Some of the smallest congregations in North America are places of subtle vitality and frequent surprises. St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in the village of Winn, Maine, is one such congregation. St. Thomas’s has stood on a rise above the Penobscot River for 139 years, its unlocked doors welcoming all those who venture up the hill. Winn was once a bustling town with a hotel, a tannery, and a railroad station. Now a couple of hundred folk share a post office and a general store. The tiny, gothic St. Thomas’s Church draws its membership from an area roughly the size of the state of Delaware. Over the course of its ministry the congregation has mothered four other congregations, one of which remains open.

The current congregation of St. Thomas’s is now composed mostly of elders and half a dozen children. All members voluntarily contribute to the congregation’s discretionary fund, but there is wide educational and economic diversity in the congregation. Some members never finished high school, while others have graduate degrees. Some have traveled throughout the world, while others have never left the state of Maine. Some have steady employment, but others have never recovered from the closure of the paper mills. “At the altar, however, all these difference melt away,” says Carolyn W. Metzler, the congregation’s vicar. “Then people come forward, kneel—as they are able—and stretch out their open hands.” The smallness of the congregation enables Metzler to know people by their hands alone, “cupped in front of them and waiting for the holy bread. Dimpled, creased, arthritic, calloused, ringed, bony, pudgy, thumbless, tilted, open, all waiting expectantly.”

St. Thomas’s is growing in numbers and in faithfulness. The congregation is steadfast in its ministry in the community, particularly to those most in need. Sometimes this ministry is a community effort, but often it is the members themselves responding to the needs around them, often in quiet, hidden ways. Metzler describes the many signs of vitality in the congregation in terms of a spirit of “reconciliation.” Among the 35 to 50 worshippers on a typical Sunday, people with a diversity of life circumstances come together at the altar and reach out pastorally when no one has asked them. Metzler describes the congregation’s vitality as “generosity breaking out.” The signs of vitality she reports from her experiences at St. Thomas’s include the following:

  • People who struggle financially but have wood left over after winter offer it to others who need it more.
  • Members of the congregation each take a week to offer Christian education to middle-school children.
  • The congregation voted to embark on a risky and costly project to secure the financial security of the next generation.
  • They spontaneously offered to host a benefit supper for someone they didn’t know and who would never join the church, but who needed help.
  • Noise made by children is not only tolerated in worship but welcomed there.
  • The congregation did not flinch but expressed compassion when a visitor shouted in a loud outburst during the prayers.
  • Seventeen “old-timers” turned out for a new member’s house blessing.

The Faith Communities Today Project of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research states that “half of the congregations in the United States have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults and just over half are located in small town and rural settings. Indeed, a full quarter of congregations have fewer than 50 regularly participating adults, while less than 10 percent have more than 1,000.”1 Yet public perceptions of vital churches often conjure images of corporate congregations or megachurches. Small congregations are likely to have fewer resources and consequently may face more difficulty in getting beyond a survival mentality and moving toward a recognition of what vitality means in their context, as well as a grounding in a theology of abundance.

What does small church vitality look like? To be sure, there is no single definition, and in this sense the variations on small church vitality are as numerous as the congregations themselves. Yet there is a broad consensus on factors or characteristics that contribute to small and vital congregations.

“Vitality is a quality in response to living into Christ. It may be reflected in quantity, but quality is reflected in involvement in activism—not necessarily parish activities—where members live into actions of compassion, justice, listening, and reconciliation,” says Anita Schell-Lambert, rector of St. Peter’s Church in Bennington, Vermont. “Signs of vitality in a small church which are crucial, necessary, and all-important are caring, liveliness, energy, and strength,” says Judy Krumm, a member of the same congregation.

A positive sense within the congregation about its ministry has contributed to the growth of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Houlton, Maine, located a few miles from the Canadian border. “Listening to each other is so important,” says Leslie Nesin, priest-in-charge. She also suggests that, while the congregation struggles financially, the positive spirit within the community makes it easier to close that gap. Congregation members choose to live in a “spirit of abundance,” donate what they can financially, and contribute of their time and talents in innumerable ways to cover the needs of the church.

Other small and vital congregations report similar experiences. Over 200 people from across the region assisted the congregation of St. Martin’s in Palmyra, Maine after a fire destroyed the church building in April 2006. Lev Sherman, the priest of the congregation, attributes the response to the fire to “the incredible level of involvement” in the larger community of the 50 or so members of the congregation. “If someone in the community gets laid off or loses a house, we are there to help,” he says.

