"For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another."
Since my ordination, I have been called to serve a variety of congregations. Each was unique. And they all varied in size, and to a degree, vitality. My first call was to Our Savior's in Thompson Falls. The average worship attendance was 62 per Sunday. I thought it was a "small" congregation, but the truth was it proved to be a medium sized congregation. During my time in Thompson Falls I also served Trinity Lutheran in Hot Springs. About 10 people, mostly elderly, came on a Sunday.
In my second call, I went to Eastern Montana to serve American Lutheran in Baker. There the average worship attendance was about 150, but this was also augmented by the fact that we broadcast over the local radio station and our services were followed by people throughout much of SE Montana. During the time in Baker we formed a parish with two nearby congregations, Peace in Plevna, and St. Elizabeth in Ekalaka, with an average of 40 & about 15 in worship.
My third call was to Sandpoint. First Lutheran had an average worship of about 175. A major endeavor while in Sandpoint was to build a senior housing ministry. The magnitude of this endeavor can be measured by some basic stats. First's annual budget for the congregation was slightly over $200,000 annually, the mortgage payment on the senior housing was about a million dollars a year, with an annual operating budget of three million plus.
And my current call is to serve Peace Lutheran in Otis Orchards where on a given Sunday approximately 20 to 25 people are in attendance at worship.
As different as each congregation was, they shared one thing in common. They were all part of the larger body of Christ.
- The vitality of these congregations was in no way related to the size of the congregation, but rather to their sense of mission and purpose.
- Expectations and self image were often related. Some of the smaller congregations fell prey to judging themselves against larger congregations, and felt bad because they could not sustain the types of programming typical of a larger congregation.
- The difference between the larger congregations and the smaller congregation was not related to their mission, but rather to the means by which they fulfilled their mission.
- Larger congregations function programmatically. Smaller congregations function relationally.
- The larger the congregation, the more dependent it was on pastoral leadership. I had far more authority in the larger congregations to direct their day by day activities. In the smaller congregations decisions were often made by the congregation as a whole, not during a formal meeting, but during announcements at worship.
- The financial commitment, and personal commitment overall, is often much higher in the smaller congregations. For example, one of the smaller congregations reports an annual giving rate of $1,800 per confirmed member. One of the larger congregations reports an annual giving rate of $440 per confirmed member.
- In the smaller congregations there is a delicate balancing act between wanting to grow, and yet also at the same time, wanting to retain the intimacy that has been so important to them.
- The burden of a full time pastoral salary package is the albatross around the neck of small congregations. In my experience, one of the single most important steps a small congregation can take to revitalize its ministry is to secure and budget for pastoral ministry at an appropriate level for the size of the congregation. Related to this is that pastors in small congregations often feel 'underemployed'. Without a full spectrum of programs to fill their days, they don't know what to do. Simply being their pastor, a relationship, is the norm. Pastoral functions are minimal.
- One of the highlights of my ministry was when, in Ekalaka, 10 people were baptized one Sunday, including three generations of one family. Evangelism can and does happen effectively in small congregations.
- Whether in a small congregation, or a large congregation, relationships are key to ministry. Forgiveness is experienced in a relationship, not a program.
- Small congregations often suffer because of discontented clergy, who desire for their own ego needs (and need for a livable wage) to serve in larger parishes.
"And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."
If these are indeed the abiding gifts of the Spirit, and if love is the greatest gift of all, then the size of the congregation in which these gifts are manifest is irrelevant. To love and be loved in a community of faith that is large, or small, is to experience the Gospel in its fullest. Each congregation, whether large or small, has a mission as part of the Body of Christ. That mission is NOT to attempt to be something they are not. A small congregation cannot function as a large congregation, nor can a large congregation function as a small congregation. Yet each has a mission to which they are called.
Being at peace with who you are, and the mission to which you are called, is probably the single greatest factor in determining the vitality of a congregation.
And finally, when compared to the whole of the Body of Christ, all congregations are basically 'small group ministries'.