Talkback: Full Circle

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.

9 thoughts on “Talkback: Full Circle”

  1. I don’t think it’s just your church where lay readership is exhausted and tired. Things were certainly that way at St. Paul’s for the first 3-4 years I was there, I think. I can’t speak with complete accuracy about the first one or two, of course, but that’s my sense. And we were definitely in major trouble a little over two years ago.
    Things have improved dramatically since then. Somehow the vestry changed from a group with at least one angry bitter person into a group of people who contentedly met for four hours or more several weeks in a row during the worst patch. I don’t know how we did it. The secret may be that 5 of the 9 members also sing in the choir — even with positions rotating off, we’ve kept that high content. We feel intensely blessed. Not that we haven’t needed the strength, as there have been some serious crises, i.e. a church musician with sudden advanced liver failure.
    My point isn’t to say “nanny nanny boo boo, our vestry is fabulous” — it’s to say that the diocese thinks we’re really weird. In a good way, of course — but they’re definitely seeing signs of major strain all over the place.
    And even we are tired enough that the Sr. Warden and I keep joking about buying lotto tickets. And periodically, we all sort of have to have a lie-in, where we just gather and eat, and other than that, sit largely in silence.
    I think, though, that there is a lot of power in silent discernment. Maybe that would help? I am very sorry, though, that your Moderator is well-meaning but not particularly useful. Does the church have limits set as to how long such a position can be held?
    I will pray that the people who you need for better support (not just of you but of the whole congregation) will arrive, or alternately, reveal themselves as already present.

  2. Definitely not just your church, although we have a rather large population of stay-at-home moms who keep this place going. (Large military population, people move around, harder for both parents to find new work every few years–also a more traditional family structure which makes it interesting for me, a working mom.) I feel in some ways that this place has spoiled me because of this pool of people who are willing and capable and who don’t work outside the home.
    But as for everyone else, yeah they are stressed and overloaded and I can’t believe all the kids’ activities that go on that also need support and volunteers. Church is one commitment among many, not the center of the family schedule.

  3. As above, this is not exclusive to Small Church. St Stoic was run for the 3-4 years they were without a called pastor by a core group of 8-10 very active people. Everybody else got spoiled by that.
    Now guess what? Those 8-10 people are pooped. They see that I’m here, and rolling my sleeves up, and are dropping like flies. But the real problem is that they are just suddenly dropping the ball, not training new people to take over. A few of them have graciously given me up to a year’s notice, but most just call me up and tell me they have done such-and-such job for the last time. No notice, no ideas of who I might recruit for the job. I’m still learning who is gifted at what, but I am learning that I need to quickly ramp up on that!
    I have only one or two SAHMs. Most of the heavy lifting, program-wise here has been done by the newly retired or self-employed, quasi-retired. Fortunately they are a hardy, healthy group, but they’re not going to live forever!
    Folks my age (35-50) have very little interest/time/commitment to contribute. That sucks.

  4. I remarked to a friend recently that my presbytery, and many others, seem to have a default strategy of ecclessiastical Darwinism: surrvival of the fittest. The result seems to be a few large, thriving churches, many congregations in anxious holding patterns and dozens of little, struggling churches barely hanging on. This doesn’t seem to be how the Body of Christ should operate, but no one has come up with a better plan.

  5. I attend a largish church which is run by a small percentage of the population. We rely on a very active retired population, but still struggle sometimes to get people to cover things. It’s part of a culture of over-extended people with way too much going on I fear. Church regularly falls down the list of priorities.

  6. “I’m concerned that health insurance costs are going to be the death of ordained ministry to small churches in the UCC.”
    And not just the UCC. That’s true in the Episcopal Church as well. For a church that is just making it, rising health care costs can be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
    Our health care system is broken, broken, broken. What will it take for the powers-that-be to see that?

  7. I wish I knew.
    Those of you in other denominations: is there any support for smaller congregations built into your systems?

  8. somehow I missed this 🙁 altogether.
    looking over shoulder
    “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 think he moonlights as our UMC district superintendent

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