Samuel J. Wylie, the late bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, suggested that the norm in style and size for the Christian life is the small community, and others should take smallness, or simplicity, as the model. Wylie’s ecclesiology is based more in the first, radically equal, Spirit-filled Christian house communities than current church structures. “A saving remnant was what God used to achieve salvation. And the Savior is assigned a stable instead of a palace and Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem for a birthplace and Nazareth for a home. … ‘Small,’ for many of us, suggests words like puny, mean, isolated. For Jesus it meant the mustard seed that grew to great and expansive measure,” he writes.2

The capacity for vitality in small congregations is the focus in a recent study of St. Magnus, a congregation in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, undertaken by Elaine Cameron. Cameron’s work points to the importance of theological education models that are congregational-based rather than based on individual learning. “The curriculum,” she notes, “is both content and process, and it engages head, heart, and imagination, aiming to make connections between faith and life more permeable.” Cameron also suggests that the way the congregation perceives its mission within its context is critical. “St. Magnus has been asking questions about what they should be doing in a good sequence For example: In this place, what is mission? What ministry does this require? How do we enable maximum participation? What do we learn in reflecting on the process?3

For many small congregations, however, unhelpful perceptions about what a church “ought” to be and the resulting low self-esteem can seriously impede any meaningful discernment about mission and ministry. Small congregations often feel diminished when their commun
ity life is compared to the extensive music programs, graded education programs, and active youth groups of larger congregations. Many small congregations face the inability to pay for full-time clergy as a trauma and yet another indication that they are in decline. As concern for survival sets in, the focus of the congregation shifts inward, and along with this shift is a de-emphasis on the type of energy, creativity, and commitment that is likely to attract new membership. As the focus of the congregation and leadership base narrows in a congregation, it is not uncommon for one or two strong personalities with unhealthy and unmet emotional needs to take over, making it even more difficult for the congregation to regain its lost vitality. Leaders in such congregations are often continually struggling to balance constant demands and maintaining crises, with little time for their own personal and spiritual development.

T. Sammie Wakefield, a member of St. Andrews-in-the-Valley in Tamworth, New Hampshire, who also has experience in a small congregation in West Texas, suggests five signs that indicate a lack of vitality in a small congregation:

  1. Policies are not written down, so “how we do it” is known to only a few.
  2. One or two people do everything (closely related to #1).
  3. “Idols” are made of a part of the church, such as an organ, the layout of the sanctuary, a certain translation of scripture, etc.
  4. There is an undercurrent of troublemaking, such as the circulation of petitions, secretive behavior, etc.
  5. The congregation sees its main function as supporting the physical plant as a sort of historical monument or museum rather than as a center for ministry and mission.

The Pastoral Excellence Project of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, funded through Lilly Endowment Inc., strives to support small congregations in northern New England and throughout North America through ministry development focused on strengthening the ministry of the baptized. The overall goals of the project seek to free small congregations from culturally dictated standards of viability; to free ministry development from the culture of clericalism; and to shape a vision of theological education that is nonhierarchical and committed to the formation of the whole people of God. Since its inception four years ago the project has been in contact with a wide variety of small congregations, many in remote communities.

In the northeastern United States and Canada many small communities have experienced significant out- migration and financial decline due to the departure of industries that traditionally supported the people in the area for generations. For such congregations the prospect for significant numerical growth is modest or nonexistent, and places such as St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church learn to measure vitality and growth in terms other than the strictly numerical.

James Pratt, vicar of St. Alban’s in Sally’s Cove, Newfoundland, a village with 22 year-round residents, where “making do” is a way of life, says visitors to the congregation notice immediately how welcoming it is, especially when members greet the visitors first. The people of St. Alban’s have lost most of the physical signs of their community—school, post office, and general stores—hence “they strive hard to keep the one sign they have left, their church.”

Pastor John Olsson, III, who serves two other small congregations in Western Newfoundland, notes the importance of shared leadership. “At present,” he says, “we are in the process of working a strategic plan for each congregation so that folks realize that they do in fact have a say in the creation of their own future, rather than just sitting idly back and letting the future happen to them.”

