Most of the churches I have pastored have been small. In some settings, small churches are often given the leftovers in district matters. This may be unintentional, but often the case. I don’t confess to understanding the voting for district officers, but often those on the ballots are from the larger churches. The big churches and big church pastors are seen as role models, the goal for every pastor and church.
This thinking follows the myth that bigger is better. The model often used for church growth is the megachurch. Few people will state this explicitly, but it is subtly understood by many, especially those who pastor smaller churches. Small churches and pastors of small churches often suffer from a self-critical self-perception that they do not measure up to the models of “successful” churches. Small is not insignificant but often how God does big things.
We must remember that God works through small things. One simple example is how Jesus chose a small group of mean to be his apostles. He spend a lot of focused time with these twelve men. There were many other followers of Jesus, both men and women. Acts records that there were about 120 believers in the upper room. That was not a large group to impact the world. The qualities of this small group are what ever pastor and church must emulate: prayer, study of the teachings of Jesus, growing together in fellowship, and shared mission to reach the world.
Being the pastor of a small church does not give us an excuse for poor leadership, preaching, and pastoral care. In a worldly perspective, those who pastor large churches have a lot of talent that has been recognized by others, and thus they have been “promoted” to larger churches. They may have good speaking ability and good leadership qualities. Pastors of small churches can have the same level of skill and talent. This is something that will take work, study, practice, and patience. I have always been challenged by Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for people.” We must strive to give our best and be our best because we are servants of the Lord.
Small churches struggle at many points, speaking from experience. They often do not have the people to run programs. Those few who do volunteer or are available do just about everything in the church. The music is often a struggle because there many be just one or two in the whole church who can play instruments or lead singing. Finances make it difficult to support a pastor, pay the bills, and give towards various ministries. These struggles provide opportunities to focus on the important. Small churches cannot be all things to all people. Small churches can focus on those ministries that will make a difference and move the church towards fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ within their communities.
Small churches offer many things that are more difficult for larger churches. People are looking for authenticity and relationship, which can be difficult to find in large groups. Developing small churches within churches (what many call “life groups”) can be a way to overcome this lack. However, even small churches can lack depth in fellowship. The downside of forming small communities is that it can become difficult for outsiders to break in. So, pastors must consciously and carefully lead small churches into becoming welcoming communities of faith.
This may require that some traditions be set aside for new ways. This has been one of the biggest struggles for me as a pastor of small churches. Smaller groups get comfortable in their traditions. Breaking into this or even understanding it can be very challenging. Many outsiders or visitors will be turned off by traditionalism and unwillingness to do new things. This can lead to a pastor’s frustration, which is an open door to burnout and eventually resignation. Pastors must tread this path carefully. Being a small church can lead to struggle in effective mission. Complacency cannot be our norm in small church ministry.
In the midst of trying to survive as a small church pastor, we cannot lose core convictions and forsake the mission we have been given. That is why it is important to keep our call ever before us. Fellowshipping with other pastors can be a big form of encouragement along this journey. One of the biggest jobs of those who lead pastors, such as district superintendents, is to encourage pastors in their ministries.
Being a small church pastor has many blessings, including the ability to know just about everyone in the church in a very close and personal way. It is easier to be a pastor shepherd when we know our sheep and they know us. We can use the opportunities God gives us as pastors of small churches to reach the world for Christ.
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