Why Willimon Is Wrong about Small Churches

August 12th, 2013
Jones currently serves the Great Plains Episcopal Area, comprised of Kansas and Nebraska.

Bishop Willimon is wrong about small membership churches. He’s not completely wrong, but he needs correction on three key points made in his recent article, "The Tough Truth about Small Churches," featured here at www.ministrymatters.com and in the newest issue of Circuit Rider magazine.

First, he neglects the Gospel mandate to preach the good news “to the ends of the earth.” That includes rural communities where United Methodist churches will be small. In small towns all over America, the United Methodist Church is usually an outpost of love, joy, service and the good news about Jesus. They are strategic and need to be strengthened as much as possible.

I once knew a young man from a small Kansas church. He was working as a clerk to a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was not planning to go back to the farm and small church where he was raised, but was headed for a distinguished legal career. What will he accomplish over time? Will he become a Supreme Court justice? If so, his values and faith were shaped by worship, Sunday school and United Methodist youth fellowship of that small membership church. If rural communities often export their youth, they are changing the world by the young people whose character they have shaped.

The second point is about clarity. Bishop Willimon has confused the issue in harmful ways by overgeneralizing about small membership churches. Both large and small churches can be characterized by “deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers” that Willimon decries. He says his experience is that this is present more in small churches than in large ones, but no statistics are presented and we are left with his own unsupported generalizations.

In contrast, I would offer my own experience as bishop of the Great Plains Episcopal Area. I have found missionally effective, vital, small congregations doing amazing ministry in rural areas. Some are even open-country churches working hard to engage their mission field. I have also found club-like, internally-focused, dying churches with several hundred in attendance located in urban areas.

Bishop Willimon’s article has certainly stirred the pot, but the question is first and foremost not about the size of churches or location. Rural churches in Nebraska and Kansas are facing the difficulties associated with demographic changes, usually depopulation as a result of the changing economics of agriculture. Urban churches face other demographic changes. All of us face huge cultural changes like new technologies and the loss of cultural support for religious practice.

The key issue is a focus on God and God’s mission to save the world. Where congregations see themselves as mission stations whose time, talents and money can be used by the Lord to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, the Holy Spirit shows up and amazing things happen. United Methodism has too few of these congregations in all locations. We need more churches with high numbers of professions of faith, growing worship attendance, increasing participation in small groups and engagement in world-changing mission. That matters more than size.

The third issue is that Bishop Willimon never specifies what he means by “subsidy.” Some annual conferences still apportion some clergy benefits such as health care and pensions. Their use of the equitable salary budget hides the true cost of pastoral services. Every congregation should bear the full cost of the pastoral leadership assigned to that congregation. No congregation should be paying for the pastoral leadership of another church, with the exception of new congregations that have a fixed number of years of declining support. Where such subsidies still exist, conferences should end them now. Subsidizing pastoral compensation, except in temporary and rare instances, is bad practice. If this is what he means, I agree with Bishop Willimon.

But perhaps Bishop Willimon is referring to the apportionments that pay District Superintendent and Episcopal salaries. In those cases, DSes and Bishops should be focused not on taking care of dying club-like congregations, but on extending United Methodist witness for Christ as much as possible. If that is how we as leaders spend our time, small churches are paying their fair share of a missionary movement that God is using to change the world. That is how I want to serve as a bishop. Such an apportionment system is not a subsidy but a fair share of mission work.

I am grateful for the vital small congregations in my area. I am grateful for the vital medium and large congregations. Vitality, not size, is the issue.

comments powered by Disqus