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The gifts of the small church in a pandemic

In 2017, I was the pastor of a small-membership church, and my wife was a youth pastor at a church in the next city over. A week before Christmas, our 6-month-old daughter woke up with a high fever and a nasty cough. Her breathing was so labored that we took her to the emergency room.

She was admitted and put on oxygen. The doctors assured us that she would be fine — she had a bad case of RSV, which just needed to run its course. But for the next three days, she lay in her crib, an oxygen tube in her tiny nostrils, an IV in her tiny arm.

For a parent, there are few things more gut-wrenching than sitting helplessly beside the crib of your sick child.

For a young pastor married to another young pastor, there is no worse timing for such a crisis than mid-December. Between the two of us, we had a combined five Christmas services that needed to be planned and executed.

But it was this experience that really drove home to me the power of relationships in a small-membership church.

One day, while my daughter was napping, I called one of my lay leaders to talk through the rapidly approaching services.

My parishioner picked up the phone with a curt but well-meaning greeting: “Why are you calling me? Don’t you have other things to worry about right now?”

She knew me, and with those first comments, she let me know that she cared about me.

Rural and small-membership churches are places that depend on deep relationships. Carl Dudley has argued that small-membership churches are often single-celled organisms, with that single cell functioning as a caring unit.

Within a small church, the members tend to each other. If someone is sick, meals are arranged almost spontaneously. If a parishioner needs something from the church but can’t ask, other members will reliably let the pastor know. If someone has a small business, members are sure to shop there.

Members of the small church depend on one another — for connection, for friendship, for help.

Like most strengths, this can have a negative side. At times, small-membership churches have been criticized for focusing too much on internal relationships — an inward focus that can inadvertently close the community off from the outside world. It can be difficult for new members to gain entrance to that caring cell.

Yet with the world locked into physical distancing and isolation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the positive side of those relationships, that sense of community. In times of sickness and anxiety, it can be a powerfully sustaining force. It is one of the principal gifts of a small church.

I was the beneficiary of that calming gift that day on the phone. I explained that there was a lot of stuff to get done: people who needed to be called and visited, services that needed to be planned.

“We can handle those things,” my parishioner said. “Your daughter is in the hospital. You can call me when you’re home again.”

I was overwhelmed, both by the way my church cared for me and my family and by the leadership demonstrated by this depth of care.

Much of my work now is helping leaders of small-membership churches grow their confidence in organizational and institutional leadership, so that they can claim their role as anchor institutions within the community.

But what happens when church committees don’t meet in person and Sunday worship happens virtually or over a conference call?

I think this is when the strengths of the small-membership church are most apparent.

The early church persisted in part because it was networks of small groups that met when they could. This allowed the church to spread beneath the radar of those who wanted to stamp it out.

Our small churches today continue to exist for the same reason — deep relationships that draw people in and form them in community.

During the pandemic, I’ve been captivated by the stories of leadership I’m seeing in small churches. Pastors who print weekly devotionals and Bible studies and deliver them to parishioners — a friendly but physically distant presence waving at members through the window, reminding them they are not alone.

Lay leaders who organize phone trees to make sure everyone is checked on and connected with a friendly voice. Leaders who host conference calls where people can share their prayer requests and have others respond.

On Palm Sunday, we received a text message from the volunteer children’s director at the church where we attend and volunteer as youth pastors. “You’ve been egged,” it said.

Out in the yard were 24 brightly colored plastic eggs. A gift bag with a palm leaf and a book about ducks — my daughter’s favorite animal — was on the porch.

In place of the community Easter egg hunt, volunteers were scattering eggs in the yards of the kids and surprising each with a personalized goody bag.

As my daughter ran around the yard, I found myself grateful for the community that knew us and remembered us, a community that reminded us we were still cared for and were not alone.

In this time of uncertainty, we might turn to the small-membership church for guidance and wisdom. We can learn from the ways that leadership in a small church is not bound by established institutional channels — the ways that committed silos break down over family dinner conversations, that pastoral care is shared among all the members.

My daughter’s RSV was not COVID-19, but when I lingered in the uncertainty of her illness, I depended upon the relationships, the compassion and empathy, that were foundational to my church.

In a world where “social distancing” is now common language, the small church can help us recover this formational life of community, forged through deep relationships that sustain us even in uncertain times.

The young pastor said he felt like a failure.

