What does small church vitality look like? To be sure, there is no one definition, and the variations on small church vitality are as numerous as the congregations themselves. Some are located in areas where numerical growth is possible and aggressively seek to expand their membership. Others situated in remote areas where membership growth is unlikely seek abundance in other ways, such as growth in outreach, by extending lavish hospitality to all, or in nurturing the depth of the spiritual commitment of members. In the United States and Canada, many 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 prospects for significant numerical growth are modest or nonexistent, and thus the need to measure vitality and growth in terms other than the strictly numerical is imperative if they hope to respond to the ministry needs of their contexts. Part of the challenge in encouraging vitality in small congregations is to find ways to free small congregations from culturally dictated standards of viability; to free spiritual formation, ministry, and leadership from the prevailing culture of clericalism; and to shape a vision of theological education that is committed to supporting the ministries of the whole people of God.
There is broad consensus among leaders in the small congregations discussed here about 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, 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, all-important are caring, liveliness, energy, and strength,” says Judy Krumm, a member and chair of the discernment committee in 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.
More than two hundred people from across the region assisted the congregation of St. Martin’s, 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 fifty or so members of the congregation, with an average Sunday attendance of approximately twenty-seven. “If someone in the community gets laid off, or loses a house, we are there to help,” he says. Certainly, St. Martin’s is important enough to the wider community it serves that it would be missed if the congregation closed its doors. The church building is literally located at a crossroads—the only occupied corner of a four-way intersection. Outreach is a sign of vitality in this small congregation. The congregation made an intentional decision to focus on outreach and less on buildings and grounds. The parish hall, a former Grange hall, houses a computer center, a library, and a literacy program. The congregation also sponsors turkey pie suppers and a county food bank. Funds for outreach are raised by events involving church members as well as people from the wider community. Like many small congregations with outreach efforts, St. Martin’s is both gratified by the supportive response of the wider community and challenged to spread its ministries more widely in the face of local needs.
Samuel J. Wylie, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan in the 1970s, suggests that the norm in style and size for the Christian life is the small community, and others should take on smallness, or simplicity, as the model. His ecclesiology was based on early Christian, radically equal, Spirit-filled house communities more 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. 1 All faith communities are unique, having their own culture and character. At the same time, it is important to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in all sorts of congregations, regardless of size, geography, or wealth, calling all members to ministry individually and collectively in their own community and beyond.
Sam Wylie came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from New York City and soon found his presuppositions about what is important for effective ministry confronted. Wylie realized that our society often takes for granted the idea that bigger is always better, and small is usually assumed to mean either immaturity or atrophy. Although it is hardly guaranteed, he came to see smaller communities as potentially the healthiest and most vital expression of the Christian church. In many cases shared vision, mobilized resources, common commitment, and change management can happen more easily in small communities than in larger ones. It is not uncommon to find effective larger congregations that engage small groups to organize, educate, teach, discern, and support ministry. The other reality is that in small communities everyone knows each other and everyone’s gifts are needed.
The capacity for vitality in small congregations is a focus in the 2006 study of St. Magnus, a congregation in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, undertaken by Elaine Cameron. Cameron’s work points to the importance of congregation-based theological education models, rather than those based on individual learning. However global the congregation’s vision might be, it still needs to be grounded in the local community. In the final analysis, all mission is grounded in the local context. Cameron says that the people of St. Magnus perceive baptism as the critical fact in their membership in Christ’s body, rather than ordination or confirmation, and thus assume that theological education should be based in the congregation, not 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 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? Their confidence as a congregation grew, so that they began to see that ministry was not just what the rector did, nor even what they individually did. They began to see that not only had their congregation a ministry to the world, but that it also received from the world. Above all, ministry was about what everyone offered, individually and collectively,” said Cameron. 2
1. Samuel J. Wylie, The Celebration of Smallness, 2nd ed. (Marquette, MI: Diocese of Northern Michigan, 1995), 6–8.
2. Elaine Cameron, “Theological Education with the Laity: The Study of One Congregation’s Experience of Local Collaborative Ministry” (DMin thesis, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, May 2006).
This article is adapted and excerpted from Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris-Thompsett, copyright © by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations
by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris-Thompsett
What does the church look like if we take the ministry of the baptized—the priesthood of all believers—seriously? Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett explore this question as well as the variety of ways people in small congregations—many with no more than fifty members—are living out their baptism and the impact their actions are having on their congregations, judicatories, and communities, and the institutions that educate clergy . Now available both in print and for your e-reader.
Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path
by Steve Willis
Imagining the Small Church bears witness to what God is doing in small churches. Steve Willis tells stories from the small churches he has pastored in rural, town, and urban settings and dares to imagine that their way of being has something to teach all churches in this time of change in the American Christian Church.
Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future
by Kenneth J. McFayden
Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insigns and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. t also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understand processes of change as processes of fulfillment.
Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations
by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon
Well-known for their innovative writings on churches on Money, the Ronsvalles of Empty Tomb, Inc. team up with professor U. Milo Kaufmann to present this work: a method for making people comfortable discussing the difficult issues of linking money with values. Based on congregational small-group discussions that create support and trust, the method helps individuals identify their fears and worries as well as their attitudes on stewardship and support of the church. A series of questions leads participants by steps to new and increasingly probing conversations about these issues.
Leading through the Water
by Paul Galbreath
In Leading through the Water, Paul Galbreath demonstrates one way of linking baptismal practice to daily life as congregations provide an alternative witness to the cultural voices around us. At the same time, it expands the vision of baptism from a single occasion to a distinctive way of life within a community of faith and a primary metaphor for Christian discipleship.
This summer, combine Alban learning with a visit to an interesting location!
Finishing Strong, Ending Well: Crafting the Culminating Chapter of Your Ministry Just a few slots left!
July 9-11, 2013, Leader: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant
Zypher Point Retreat and Conference Center, Lake Tahoe, NV
The Queen City!
Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition in Congregations
July 16-17, 2013, Leader Sarai Rice, Alban consultant
Doubletree Airport Hotel, Cincinnati, OH
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