Although I have done many things in ministry–prison chaplain, missionary, theology professor, I have basically spend most of my life as a pastor, working with small rural congregations. And although every congregation is different with its own dynamics and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, I think I have discovered a few things that are shared at least by all the rural congregations that I know.
The first is a generalized sense of doom. Small congregations are always struggling. They don’t have much money, the membership and attendance are dwindling, the average age is increasing, internal quarrels are getting more frequent and nastier, it gets harder and harder to replace key leaders like musicians and pastors, the building they meet in is getting older and older and needs more and more work. Most such congregations feel that they are living on borrowed time, a condition that is expressed by a grim comment I hear now and then: “We are just one or two funerals away from closing.” Normally, that is followed by the names of the one or two people whose contributions keep the congregation afloat.
That is the first and most obvious thing I see in the small churches I work with and know of. At one point in my ministry career, I tended to get worked up and worried about the realities that the church was worried about–maybe not for the same reasons. If I was the pastor, the imminent closure of the church meant that I would be unemployed.
I don’t worry about that sort of thing as much anymore. Partly, it’s because the closer I get to retirement age, the less unemployment bothers me. But mostly it is because I had discovered something else that all these congregations have in common. If you can find the minutes of old business meetings of some of these congregations, you will discover that the church members have been saying the same things almost from day the church began–and for many congregations in my geographical area, that beginning can be anywhere up to 200 years ago.
Congregations are persistent–and it seems like small congregations have this persistence in abundance. Something about their church touches their lives in a very important, deep down way that keeps them going on no matter what the realities they face.
I was doing some supply preaching last year for two small congregations that were giving serious thought to closing down permanently. Money was tight, buildings were in need of work, they had no musician and couldn’t find a pastor–but didn’t feel that they could afford to pay a pastor anyway. This was not the first time they had been at this point.
And every time they reach this point, they find a way to keep going. Their church is important. The small gathering of believers provides something in their life that can’t be found elsewhere. They could close and go to other churches and would probably find something of whatever it is that keeps them together. But being together, even if it is just for a worship service, meets a need in their lives and they keep going. Will they close? Who knows? For now, they are still meeting for worship and are exploring ways of becoming a more active congregation–one of the members said recently that part of the problem is that they have no real mission. We are setting out to find our mission these days.
Small, struggling congregations do close–there are a lot of empty church buildings in our area and other spots where congregations used to meet. But there are even more that keep going, defying the odds year after year, finding unique and interesting way to keep going. Their persistence comes from deep within–they have made a commitment to God and a commitment to each other, commitments that they express through the church. A local congregation will not die until those commitments disappear.
But while those commitments exists, the church will continue. Wise leadership will focus on these commitments, fanning the flames that keep the church going. If these commitments are the focus, the other stuff becomes annoying but manageable. We learn that we can sing without a musician, we can make some sort of repair on the building, we can find someone to preach and teach, we can work out the interpersonal tensions–all because of the powerful commitments to serve God and each other through the church.
May the peace of God be with you