He wasn’t the first rural pastor I’ve heard say this. The center that I direct, located at a small United Methodist college, is focused on working with rural congregations to support community and economic development. Before this, I pastored a small rural congregation. I’ve been in his shoes, and I know other pastors who have been in his shoes, too.

“I always believed that if I did all the right things, if I got all the parts of ministry right, then my church would grow,” he said. “But it’s not happening. I feel like a failure.”

He described his community: a rural county with a high level of opiate use, significant poverty and inadequate health care. He spoke with pride about the ministries of his church — in particular, their community meals, where judges eat with the criminals they have sentenced. He knew the ins and outs of his community, both the stories and the data. And yet, he told us, his church continued to shrink.

This story is not uncommon. Pastors are often led to believe that success in their congregations is contingent upon increasing worship attendance. Missions and evangelism become tools by which to reach this growth rather than efforts by which to recognize and participate in the restless change that God is creating.

In many small-church contexts, numerical growth is next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that the pastors or the congregations are failures. I’ve heard many stories of small ministries that are succeeding — measured not by the numbers but by the impact of their work.

The Rev. Meghan Killingsworth and the Rev. Glenn Stallsmith, for example, reject the notion that thriving churches are exclusively those that are rapidly attracting members — and that small churches are simply places to serve as chaplains for idle, unproductive congregations.

Instead, these pastors remind us of the hard work required of leaders in our small-membership congregations. Small congregations are not doomed to irrelevancy, but neither are they likely to greatly increase their average worship attendance.

Meghan is co-pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sanford, Florida, a small city outside Orlando. Over the last few years, the city has grown rapidly, boosted by its increasingly busy airport and its proximity to Disney World. The church sits on a brick-paved street across from a park, a few blocks from a popular lake. One of several churches on the street, First United Methodist has worshipped in its current structure since 1915, in a sanctuary that features nearly 40 stained-glass windows.

The congregation is small, averaging about 80 on a typical Sunday, and it seems destined to remain so. For the members to match the type of worship that popular mega-churches in the area offer, they would have to change their DNA as a congregation. Expanding or building a new campus is not a possibility without abandoning the church’s physical place in the community.

Instead, Meghan has begun a conversation, both within her church and with fellow pastors in the area, about what she calls “missional metrics.” Her questions are about assets that her church can offer to the changing community: What are the needs we can meet? How might we be incarnational within our community? What does it mean to be a leader in this particular community? Where do we fit in the current ecosystem?

For Sanford First United Methodist Church, that means better utilization of their building. Using the fellowship halls and classrooms that otherwise sit empty, the congregation is launching a co-working and incubator space for nonprofits in the community.

When the co-working space is fully operational, it will bring together complementary nonprofits. Already, food-based programs, support groups and entrepreneurial initiatives focused on justice have signed on. Groups that share this space will share a commitment to partnering with each other through quarterly learning opportunities and an annual volunteer fair for the wider community.

“All of these groups were trying to find ways to work together,” Meghan said. “We want to find ways for our church to help in that.”

Glenn, too, had to come up with a creative way to help his congregation reach its community. Glenn is a part-time pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in rural Oxford, North Carolina, which averages about 20 in weekly worship. Located outside of the small town, the church is mostly surrounded by fields and trees.

Over the last few years, the rural congregation has worked to create a small community garden. While the people in the pews are not farmers, many of them came from farming families, and small farms still dominate the landscape. A community garden was, as Glenn told me, “in the DNA of the congregation.” And it was a way to connect with the students at the school a few miles away, who were looking for opportunities to fulfill their community service hours.

For Glenn, the garden is a way for the church to enter into a new aspect of ministry. “I can preach every Sunday about how we need to be more evangelistic or outward-facing or missional, and it can be overwhelming. This is something we can do in that direction.”

The garden will likely never yield much in the way of new members, because the population around the church is not growing. Instead, Glenn sees the garden as a way to change the perception of the role of the church in the community, both for its members and for those outside the church.

“I hope that this helps to change the texture of the community,” he said.

Both Meghan and Glenn acknowledge that their churches will never see profound membership growth from these ministries. Instead, they offer a template for a revitalized life and vision for small-membership congregations, and a new way of evaluating failure and success.

These are congregations leading substantial change by building on their assets, including their small size. Even if they don’t grow, they aren’t failures; they can still lead purposeful ministry.

