenda, porch-swing leadership, with the (often unelected but incredibly influential) matriarch or patriarch, looks a lot more like coaching a participatory sports team.

While it may seem like it takes more time, porch-swing leadership is also empowering, because leading from the porch swing allows pastors to process ideas, opportunities, and challenges alongside the lay leadership, working out the critical elements of context, history, capacity, and “fit-ness” before any formal decision are even considered, much less voted upon.  While things may need to simmer for a while as you rock on the porch together, in the end, the lay leader may lean over and say, “pastor, that just might work. Let’s go for it!”

Available from MinistryMatters

Be a co-laborer in God’s vineyard

Of course, you can't get everything done on the front porch. Some leadership happens in the garden of service, including the nurture of discipleship formation, outreach, and caregiving for our neighbors. In the small-town or rural church, leave behind the role expectations of the program director, which in some churches can feel like a “cruise-ship activities director.” Instead, the pastoral leader is a co-laborer in God’s garden. In the garden of discipleship service, working side-by-side, clergy and laity plant ministry seeds. Pastors guide the congregation as it does some necessary weeding and pruning of existing ministries that either require too many resources or have not shown fruit. While painful at the moment, pruning ministries will be an indispensable tool as we recover from COVID and all the challenges it has added to our church and community life. And as ministries bring forth fruit, it is pastors who can encourage the congregation as we share stories of success, fruitfulness, and God’s mighty works in our neighborhoods and towns.  

As a ministry supervisor and recruiter, I especially lift up the unique giftedness of bivocational pastors as co-workers in God’s vineyard. Bivocational pastors, as leaders called from the pew, or a neighboring community, can offer an indigenous perspective on the contextual appropriateness of ministry ideas, along with the community’s trust that comes from being rooted in community life for many seasons.  Bivocational pastors have sat on the other side of the porch swing, and often have an intuitive sense of how a congregation can discern opportunities, along with a deep awareness of the community’s peculiar challenges and local institutions. 

Build partnerships and community, not processes and systems

Imagination (or vision) in the small church still needs to happen, but it looks different than in larger congregations. Formal mission and vision statements give way to a common sense of purpose, often articulated first through actions rather than by branding statements. Visioning is still about prayerfully looking beyond the horizon, but it is a less formal process. From the “front porch,” one can see the community and be seen by the community.  

When I served in larger congregations, I focused on building systems, and used those systems to build Christ-centered relationships. The small church still needs some basic systems of governance and some agreed-upon priorities to thrive, but for discipling ministries, it is the intentional relationships that will build the ministries the church needs. Systems thrive on sameness and sustainability.  Since a single death or loss of a member may change the outlook of a particular ministry, any ministry system or process the pastor builds will always seem fragile and will increase anxiety instead of building trust. So instead of building several formal ministry systems in-house, build partnerships with other churches, institutions, and groups.

Small churches thrive on partnerships. Instead of building a new home-made-from-scratch ministry for the nutritionally insecure in your community, connect with a nonprofit, county senior center, or neighboring church, and see how your whole congregation could show up to make a difference. Instead of building an in-house literacy ministry that will be hard to staff and resource with members and money, team up with the local school to provide tutoring. Partnerships leave all the systems, processes, and bureaucracy to the experts, while the disciples of your church can provide the people-power to make an impact.

So, sit together, side-by-side, looking forward together. Learn together. There is incredible potential in coaching and encouraging key leaders from the porch swing. This style of leadership empowers leaders and respects the small church’s unique role in neighborhoods and communities.  

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