I had attended a seminar entitled “Ministry in the Small Church.” I had pastored small churches, but this was my first study of the concept. Now, heading home from the conference, I was mad—at the denomination, at the seminary, at my superintendent, even at myself.
I was mad because I wasn’t at all ready to hear what I heard. I wasn’t prepared to see myself as a career small-church pastor, enduring low status among colleagues, locked into a lifetime of poverty.
The financial pinch was the toughest. I’d been on food stamps for two years, the kids were being fed by wic and free lunches at school. I had cashed in my life insurance policy, and when the old Toyota died, it was replaced by a bicycle. I didn’t know how much longer we could survive. This was not what I expected.
Where’s my yuppie church?
Until entering the ministry, my experience was in mid- to large-size churches, full of educated, professional people. After college I moved to the city and became an advertising executive—house in the suburbs, sports car in the garage, dinner out three nights a week, and vacations in Tahiti. I admit it, I was a yuppie.
When I responded to God’s call, it was one thing to leave behind the house, the car, the exotic vacations; I still figured that God would have me lead a church full of people like me.
Until that conference, I had always thought of myself as a Big Church Pastor on temporary assignment, just passin’ through, paying my dues, awaiting discovery and the call to the big leagues. I was slapped in the face by the realization that many pastors, and just possibly I, would never get a call to the big leagues.
We were worshiping in a hundred-year-old building and managing all our ministry on a $40,000 budget. I was less disillusioned with everything the church was than by what it was unlikely to become.
What I needed more than anything else was the wisdom to cope in a place like this. I desperately desired someone to show me how to survive in the small church.
What I learned in seminary may have enabled me to be substantive in my preaching and teaching, but somehow I missed the class that taught me how to translate all that into small-town ministry.
Even if it is possible to shed the personal expectations, pastoral success is measured in numbers—conversions, members, attendance, budget, Sunday school enrollment, offerings, building programs. The reward is increase—bigger churches, higher salaries, more perks, finer housing, fancier offices, denominational recognition and, ultimately, a bigger pension.
The yuppie in me cringes at the realization: none of that will happen here. Do I have to transfer out of this great little place in order to feel successful? Must I interpret our smallness to mean that I’m a failure of a pastor in a failure of a church? The thought of bailing out occurred to me often.
Those who knew of my struggles were sympathetic. They told anecdotes of trials in the small churches of their past. But no one offered counsel from the position of common struggle. They said, “Hang in there, buddy, and sooner or later, you too will move up and out to a bigger and better church—just like me.”
Where were the experts who could speak from experience? I needed to hear from those who work year after year in a tough ministry that isn’t likely to change and who think it is a blessing to be where they are.
Anger gives way to challenge
My anger soon became a challenge to find the answers. As the discovery process began, I was overcome with a sense of peace that I had some options.
‘m not sentenced to “life without parole” in a disagreeable place. There were things I could do to influence my direction. I could say “nuts” to this small-church stuff and set about to change my course through hard work and political maneuvering. Ambition acknowledged, I could find a church where my financial and social needs would be met and I could serve God at the same time.
With money scarce, we prayed for God to help us survive. He did.
Here’s what God changed.
Our discernment. Our first question was “God, are we supposed to be here?” We learned to listen more carefully, and God assured us that he had called us to this place. “It’s more important for you to be here than to have all those things,” we sensed him say.
Our dependence. When you don’t have much money, every expenditure is a major decision. We started seeking his guidance on all our purchases. We went total cash—no credit. Yes, it was inconvenient sometimes, but it worked. We made it work.
Our expectations. As we tried to see ourselves from God’s perspective, our lifestyle changed. Not just the usual things, either. Our tastes in clothing and entertainment were different, but also time and friends. Where and with whom we invested our efforts—both changed. Our relationship as a family became much more central.
God’s provision. His care didn’t change, but we understood it differently. At times it seemed supernatural. We felt like the Israelites in the wilderness. We didn’t replace things as often as we liked, but what we had didn’t wear out.
