I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations. The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on. The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.
Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down. In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand. Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.
Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination. We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down. As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going. Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down. Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.
And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox. On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have. We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.
But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply. If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms: If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.
Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money. They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task. They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.
When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry. When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down. When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.
The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there. Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.
And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor. That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has. We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.
We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us. But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister. Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.
May the peace of God be with you.