Earlier this month, six recent seminary graduates gathered here before embarking on the first calls of their pastoral careers. And while they all have different joys and challenges ahead, their calls are alike in one big way: they’re all part of the inaugural year of a new pastoral residency program in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
For Such a Time as This is a two-year program that pairs recent seminary graduates with small, under-served churches. The pastors are supported by a network of pastor-mentors and presbytery, seminary and national staff leaders and are also grouped in clusters with other pastoral residents.
In addition to the discoveries that come with any transition, the six residents will also be immersed in small-church ministry. They gathered Sept. 9 to learn more about the models and dynamics of small churches.
"I love small churches," said Marilyn Johns, coordinator of the program. "I really think small churches are what ministry is all about."
Using descriptions adapted from books by Arlin J. Rothauge and Lyle E. Schaller, Johns presented an overview of three categories of small churches:
- A "family" church has 50 or fewer active members, with 2-35 in an average worship. The term "family" can be literal, as many members might be part of the same family, and newcomers often are born or marry into the church. Decisions might be informal and made by consensus. While the pastor functions as a chaplain, officiating baptisms, weddings and funerals, the real leaders of the church might be patriarchs or matriarchs.
- A "pastoral" church has 50-150 active members, with 35-90 attending worship. This church is often more of a relational society organized around a solo pastor. While not as intimate as a family church, it still operates as a single cell. Members are receptive and willing to try new things, and there's a mutual affection between the pastor and the congregants. Matriarchs and patriarchs might still have power, but the pastor becomes the chief leader — the one people look to for direction or counsel.
- A "program" church has 150-350 active members, with 90-150 attending worship. It's a multi-cell church, with divisions of labor and a variety of programs that are attractive to newcomers. It might need to have two worship services, and people often complain that they don't know everyone anymore. Rather than relating to individual members, pastors spend more time with other leaders, training and equipping them to provide for members.
In the PC(USA), about 78 percent of congregations fall into the "family" or "pastoral" church designations, said the Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Office of Vocation.
For a long time, pastors from large churches ended up in presbytery leadership positions, meaning that presbyteries often didn't understand how to work with small churches, Myers said. This trend is starting to change, though, and the presbyteries in the residency program — South Dakota, Northern Plains, St. Andrew and Heartland — were chosen because they have programs focusing on small churches and first-call pastors.
"If we closed the small churches, we would die as a denomination, I think," Johns said.
The pastoral residents have the advantage of coming into their churches with an objective eye, Johns said. Some small churches might see themselves as a pastoral church but really function more like a family church. This transition can be perceived as a failure, so many small churches are grieving.
One of the big issues in small churches is low self-esteem, Johns said. Many congregations believe they must have done something wrong to have fewer members. But in reality, changing times, demographic and cultural dynamics and lower birthrates have much to do with smaller membership.
It's important for the residents — and all new pastors — to find something out about the congregations they’ll be serving, Johns added. This can be done by reviewing congregational studies, asking members to make a timeline of the church, reading old session minutes or asking members to tell their stories. It's also important to find out and be aware of controversies in the church, whether it's embezzlement by a former pastor or misconduct by another leader.
These activities can help pastors understand how members see themselves and how the church got to its current circumstances.
In American culture, "small" often has a bad connotation, while "big" equals good or successful. But small churches have much to celebrate, Johns said, and it's part of the pastor's job to make sure churches have good self-esteem.
By celebrating small victories or milestones, touching up the offices with a new coat of paint or ending worship services on a positive, praiseful note, pastors can help small churches see themselves in a positive way.