While the sentiment that bigger is always better does not unilaterally apply to the realities of small congregations, it is important to note that there are, in fact, situations where such communities can and do grow numerically. One such congregation is St. David’s Episcopal Church in Page, Arizona, a tourist town located on the edge of the desert and a dam on Lake Powell. The next largest town is about 130 miles away. Most of the economy depends on the dam, fishing, and boating, and in the off season there is high unemployment. When Page was founded in the late 1950s the government gave land to establish churches, the result of which is 12 churches of different denominations that stand in a line on the town’s main street.

When Steven and Jean Keplinger arrived in Page six years ago St. David’s was barely open. Six members kept the church going. Some negative publicity focused on the new minister’s prophetic preaching attracted some folk to the congregation shortly after the Keplingers arrived. St. David’s now has a membership of approximately 160, mostly due to the congregation’s commitment to take on the hard work of social ministry in a community of great need. “It can be hard to do in a depressed town,” says Steve Keplinger, “but we refuse not to live in abundance anymore. We will not buy into any scarcity.”

Today St. David’s is known for its extensive social ministries and creative worship. The social ministries began with the congregation’s membership “looking outward” and a sense that they could help “fill the gaps” for the people of the area. A food pantry was considered the most pressing need in the community, so the church started one. The congregation’s feeding programs now provide food for 1,500 to 1,600 people per month in a town of 7,000. The original food pantry has now been augmented by a soup kitchen, a counseling center, and financial aid programs. The outreach of the congregation is sustained through the prayer and worship of its members.

St. David’s celebrates its Episcopal identity expansively and reaches out to people beyond traditional denominational boundaries. The congregation created new seasonal liturgies and strives to shape its life of prayer and worship in response to the life of the wider community. “The liturgy speaks to who we are in this place,” says Steve Keplinger. “We have got to get beyond studying liturgy and speak to people where they are.” Keplinger admits that it is a challenge to regularly plan worship that is creative, innovative, and nurturing to people of many different tastes. Like many small congregations, providing a variety of musical styles remains a challenge. Importantly, St. David’s continues to look for ways to grow and to change, including building relationships with the nearby Navaho community.

Jim Kelsey, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, maintains that for small congregations to become “ministering communities” there must be a transformation. “Our professional leaders (clergy) need to shift their stance from being ministry deliverers to becoming ministry developers. This is a different job description and it calls for different gifts than we might be looking for in a charismatic, lone-ranger parish priest, who is the best preacher and liturgist, the most compassionate pastor, the most efficient administrator, the most dynamic youth leader, and the most prophetic community developer, and so forth. Instead we are looking for people who are excited about teaching others to preach, to teach, to plan and to lead worship, to offer mutual care, use their gifts for ministry at home, in the neighborhood, and the workplace, and within the church community gathered.”

“We are no longer a cruise ship, where the professional crew serves the passengers as clients,” Kelsey explains. “We are now a cargo ship, in which everyone on board has a share in the mission of the vessel. No one is a passenger. Everyone’s gifts and experiences are utilized to help accomplish the work we share.”

Just as this transition
from “consumer-based” religion to “participatory ecclesiology” requires solid support of the ministries of all the baptized, seminaries, too, need to become centers for ministry development. “Seminaries must not only prepare students for small parish ministry, they must become more skilled in educating their graduates to become ministry developers as a matter of course,” suggests Fredrica Harris Thompsett, co-director of the Pastoral Excellence Project. “Given the number of small congregations in the U.S. and Canada, graduating seminarians without particular skills suitable for small congregations lacks educational integrity.” Both Kelsey and Thompsett agree that it is past the time when small congregations should try to imitate large congregations (“cathedral syndrome”) and consequently attempt to do many things and end up doing them poorly. Instead, small congregations need to discern their calling and their passion and thus do the things they can do well. “These techniques hardly guarantee the transformation we yearn for,” says Kelsey, “but we sure do have examples of congregations whose vitality is measured not by their statistical growth but by growth in the spirit, in vision, in mission, in a common life which nurtures and nourishes them, one and all.” 

1.Carl Dudley and David Roozen, “Topical Findings,” Faith Communities Today (Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2001),
2.Samuel J. Wylie, The Celebration of Smallness (Marquette: Diocese of Northern Michigan, 1995), 2nd ed., 6–8.
3.“Theological Education with the Laity: The Study of One Congregation’s Experience of Local Collaborative Ministry,” Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, D. Min. Thesis, May 2006.