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Small, but thriving: Size doesn’t matter for many UM congregations Mallory McCall, Dec 3, 2010
PHOTOS COURTESY OF RON CRANDALL
About half of United Methodist churches have 50 or fewer people in worship on Sunday mornings.
By Mallory McCall Staff Writer
Of the roughly 34,468 United Methodist churches in the United States, about 64 percent are “small churches”—those with about 175 or fewer members, according to the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.
Though their buildings may be small or only half-full on Sunday mornings, church leaders say small-membership churches can be just as effective if not more than today’s booming megachurches.
“Some small churches, proportionately, are just as effective as medium or large-attendance churches in making new disciples or inviting existing disciples to meet for levels of devotion,” said Bob Crossman, minister of new church starts and congregational advancement for the Arkansas Conference and director of the Small Church Leadership Institute, a national, bi-annual conference equipping laity and pastors with the knowledge and skills needed for leading and growing their small attendance churches.
“In many cases they’re serving communities that are very small—communities where 1,500-2,500 people live and they are the appropriate size for the mission field they serve,” he added.
For some small churches, it’s a familial sense of pride, identity and determination that keeps their doors and their ministries growing.
“I think the wonderful thing about [the small-membership church] is the strength of the people who’ve been there,” said the Rev. Regina Turner, who serves three small churches—Hartman UMC, Hays Chapel UMC (both of which average around 20 attendees) and Spadra UMC—just outside of Little Rock, Ark.
When she first arrived at Spadra, the congregation consisted of just three elderly women who kept the church open by cashing in savings to pay bills and apportionments.
“For whatever reason, the Lord is just not finished,” said Ms. Turner. “God has just started bringing people back.” Membership is slowly climbing and is now at 18. “It’s a miracle,” she said, “I’m so thankful we didn’t give up.”
There’s sometimes a stigma of sorts attached to small-membership churches, says the Rev. Clarissa Youngblood Fuentes, a chaplain at the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, N.C.
“I think so much of the time what happens is the small-membership church is used as a steppingstone to something bigger, when really it’s not a steppingstone at all,” she said. “There is vital ministry happening in small-membership churches.”
Since the early 1970s, the Hinton Rural Life Center, a mission agency of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, has offered resources, community support and consultations for small-membership churches across the country. The Center is in its third granted cycle of the First Parish Project, a continuing education program funded by the Lilly Endowment that develops and sustains effective pastoral leadership in churches averaging 100 or fewer people in worship.
The project specifically targets pastors who are 35 or younger and serving their first full-time pastorate. The program targets that clergy age group because most experience the call to ministry while attending larger congregations, yet the first places they serve are typically much smaller, said Ms. Fuentes, the project’s coordinator.
“They were a little bit out of their element,” she said.
In larger congregations, people don’t always have the same expectations of their pastors as small-church members do, Ms. Fuentes said. They don’t expect, for instance that their pastor will come to their home when they are sick, but in small congregations, the pastor is expected to be right by the congregant’s side.
The program also provides new pastors at small-membership churches with a community of peers. Workshops focus on contextual ministry, congregation history, authentic relationships, evangelism, pastor spirituality and pastoral care.
When young pastors can understand the dynamics of the small congregations they’re walking into, effective ministry happens for everyone, said Ms. Fuentes.
“[Thriving small churches] know themselves well,” she said. “They know that though they are small, they have a lot to offer.”
Marks of a successful small-membership church, she added, include being engaged in ministry outside themselves, involving everyone in the church in its ministries, and evidence of good stewardship, with people tithing and the building open more than one day a week.
“A thriving small-membership church is a community center,” Ms. Fuentes said. “They know who the people are in the community and they know the needs of the community and they’ve become innovative in reaching out to other people.”
Contrary to popular wisdom, a vibrant small church does not have to represent a multigenerational congregation, she added.
“I think you can have an effective, thriving small-membership church that is only one age group. We can be the best place for senior-citizen ministry if that is who lives in our community.”
Small but active
Central United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, Wis., may be small but has quite a presence in its community. Located in Milwaukee’s poorest zip code and the fourth poorest metropolitan area in the U.S., this small church is at the heart of a community with big needs.
“There’s ministry of every kind knocking on our door every day,” said the Rev. Kate Croskery-Jones, Central’s pastor.
The average Sunday attendance is about 65 members who are a mix of empty nesters and young adults; only a few families have small children. The church’s website describes the congregation as “small, diverse and different.”
“We’re odd for God,” Ms. Croskery-Jones said. “The way that people who attend here are alike is that everybody is different.” Being culturally tolerant of all people is something the church is working on, she added. The church’s openness and cultural diversity contributes to its vitality.
“The church also has a long, rich history of helping in the community and being very mission-focused,” Ms. Croskery-Jones said. Central is a founding member of Central City Churches, a network of seven churches and faith communities that helps the needy by providing pantry food, hygiene supplies, clothing, job referrals and hot meals.
The church also hosts meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, the Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba, the International Learning Center—a ministry designed to help refugees assimilate to American culture—and a United Methodist Women’s ministry with elderly Hmong people.
“I wish folks didn’t have so much anxiety about size,” said Ms. Croskery-Jones. “The Methodist Church is kind of an anxious system, but you know, the widow who gave two coins because that was all she had—that smallness was just as big of a blessing, and maybe even more of a blessing than what rich and big had to offer.
“God’s love is never going to go out of style. How we share that love and how it is we use the tools at our disposal and what kind of language we use to share the good news certainly changes over time. I wish the big church could be a little bit more fluid about that.”
It’s common for people to write off small churches as dying and focus instead on new churches or big churches, says the Rev. Ron Crandall, an ordained elder in the Kentucky Conference and author of Turnaround Strategies for the Small Church (Abingdon). But they’d be ignoring “tremendous new opportunity for hope and investment in peoples’ lives in a way that brings them joy and extends the gospel,” he added.
Dr. Crandall’s longtime passion for small-membership churches led him to develop ABIDE, a specialized ministry of Spiritual Leadership Inc., an organization based in Lexington, Ky. that helps dying churches and struggling pastors by empowering spiritually-gifted laypeople and growing generative ministries.
Based on John 15:1-11, ABIDE is a ministry model designed to create leadership teams in small churches that will bear “fruit that will last,” prevent pastor burnout and maintain congregational vitality during pastoral transitions.
Through ABIDE, teams of pastors and lay persons from up to a dozen small-membership churches work together for over a year, meeting for retreats to better learn how to “abide in Jesus and love one another,” prayerfully discern where God is leading their congregation and develop a vision of ministry that leads to God’s glory and fruitfulness.
Smaller churches, Dr. Crandall said, are more like the size of early Methodist societies. “What we’re doing with this renewal model is actually stumbling back into what Wesley himself had.”
Methodist societies were made up of leaders who “knew what the movement was all about and helped maintain it,” Dr. Crandall said. These leaders understood how to live out their faith and advance God’s mission in the world.
“That’s where a church, regardless of its size, needs to be headed,” he said.