Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 1)

One phone call can cause the small church pastor to completely alter the course of a week. One family moving can devastate a youth program or the church budget. One family moving into the church can be a springboard to a revitalized children’s ministry. One death can send shock waves through the congregation. One angry or disgruntled parishioner can cause a tidal wave of discontent. One conversion experience can ignite the spiritual flame of the church. Such is the life and ministry in the small congregation.

The vast majority of Presbyterian Churches are smaller churches (I believe that most Christian Churches in the U.S. are smaller churches). Our seminaries do a horrible job of training people to pastor smaller churches (or larger churches for that matter). “Home headquarters” (as a retired Army Coronal friend refers to Louisville and the General Assembly) are so out of touch with the smaller congregations that it is an embarrassment. A Presbytery can be a friend and ally to the smaller church or it can be a “pain the ass” for the smaller church. What is the small church and the small church pastor to do?

Thank goodness for groups like the Willow Creek Association, Purpose Driven Presbyterians Network, Outreach, Inc., and Saddleback Association. These groups provided ideas and resources that “work” in all congregations.

Over the past few weeks I have had several conversations with pastors of smaller congregations. Our church situations are different, yet similar. These pastors were from several different denominations. The small church pastor’s emotions can range from euphoric to mildly depressed—this emotional swing can take place in a matter of days or hours. These pastors were concerned with the aging of their congregations. Most of the churches were plateaued or declining in membership. All of the churches struggle with location issues—poor church locations make the churches invisible to the communities in which they are located. Budget constraints make advertising and marketing almost impossible. Yet, these congregations strive to be a witness to the risen Lord in their communities.

We live in a time when large churches seem to be springing up all over the place. Several years ago my brother and his family moved from north of Seattle to a development just north of Tacoma. His family settled in at a fairly large Presbyterian Church in their area. The church is a great church with a fabulous pastoral team (way to go Jon and Neil!). Brad and I have had conversations about the numerous large congregations in the greater Tacoma area. These churches have great facilities and programs. Most have strong pastoral leadership. Several of these churches are “planting” daughter congregations throughout the area. The big churches keep getting bigger and the small churches keep getting smaller—or so it would seem.

The small church is here to stay.

There are many challenges facing the smaller congregation and its pastor. The challenges may be great but the rewards are even greater!

The next few posts of FullCourtPresby will be taking a closer look at ministry in the smaller congregation and the pastoral challenges in serving in a smaller church.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Glimpse at a Couple of Days in the Life of a Small Church Pastor.

The church phone rang just before worship was to begin. An older lady from our congregation was calling to say that the ambulance had just taken her husband to the hospital. He has Alzheimer’s and his memory is just about gone. His wife and care giver couldn’t communicate what was wrong with him. We started worship by praying for this wonderful couple as they face each day in light of a terrible disease.

A surprise reunion happened just minutes before church began. One of the guys at the church recently found out that his mother (who lives over by the Washington coast) grew up with a lady that worships at our church. These two ladies are 85 years young! “Phil” arranged with his mom to come and surprise “Myrna” at church. Myrna’s daughter and I were in on the surprise—to make sure that her mom was at church that day. Those 85 year old ladies were like junior high girls! It was wonderful.

We also prayed for a young lady who attends our Saturday night worship service. Her husband is in the Air Force and nearing the end of his current deployment. “Gina” was back in Chicago to run in the Chicago Marathon. She had trained very hard for that marathon (my guess is that she has run between 500 and 1000 miles in training). We prayed that God would be with her during the marathon.

We had a wonderful time worshipping the Lord on World Communion Sunday. During communion I thought of our daughter who is serving with a “mission group” in a country where foreign missionaries are not welcome. There I was, worshipping in my safe church in Washington State while she is serving the Lord in a place that I cannot identify to the public. World Communion Sunday had a whole new meaning this year. It also was a time of sadness because I know that my daughter will probably never regularly attend a Presbyterian Church due to the issues that became non-essential in the May 1924 Auburn Affirmation. I doubt if she has ever heard of “Auburn” but she is very familiar with the PCUSA’s struggle with those issues.

New carpet and popcorn!?! The new carpet installation in the fellowship hall was completed late Friday! The fellowship hall looks great. No more stains! We are told that this new carpet will never stain. Additionally, it was the Boy Scouts popcorn sale Sunday. We sponsor a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout Troup (we also host two Girl Scout Troupes). They sold lots of popcorn. By the way, what is “Caramel Popcorn—Light”? How can you have “light” caramel popcorn?

Get home from church, change and head to the hospital to see the older gentleman mentioned above. Get to the hospital and they have never heard of him!?! He is not in emergency. A few phone calls later and I find out that he is back at home. The emergency room said that there was nothing that they could do (it was just his Alzheimer’s) and sent him home. After I get home I call the couple to touch base with them. They are tired so I make arrangements to visit them on Monday (yesterday).