Our friends. As people became aware of special needs, some helped us. It was usually people outside the church, friends who shared our struggle on the spiritual level. My wife had a back problem, and a prayer partner gave us a new bed. Every now and then, something special like that happened, and we appreciated it.
My colleagues. Most weren’t much better situated than we were, but their emotional support was invaluable. My distress forced me to turn to others for advice and encouragement.
The treasurer. After two years, we got a new church treasurer. The old one was belligerent, acting as if the checks were written out of his personal account. I had to beg for every check. The new treasurer became an advocate for both us and the church. He understood our needs, and he knew we understood the church’s limited ability. His care eliminated a tremendous emotional barrier between us and the church.
The church. Not everyone cared that their pastor’s wages were below the poverty level or that my family lived on food stamps. But some did. Through the years, more did, and they did something about it.
Or, I might become a specialist. I could learn from the experts in the field, search out those who could help me understand the nuances of small-church ministry, read up on the subject, and develop those special gifts and talents required for this sort of ministry. Perhaps I was being specially trained so I could serve churches that needed these gifts. Was God developing me into such a pastor?
Or was God just working on me? Maybe he was teaching me important lessons about his attitudes toward success, contentment, service, long-suffering, and humility.
Determined to get a handle on this small-church thing, I started by reflecting on my own experience. I had served a year as a student pastor at a small church in Iowa. What I initially took to be a banishment to the cornfields turned out to be one of the best years of my life.
God helped me see these folks as he sees them—worthy of love, faithful and committed in their own way, tenacious survivors, and bearers of the gospel in a hostile world.
I dug out the notes from the small-church ministry seminar and reconsidered my criteria for success.
Measuring success in the kingdom of God swims against the current of worldly standards. God most often uses small and seemingly insignificant things to reveal his will and to accomplish his purposes. The small church is a unique part of God’s plan on earth. The small church is a place where every person is known, where everyone matters because the entire group’s survival depends on each one’s participation. The small church lives in daily dependence on the Lord.
I turned to the prophet in my own house—my wife. She has not only a dynamic prayer life, she also has a good ear for the Lord’s voice. Besides that, she is brutally honest and at the same time my best advocate. She pointed out how God brought us to this place, provided for our needs, and has revealed himself in the lives of these people.
The church and community have embraced me (no small thing toward the success of a small-church pastor). I have been given more and more permission to lead as they have come to know and trust me. In recent months I have spoken hard truths without driving them to heat up the tar and tear open their pillows. I have been allowed to push and stretch and lead this church as they perceive that I genuinely love them.
In prayer my wife and I were able to see why I was brought to this place. There had been turmoil in the years prior to my arrival, and together we had worked to bring peace and healing to old wounds. I was having a positive impact on this church. What I had, this church needed; what this church had, I needed.
Next, I began to seek out the experts. I subscribed to small-church newsletters. I bought books. I called pastors who appeared to be good at what they do and who stay in small churches intentionally. They could identify with my struggle and could offer specific encouragement and advice. It was important for me to know that I was not alone. Some had faced far greater challenges than I and had discovered methods of coping.
I found a host of experts, including some from my own denominational headquarters. My superiors were doing more than I realized to help small churches and their pastors.
In the midst of my personal financial struggle, God provided a solution.
Not only was I given the will to endure, and not only did I receive gifts that made survival possible, but God changed my yuppie expectations of what I needed to be happy. God worked major changes in my own attitudes toward contentment, peace, love, and service.
God also helped me communicate my genuine needs to those in the congregation who had the ability and interest to meet them.
I have learned to appreciate small church and close community. I recognized the tribal nature of my setting, its lines of authority, and the boundaries of its traditional values. I started working with and becoming part of the church’s family system. Here, I am allowed, even encouraged, to be a “character.” I’ll probably be dubbed with an appropriate nickname soon.
I began to see the value and strength of this community’s stability. Here, my entire family has peace, freedom, and safety from gangs, drugs, and crime. Most “with it” communities get none of that. I sometimes wonder how many big-league pastors long for what I have found here in the sticks.
Jeff Schirle pastored eight years in Bessemer, Pennslyvania. He is now on family leave in South Dakota.
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