In your kind comments on my post Saturday night, many good questions were raised, and I wanted to address some of them.
But surely a small church that was on the decline can’t be expected to turn around in three years? Given that it takes a lifetime to build a pillar, surely it must take more than three years to transform into a growing and flourishing parish. (What Now?)
It’s just that smaller churches are the canary in the coal mine of American Christianity. Newer members are not going to replace the older members as they die in terms of the rate of financial giving. Boomers and Xrs are less financially secure and (I believe) still learning about giving sacrificially. (Emily)
You hit the nail on the head with small churches and WE have the same problems you do. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. (Cathy)
This is what is so sad. A small church has such possibilities for living in Christian community and authentic relationship with God, self and neighbor. There aren’t a lot of places to hide in a small church. I love the way each person is known and missed and appreciated; well, most of them, anyway. I’m concerned that health insurance costs are going to be the death of ordained ministry to small churches in the UCC. Each church is responsible for its own pastor’s insurance and they are encouraged to cover the family as well, which is certainly just. But here’s how it plays out in reality. When Small Church prepared to call a new pastor and formed a search committee back in 2000-2001, they discovered that the $1800 they had been paying toward their previous pastor’s health insurance was going to need to be quintupled if they called a pastor with a family. Since I came to be their pastor, the costs have gone up every year. We’re now at about 7 times their cost of just six years ago. In addition to this, they had to offer a salary at the guidelines the conference recommends just to get anyone to look at them. Three years down the road, we’re talking for the first time about catching up with the recommended pay scale. It would cost another $6000 a year just to bring the salary up to that level with no consideration of experience or merit, which means if I leave, a new fulltime clergyperson would cost at least that much. Saying I’ll stay on at the same pay as three years ago is not doing them a favor.
What Now? and Emily are right on target. Developing serious givers takes ten or twenty years, not three.
Do you have a vestry or similar board organization that you can work with on this? It feels like you’re slightly stranded, admin wise, and it just seems like there ought to be a senior warden or someone like that with whom you can discuss this with the insurance of confidentiality, etc. (Jane Dark)
We have a Council of Ministries, consisting of church officers (Moderator and Asst. Moderator, Clerk, Treasurer and representatives of the four Ministries: Education, Worship, Outreach, Property). That structure was born in an attempt to do away with an old structure in which the Trustees ended up with all the power and none of the responsibility to be involved in the life of the church, and the officers were primarily rubber stamps since they had no meaningful fiscal authority. In that old system the Moderator was a weak position, basically just the chair of church meetings. Unfortunately, the Moderator wanted to stay in that position, and he is not a person who is particularly effective at planning or even at seeing the big picture. He never plans for our meetings, never calls a meeting, doesn’t even always remember the meetings. It’s not that he doesn’t care; he’s just not equipped for the job. I tried to encourage him nicely to do something else, but in his loyalty to the church he insisted on keeping the job without having a concept of what the changes meant. This year has been a disaster in terms of leadership from the Council with one notable exception. The Council with some additional volunteers took on Stewardship, and they are doing a tremendous job. This makes it hard to talk to them about the hard truths, because (1) they will still need to do this whether or not I am the pastor and (2) it feels like the wrong thing to tell them that despite their efforts it’s still not going to work out financially, since the gap is still huge between what’s going to be budgeted and what’s likely to be raised.
Is it true in other churches you readers attend or pastor that lay leadership is weaker than in the past? They just all seem to be so busy and overworked and exhausted. Just getting to a meeting is a lot. Or is it just this group?
You are too hard on yourself, though. No doubt Small Church’s financial situation was pretty dire when you were called there. Years of decline brought it to that place. You are fighting macroeconomics and one person (even a pastor as gifted for ministry as you are) can’t overcome that. (Quotidian Grace)
Yes on all those points.
The Holy Spirit went before you to prepare Small Church for your ministry and the Spirit will go before you to prepare another.
If you are interested in a church development program that my present Small Church is beginning this month, e-mail me and I’ll get you more information. It’s about systems and it makes good sense to me. (Grace)
Jane Dark also wondered about development resources.
Our Conference called an Associate Conference Minister two years ago specifically to work with smaller churches on their development. Sounds great, right? The catch is that he only serves churches with less than ¾’s time pastoral coverage. To get his help, Small Church would need to hire a ½ to 2/3’s time pastor and give up the fulltime dream.
I talk too much. But I realized that I’d missed the paragraph somehow where you asked if you’d somehow failed them, and wanted to say that emphatically, no, it’s not. It may be that you’ve brought them as many steps forward as you were meant to. It’s never one person who brings a congregation all the way anyhow, though I think you know that. (Jane Dark)
Jane Dark, you couldn’t possibly.
My pal, Rev Fun, says that some ministers are called to shake things up, others to maintain, others to give a church a swift kick in the you-know-what, even some to help put it to bed. Maybe I have done my part at this point. Well, really, I know in some ways I have, but when I see the things that haven’t worked, I worry about them and feel reluctant to leave even though I feel called to something new.
Wow. Here I was thinking that I was the only one going through this (not really, but you know how easy it is to feel alone in ministry). Thanks for the post, and sharing your sadness. I also love my people, but wonder if I’m running up against the limits of what we can do. (Dave)
That’s exactly I, Dave. I feel those limits.
You were successful with what you had to work with there and God will call you to usefullness in the Kingdom elsewhere in God’s own time (Quotidian Grace)
Let’s pray that.
The church is still open, but shares clergy with 5 other communities, one of which is much larger…it hurts for them, but it was inevitable. (Kathryn)
A very small church on the country edge of a neighboring suburb now has an arrangement with the tall steeple church in their town in which the larger church provides worship leadership and pastoral care for a fee. It seems to be working fairly well thus far for both churches. I think we’ll have to see more of that, since most clergy can’t afford to work for a little church if costs of insurance and a reasonable salary are beyond reach for the congregation. Of course there are exceptions, but the expense of a seminary education puts many new pastors in a bind. I didn’t have educational debt, but I do have three children and am their primary support.
I hate for this to be about the money.
Please don’t beat yourself up about it (easy to write,I know)…you’re giving Small Church so much love and care, and nobody could ask more of you. Also, remember that what feels like death is a necessary stage en route to resurrection. (Kathryn)
Oh, shoot. Did you have to say that?
But please, please, leave the future of Small Church in the Hands where it belongs. They’re big enough to hold it. (revmom)
Working on it, revmom. Working on it.