An hour passes (I take a short nap) and my phone rings. The daughter of one of our deacons was in a horrible car accident on the other side of the state. She was in the car with her boy friend and boy friend’s best friend. She was the only one wearing a seat belt. I don’t have the details of the crash but this I do know. The two guys were thrown from the car, were unconscious but breathing. The gal was conscious, checked on both guys and then ran 3 miles to the nearest house to call for help (did I mention that it was in a very remote part of the state?). By the time she got back with the ambulance one of the guys had died. Her boyfriend was seriously injured. Her mom (the deacon) received the call about the accident and rushed across the state. The person on my phone was our Deacon Moderator. She had spoken to the “mom” on the phone, prayed with the daughter on the phone, prayed with the mother on the phone and then prayed with the daughter on the phone. There was nothing that they needed me to do except to pray. Pray is exactly what I did!

An hour passes and I am thinking of heading to bed when I hear on the news that a major marathon was cancelled—details right after the commercial. Brenda and I watch the rest of the news! As you probably know, the Chicago Marathon had to be cancelled—that was what our news said. They said that the heat and lack of water had taken such a toll that the marathon was cancelled. I quickly grabbed the trusty laptop and e-mailed Gina--hoping and praying that she was alright.

Sunday ended!

Monday begins.

No word from Gina at the Chicago Marathon. By around 9:00 am I get an email from my wife. She was forwarding an email from a World Vision VP who ran in the Chicago Marathon. She gave the details of the race. At a certain point it was recognized what was happening (the heat, lack of water and lack of ambulances for the emerging situation). Those who had passed the half way point were allowed to continue and finish. The lady from World Vision finished in just over 5 hours—they told her to walk the last section! Gina had planned on finishing in around 4 hours. I was hopeful at that point.

By 9:30 I begin receiving text messages asking about Gina. I keep receiving text messages until around 11:00.

At 11:00 I am sitting in the living room of a couple from our church. He is a retired PCUSA pastor. He and his wife are the greatest!! He is scheduled for back surgery on Tuesday (today). I am there to talk with them and pray with them. They don’t see any reason for me to be at the hospital for the surgery—it is about an hour drive to get to the hospital where the surgery will take place.

At 11:30 I get in my car and see that I have a text message. One of the ladies from Saturday worship couldn’t take the suspense any longer and checked the Chicago Marathon’s web site and found that the gal from our church finished in 4 hours and two minutes. Praise God! Still no word from Gina but we are fairly confident that she is alright.

I drive twenty minutes to the home of the couple dealing with Alzheimer’s. “Allen” has really taken a down turn in the past week. His wife is getting ready to go and see if he can be put in a nursing facility that takes care of Alzheimer’s patients. She is distressed. She had wanted to take care of the man that loves—she just can’t do it any longer. It is a hard decision that she has made (the right decision). We pray. She heads into Tacoma with a friend to check out the care facility. It is the facility where my mom spent her last several months of life. It is a great place with fabulous staff.

I get back to the church and find out that a skydiving plane has crashed in the Cascade Mountains. The plane is missing and hasn’t been found. One of the ladies at our church is one of those crazy people who jump out of perfectly good airplanes. She has over 5000 jumps! The skydiving community is very tight. Even though the plane wasn’t from the group she jumps with I am positive that she knows several, if not all, of the people who are missing. No names were being released at that time.

At 4:00 pm I find out that the care facility will be able to take the man with Alzheimer’s. Hopefully, by the end of the week he will be in the care of this great place.

At 4:30 I get an email from Gina saying that she is fine. She saw several signs quoting scripture along the marathon course. She said those signs really encouraged her and reminded her that we were praying for her!

At 10:00 pm, the news says that the missing plane is found. No word of survivors. I have an email from “Tami” (our Deacon Moderator) saying that mom and daughter from the car crash have come home, grabbed some stuff and headed back across the state. They are going to stay at the hospital until the one guy gets released. I don’t know what I would do with Tami and our Deacons!

Monday ends!

Tuesday begins.

I am sitting at The Oasis wondering what to blog about. I have my coffee. I am thinking about the day ahead. I will visit the Alzheimer’s couple at around 10:30 am, go to my Presbyterian pastors’ support group at noon (the retired pastor having back surgery is a part of our group) and then head to the hospital in Federal Way to see how the back surgery is going. At some point I will contact our lady who jumps out of planes to see how she is doing. I will keep praying for the girl in the car wreck and the horrible images she has in her mind of the crash and her injured friends.


I sure am glad that pastors only work one day a week! I was recently reading an article in which a pastor recounted the time when his church session was concerned that he might not be putting in enough hours each week. He tracked his hours for quite some time and found that he was averaging 65 hours each week. His session never questioned him working too few hours ever again. Most people in our churches have no idea of what “the pastor” does during the week.

My guess is that the pastor of your church (if you aren’t a pastor) can relate to my current week. The week has barely started and I am already tired. Such is the life of a pastor—especially the pastor of a smaller church. I still have a class on spiritual disciplines to prepare, a sermon to prepare, a worship bulletin to prepare, two worship services to plan and two worship teams to practice with and lead and “copy” to write and get to our web site designer. I guess that I had better log off and get to work!

PS—I am beginning to rethink the whole sabbatical issue.