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Why Pastors Should Consider Smaller Churches

Although I grew up in the rural South and cut my spiritual teeth in a small, rural church, I never really fancied myself remaining there voluntarily in adulthood.
As a ministerial student, I followed a common track through a Baptist college and seminary. Although I began ministry in a small, rural congregation, I ultimately went to a larger church, which, while located in the country, was more of a suburban/small town church in terms of character.

After almost two decades there, I still aspired to a larger church – maybe just to see if I had what it took to function in such a setting or to satisfy my vanity.

Joel Gregory’s story, “Too Great a Temptation,” reflected my weakness. Hull and Peter’s 1969 book, “The Peter Principle,” may have come true in me.

In more contemporary church lingo, I went from a small farm to a large farm to a ranch, and now I am going through a series of medium-sized farms as both an interim pastor and now an installed pastor. It is wonderful.

Embarrassed, I admit that I never adjusted to the ranch.

At heart, I am a hands-on kind of pastor. I prefer to visit when visits are needed, to bury all deceased members and to be where I think I am needed most of the time, rather than to turn so much over to capable staff and laity.

My bent in that direction destined me to fatigue, frustration and burnout on the ranch. Toward the end of that experience, I felt like a failure.

With several years to reflect, I am not sure that was the case. Here is why.

I confess that I allowed myself to be caught up in the desire to be always upwardly mobile. Success meant bigger, better and more. In the end, it wasn’t for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I salute all those pastors and staff who serve large churches or who take small- and medium-sized churches to new numerical and ministry heights.

It takes special, admirable gifts and a calling to serve in those situations that I must be somehow lacking. While envious of some of those gifts, I am who I am.

You may remember “The Jeffersons,” the situation comedy of decades ago. Having “moved on up,” George and Louise regularly did battle about the importance of all of their recently acquired stuff.

In response to George’s gripes about one financial situation, Louise sought to console him with, “Now, George, it’s only money.”

George snapped, “Weezy, that’s what poor people say to each other so they can sleep at night!”

Granted, it may very well be that I am telling myself all of this so I can sleep at night and function during the day. Churches may be small due to theology, choice, geography, backwardness, style, character or a host of other reasons.

For my part, being smaller isn’t necessarily bad. Frankly, I really like knowing these folks at a deeper level.

I like the fact that neighbors sound their horns when they see me in the yard, that we wave at each other when we meet on the roads, that they have relationships other than at church and that they seem to survive pastors who are incompetent, nutty, theological misfits, inexperienced, ambitious, lazy or perpetually short term.

I enjoy being available to counsel church members and those who aren’t, to chat with folks at the country store about the price of beef, the cost of fertilizer and the chance of rain, and to duck out for an afternoon of fishing without anyone knowing or caring.

Of course, there are some downsides. Being the only pastor in the community, some have unreasonable expectations of my being the community’s pastor.

Some of the people are poor, bigoted, ignorant, unwieldy and closed-minded. I rarely visit a home when I don’t honk the horn or whistle to make sure a large, angry mutt isn’t lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim.

Being the community outsider, I am occasionally the butt of jokes or the blame for problems I did not create. The pay is not great but it is somehow sufficient.

I think it can be safely stated that many small churches have pastors who are either bivocational, at the beginning of their ministries, toward the end of their ministries, who have a “handicap” like a divorce or a speech impediment, or who truly feel gifted for and called to that setting. I am at least two of those.

It has taken a lot of adjustment, though.

A few weeks ago, having delivered the best of what I had from the pulpit, I was grousing to my bride about there being less than five dozen people present.

In her quiet, insightful way, she asked, “Don’t you think these people need and deserve good pastors, too?”

At any rate, if you are a pastor always looking for bigger and are assuming that is better, consider the small church. You have much to offer. So do many small churches. Your gifts, temperament and calling may take you to one.

Reggie Warren is interim pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Va., and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.