Luke 16-10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…”

Nothing prepared me for the experience of pastoring the small congregation to which I was first called. Neither my personal experience nor my seminary training had any relation to the dynamics, needs, goals, concerns, or style of ministry found in a smaller congregation. What is worse, I entered believing that there must be something wrong with churches that remain small. It is only by God’s grace and years of struggling that I survived such poor preparation and such a bad attitude. It took several years of floundering around before I realized that the biggest problem this smaller church had was not its size, but its pastor.

Let me cite a few embarrassing examples. The first involved leadership. Since this was a smaller church, I assumed the role of the pastor would carry with it a great amount of power and authority. This is true and also very false. It is true that you can do just about anything you want to as the pastor of a small church: you can start Bible studies, support groups, and community service programs at will. You can do these things—but don’t expect anyone to join in. The pastor may have the power to initiate a program but the people have the power to vote with their feet. I soon discovered that pastor-initiated programs, even excellent ones, did not stand a chance unless there were two or three members on board as well. This might also be true in a larger church, but the results might be less noticeable.

The second example has to do with the way ministry is carried out in a smaller congregation. I entered this setting believing that ministry was done only through programs and committees. Since I was concerned about the growth of this smaller church, I used all my experience and education to come to the brilliant conclusion that we needed to start an evangelism committee. I gathered together the few who were willing to serve, we studied our dire need to grow, and then we became discouraged and quietly fell apart in less than a year.

The final example concerns pastoral care. I believed that pastoral care was best accomplished in pastoral counseling. Whenever an individual seemed troubled or when a problem arose, I urged him or her to come see me for an hour in my office. This is how I could best show my pastoral concern in time of need, I thought. I was disappointed that very few people responded. As a result I logged very few hours of pastoral counseling and felt quite discouraged.

Sometime in my third year as pastor I began to realize that I really didn’t understand how to serve this smaller congregation effectively. Few things were getting accomplished and no one had yet commissioned a portrait of me in honor of my faithful service. I began to understand; the problem was that I was trying to pastor a smaller church as if it were a much bigger one. I realized that my ministry to this congregation would not be successful until I began to pay attention to the unique dynamics of its size. This revelation gave me a sense of rebirth and excitement as I saw the challenge ahead.

A New Metaphor

I realized that I needed to develop a new metaphor for my role as pastor. If this church were a ship, my role as pastor was not to have a hand on the tiller steering its course but rather a seat in the crow’s nest looking for the dangers and opportunities ahead. Since pastoral turnover in smaller churches is relatively frequent, the congregation is legitimately concerned about pastors who set the course and then abandon ship. But they truly value the education and vision of their pastors and rely upon them to prevent them from looking only to the past. So I climbed into the crow’s nest and happily provided that kind of leadership with much support and success.

In the area of ministry, I realized it should be focused more on people than on programs. Because of our size, we could not carry out many complicated programs. But I learned that certain people were willing to take responsibility for specific ministries. It didn’t take a committee to deliver the collection to the food pantry—it took an older couple with a few spare hours a month. The property committee didn’t plant the flowers—one man with a green thumb came by and did that. One family sets up the Christmas tree every year and four or five friends gather to plan the annual picnic. My role was not to organize or direct, but rather to be a resource, a supporter, and most importantly, to lend a hand. When I was tempted to start a new “program,” I made sure that I had at least one person who was willing to take responsibility for it. I still struggle with my programmatic orientation, but I’ve learned not to argue with the successful style of a smaller church.

I also made changes in terms of pastoral care. Perhaps in some churches pastoral care includes formal counseling but in a smaller church it is less obvious or measurable. Sometimes care is shown simply at the back of the sanctuary when one remembers to ask about a member’s grandson who broke his leg. It may mean using a person’s name when distributing communion or sending someone’s daughter a note when she makes the honor roll. I found that a simple, personal birthday card to each member communicated more pastoral care than any other effort I had made. And when times got really tough, I learned to go to people’s homes, not have them come to my office. The joy of a smaller church is that pastoral care can be shown to everyone all the time in ways not possible in larger congregations.

My whole attitude about pastoring a smaller congregation changed. I collected a library of resources that weren’t available at the seminary bookstore. My members were pleased that they trained me right—even if it took five years. And something else amazing happened. We began to grow! It makes sense that when the ministry and the context start to match, a sense of excitement and health develops. This good feeling is infectious among the members and magnetic to outsiders. However, we then developed a new problem: adjusting to being a smaller church getting bigger! I guess that is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” ~

About the Author 

Andrew Hagen serves as the mission pastor of a new congregation, Joyful Spirit, in Bolingbrook, Illinois. His focus for the past three years has been in the area of seeker-oriented worship, discipleship development, and small-group ministries. He is also a mission pastor trainer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He can he reached at Joyful Spirit, 3 Hickory Oaks Court, Bolingbrook, IL 60440.