Monday, February 24, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Small Church

I recently spoke with a member of a pastoral search committee in the Midwest. No, I wasn’t looking for a job, I was acting as a sounding board for a friend. He expressed his search teams mounting frustration with resumes from student pastors and children’s pastors. According to him, it seemed that “no one with pastoral experience was applying.” He did not make that comment to denigrate ministry to students or children. What he meant was that he was receiving few resumes from men who had served as “senior pastors” in churches his size (300-400) or smaller. This concerned him greatly and it concerns me, too.

The concern is not because student or children’s ministry is not important. Indeed it is. Both of those roles have a set of unique challenges that require a call from God and a love of those you are serving. But, it seems there is an increasing number of individuals in ministry who are not interested in pasturing the “small church.” By “small church” I mean those with attendance of 125 or less, in (often) rural locations, and (sometimes) “run” by a handful of folks (usually related). Rather than embrace that kind of mission field, many today would rather opt to plant a church or go the student / children’s ministry route until they can move into a mid-sized church. Unfortunately, in so doing, these would-be pastors miss out on lessons that one uniquely learns in the small church. I’ve noted a few such lessons from my own experience to challenge you to consider starting small.

1. You learn to serve.
The first church I ever served on a full-time basis was rural; very rural. Our community has far more animals than people. We had no main street. No post office. One gas station where an attendant still pumped the gas for you. The church had about 80 people in it that first Sunday. Most of them were related. I’ll never forget the first question from the chairman of deacons during my interview with them: “Do you have a problem cutting the grass?” You read that right, cutting the grass was a part of my formal job description at senior pastor of the church.

Initially I bristled at such a suggestion. But, I learned a lot on that lawn mower. One of the first things I learned was that I needed a bigger lawn mower! Beyond that, I learned that being a pastor means being a servant first. Funny thing about servants, they do not get to pick only the jobs they like, their masters do. As servants of Christ, serving the church, we need to learn that pastoral ministry often involves tasks that we didn’t learn about in seminary or bible college.

2. You learn leadership is about relationships.
Leadership is not about your position or your title. In the small church that is painfully obvious. I recall a deacon’s meeting in which I floated an idea. I cast the vision for the idea and gave the biblical reasons for it. The deacons were on board. I presented the idea at the church business meeting and was shot down. One of the members did not like the proposal. Rather than the deacons backing me up, they shrunk back. They did not want to “cross” their friend.

I do not blame those deacons. It was my own leadership immaturity that led to the problem. I didn’t understand the role of relationships for leadership, so I assumed that if those in positions of leadership made a proposal that would be sufficient. I’m glad I learned that lesson in a small church on a minor issue rather than cause a major upheaval in a larger context over a more serious matter.

3. You learn you are replaceable.
Shortly into my tenure in that first church I went to a Vacation Bible School training event. I went with the lady who had been the VBS Director the previous year, but now that I was there, it was my job. She agreed to accompany me to the training to introduce me to the other folks in our local association. The lesson I learned, however, had nothing to do with VBS. It was an offhand remark she made as we traveled back home from the meeting.

Someone in the vehicle had remarked how the church was affected by the previous pastor’s ministry and how he would be missed. My VBS hostess replied by stating, “pastors come and go, but the church stays the same.” While I did not tease a more precise meaning out of her – I was too stunned to do so – I have come to understand what she meant. She meant that pastors are stewards of the church for a time and then pass it along to others. She meant that the church does not rise and fall with you, pastor, but – if I may insert a theological meaning to her words – with Christ. She meant that I was replaceable. And, indeed, I was eventually replaced. I moved to a new place of ministry and the church called another pastor. In the 18 years since leaving there, they have called three pastors. Not a bad average for a small, rural church.

4. You learn the rhythms of ministry.
My next place of ministry was a bit larger, but not by much. When I arrived the church had about 95 people in attendance. It was a small, county seat church in a small town. It was there that I how to flow with the rhythms of ministry. By that I mean I learned how to balance my schedule to ensure that my highest priorities were met first. As a pastor, my conviction is that my highest ministry priority is studying the Word and preparing to proclaim it. But, there are many other tasks that must be undertaken as well.

I am thankful that I had a smaller context in which to learn how to manage my schedule. After all, if you do not set your schedule, other people (or other circumstances) will. If I had jumped immediately into a larger church – complete with larger budgets, personnel issues, etc – I suspect it would have been more challenging to learn how to get in the flow of the rhythms of ministry.

There are many other lessons that I learned in those small churches. These are but a sample. My point here is to encourage men who feel called to the pastoral ministry to not despise the day of small beginnings (to paraphrase Zech 4:10). Serve the Lord in small places and he will teach you incredible lessons. Love the people in those small churches and you’ll learn even more. 

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