About a year and a half ago, I met with a group of pastors, nonprofit leaders and laypeople to talk about how the rural church could strengthen its impact in the community.

We started by sharing stories about the needs that we saw: high poverty, few jobs and limited education. We also talked about what we saw working in the community, like the way the farmers market had begun accepting SNAP benefits.

Finally, we discussed what we thought each group could bring to the table, ending with the question, “What can the church do for the community?”

This is familiar territory for me, since I serve as a rural church pastor in North Carolina and previously worked in public policy.

What surprised me was that the most theological insight came not from any of the pastors but from the county planner.

In a struggling community, she said, where everyone is craving better days, the church does not have the luxury of pessimism. The church has a responsibility to cultivate an atmosphere of hope.

Her frame of reference was practical. After all, a hopeful and optimistic community is more likely to entice new businesses or attract potential residents.

But I think her comments also had a deeper theological meaning. In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural. While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.

After all, our faith is rooted in a hope that comes even while staring at the face of death. We believe that hope persists even when our data and statistics tell us otherwise.

Chatham County, where I serve, benefits from its proximity to the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Still, large swaths of the county are impoverished, and many of the small towns farther from the ever-expanding suburbs are struggling. My parishioners, like their neighbors, are not immune.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my lay leaders and I shared a five-hour car ride. During the drive, she told her story of starting a small business. Like many during the Great Recession, she lost her job when her position was eliminated. Along with her husband and son, she started a business making and selling jerky. They perfected a recipe and began producing the jerky in a community kitchen.

She learned how to get a small-business loan for rural entrepreneurs and how to pass a USDA inspection. Eventually, the product was stocked in retail stores across the state.

She said that she thought it would be worthwhile for her to help others learn to create effective business plans. After all, hers was successful, and she knew what it took. She could share that know-how with others.

Slowly, the conversation wound its way back to our church. We thought about all the resources in our small parish. In my congregation, we have retired teachers, small-business owners, nurses, scientists, a retired farmer and a salesman, among others.

Many other organizations, we realized, worked hard to amass a group like that. For us, though, it’s just our church. We gather at least once a week to show the world exactly what a community looks like.

As we drove, we dreamed about how our congregation might leverage those resources to help our community. We imagined what it would mean to deepen our participation in the conversation on the future of our county.

What if we could help others develop skills? Or connect people to job opportunities? Recently, we received a funded summer fellow from a secular nonprofit with whom we had previously partnered. With that resource, we hope to move those dreams toward reality by creating sustainable plans to capitalize on our existing partnerships.

I am convinced that churches can and should learn a discipline of evangelism that confronts difficult realities yet still teaches the hope that God is at work in our world. On the surface, it might feel weird to talk about evangelism in places of decline, particularly since many rural communities are struggling with a shrinking population.

At its core, though, evangelism is about inviting people to participate in the kingdom of God, to see and experience what Christ is doing in the world around us, with us and through us. Our rural churches have the ability to present good news — to offer hope — in places that have given up on it.

Before I began my pastorate, I worked for a public policy organization that linked statewide resources to rural churches. In my conversations with those policymakers, advocates and nonprofits, I always heard the same thing: we need churches to be at the table.

As a small-church pastor, I’ve discovered just how serious those voices were. My congregation lacks the resources of a tall-steeple church; I am keenly aware that I am the single largest expense of our budget.

Yet other organizations and community leaders constantly remind me of the value that churches hold in community development.

A local food bank requested our fellowship hall for a food distribution program, because we have a large, centrally located building with willing volunteers. Youth empowerment agencies have asked what works in our church, because our small parish offers our youth space to exercise leadership, fostering their self-worth and highlighting their potential.

Community leaders recognize the value of the rural church, whether for securing the faith community’s support for a bill that funds grants to rural convenience stores or providing volunteers for a community outreach initiative.

Usually, these conversations and partnerships come about simply — arranging a phone call with another organization, talking to a community leader over coffee. Oftentimes, organizations already have programs designed to include churches in the conversation, and they are eager to bring new congregations into what is already happening.

In that car ride with my entrepreneurial congregant, I once again recognized what that county planner had implored me to see: our small congregation has a lot to offer our community, because we can offer hope. When rural churches embody and give that hope, we provide leadership in even the most challenging of settings. And that, I am convinced, is a worthy and needed ministry.