In praise of small churches

July 23rd, 2015

While I was in Divinity School and throughout my discernment process for ordination, my one prayer was, “Please God, do not let me end up a solo clergyperson in a small church.” Over and over, I heard horror stories of small churches run like oligarchies that chewed up their priests and spit them out. I was more familiar with the large, program-sized churches — churches with semi-professional music programs, multiple clergy on staff, Christian formation programs that hosted brilliant scholars and famous preachers, and where most people in the pews were sheltered from the politicking and personality clashes of the leadership. So I prayed my prayer and much to my dismay, it went unanswered.

When the bishop’s office called to ask if I might be interested in a priest-in-charge position in a small church about 35 miles east of Nashville, I found myself saying yes. I was terrified but hopeful, ready to put to use the skills and concepts that I had learned and practiced through my graduate degree program and a Clinical Pastoral Education residency. On my first Sunday, I parked my car next to the “Reserved” spot, only to be told later that it was reserved for me.

Over the next six months, the congregation and I got to know each other, and I like to think that we were both pleased with what we found. Much to my surprise, my small town Southern church housed quite a few people who were theologically and/or politically liberal. Much to their surprise, I was doing a decent job, considering it was my first call. As we close in on three years of ministry together, I give thanks that my prayer wasn’t answered.

I know from the stories my clergy colleagues tell that I am lucky. There are a lot of dysfunctional churches out there. But complaining about one’s church is also a form of bonding among clergy, trying to outdo one another with stories of inappropriate behavior and misguided ideas. It is harder to celebrate our successes, especially in small churches. I can point to a small increase in our average Sunday attendance and an uptick in giving, but that isn’t the whole picture. When I bury more people than I baptize, when I look out on a Sunday morning and see mostly gray hair, when I covet my colleagues’ churches who livestream their services and have multiple Christian formation offerings on Sunday mornings, it’s easy to get discouraged. The headlines screech that my denomination is dying, and churches like mine are closing, and I wonder whether or not my church will still exist in fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years.

My experience at Epiphany has taught me that small churches like mine are what the Church should be. Everyone pitches in; nearly everyone contributes in at least a small way. People take care of one another. I get pastoral updates on people that parishioners run into in the grocery store. In a culture where a true feeling of community seems to be disappearing, I have seen that spirit of community operate in my church. Over the past three years, I have cherished getting to know my parishioners’ stories — their heartbreaks and traumas and joys. It allows me to know when to challenge them to live more fully into their baptismal vows and when to offer them the comfort of God’s love and grace.

I love my church. I love the way they are open to new ideas and experiences, from starting an Easter Vigil service to celebrating Pentecost outside to participating in a community 5K together as a team. I love that they genuinely love each other, even when they drive each other crazy. I love that every kid in our congregation has eighteen grandparents, that when a baby starts shrieking or I fumble the words in the liturgy, we all smile and laugh and keep going. I love getting texts and e-mails with items of interest or funny jokes. I love knowing everyone’s names and being introduced to their family and friends. I love that they are comfortable telling me when I’ve messed up or upset them and allow me to apologize. Most of all, I love that we are fumbling through this messy, heart-breaking life together with God’s help.

I never wanted to serve a small church, and I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with it. As churches like mine continue to die out, I worry about the future of the Body of Christ. Bigger churches with bigger budgets have a lot to offer, but so do smaller churches. We need one another. We need each other’s gifts. As the Church has adopted the corporate mentality of the culture, bigger seems to equal better. If a clergy person serves a larger church, he or she must be more talented and gifted than one serving a smaller church, so the thinking goes. But what a small church might lack in numbers and budget, is more than made up for by the sweet, sweet spirit in that place.

This piece originally appeared on Called to Endure.  

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