What Will Happen to All the Little Churches?

The minimum salary for a full time pastor in our Presbytery is $42,764 cash annually,  which is not a lot for someone with a Masters Degree who works 50+ hours a week living in an urban area.  Dying Church 2

Quite a few of our pastors make the minimum salary, no matter how much experience they have or how hard they work or how gifted they are.

This has a lot to do with the size of the active congregation.  If a church has 50 active members, each and every member would have to donate $1,152.52 a year just to have a FT pastor, covering the cash salary and required benefits.  A church with 30 members would require each member to give $1,919.20 to have a FT pastor.  Needless to say, these congregations generally do not have FT pastors.

And this is what would be needed just for the pastor’s salary – not all the other necessities like building upkeep, utilities, property and liability insurance, other staff salaries (music minister?  secretary?  custodian?), and – oh, right – resources to serve the neighbors.  Churches also need to purchase things like postage, curriculum, office supplies, etc.

So what will happen to all the little churches?

We know the usual answers:

  • Many will be gone in 5-10 years after spending their last resources. 
  • Some will merge with other congregations and survive a bit longer.
  • Some will be brave enough to close before all their resources are gone and they will resurrect by using those resources to plant a new church.

I have another idea, but it involves a serious paradigm shift:  from “this is my church and about pleasing me/my needs” to “this is God’s church and about making disciples of all nations.

What if large churches called an associate pastor whose primary job is to plant a new church in an under-served neighborhood?  That associate pastor would have the resources and staff support of a large, established congregation but would equip the saints in a new neighborhood, with new people.

Or a large church could call an associate pastor whose primary job is to redevelop a struggling church in need of fresh leadership and vision.  The smaller congregation would become a satellite of the larger congregation.

We Presbyterians call ourselves “a connectional church” but we are not as connected as we could be.  It’s not about sharing common rules and regulations.  It’s about sharing a common mission to show our neighbors what love looks like in the name of Jesus.  I can imagine a network made up of many small congregations, connected by anchor churches with the vision to exist for the transformation of our city and beyond.

So who’s up for a paradigm shift?



50 responses to “What Will Happen to All the Little Churches?

  1. I’m in! Related article in yesterdays Alban Weekly: SIGNS OF VITALITY about small churches doing ministry.

  2. I love the ideas here, but there is one more wrinkle. My church provides a home for me, the rental value of which is over $12,000 per year, so they get to deduct that from what they pay me to reach that minimum…so one of the answers to this is to have planned in the past and have a manse, the upkeep of which is far cheaper than the $12k. I recognize that isn’t an option for new churches, or for small churches who have let their manses go…but it is how many smaller churches make this work. What if we developed a communal model for pastoral housing, where large and small churches partner to purchase and/or renovate large homes and multiple clergy families share those homes? It would model sustainable living and allow the smaller churches to pay lower salaries while still insuring that clergy make a decent living with decent housing?

    • Love this idea!

    • Providing housing rather than paying that $12,000 to the pastor is not an equal trade for the pastor. What then does he do when he retires. Especially if he has been payed so little that he does not have a great deal put away for retirement. By paying him the $12,000 a year he could buy a house and then when he retired he would at least not have a house payment. That would make a huge difference.

      • Michael Kirby

        Whitney, so true. (As the one living in a manse it is very obvious to me.) My church could not afford to provide a housing allowance currently…but perhaps joint ownership of these communal dwellings would give clergy a chance to earn equity in something and churches could partner with their pastors and their communal colleagues.

  3. Jan, I agree with you. Churches giving birth to new churches has been a part of the Christian Church’s mission since it’s earliest days, but has not been adequately encouraged or supported in the Presbyterian Church in my life time. I was fortunate to have served as pastor of a church that decided to follow the early church model. With the session leading the way and encouragement from the presbytery, the congregation called a second associate pastor to start a new congregation in the town next to ours. We had support from the presbytery, as well as neighboring congregations. The excitement and joy of reaching out in Christ’s name brought new life and excitement to this established church of 350 members. They realized their ongoing ministry wasn’t about themselves and how large they could become as a congregation, but about how they could better serve the larger Church by giving birth to a new congregation. In my experience, it isn’t size that matters, but an openness to discover God’s vision that takes a local church outside of its comfort zone to do what they never thought was possible, which might be planting a new community for Christ.

  4. What about the wise use of the servants formerly known as CLPs? There seems to be an incredible gift that the Church is overlooking by not using, connecting and resourcing these passionate Ruling Elders.

  5. Love the AP idea for revitalizing smaller congregations or planting new ones.
    Cap’n Picard says: Engage!

  6. Sort of an on staff missionary! Great idea! Expectations from the mother ship need to be very defined and real! Going to revive a small church would need goals- oh anyway
    What a wonderful idea!!!!

  7. Jan, this is exactly what I’ve been hoping and praying that we would do. Use Associates, CLP’s, even Elder willing to serve – Yoke together, plant together – reach out to serve…YES!

  8. I think it has great potential in large population areas. In other places where the closest “large” church is 150 miles away…it becomes problematic.

  9. Pingback: Jan Edmiston: What Will Happen to All the Little Churches? "Who's up for a paradigm shift?" | THINKING PRESBYTERIAN | Scoop.it

  10. But a paradigm shift has to happen before this one can. We again have to see the primary purpose of the church as calling people to a new way of life and for them to believe that there is more to following Jesus than being a nice person. Most Presbyterians are tolerant people. That is good. But we are so tolerant that it does not make us too uncomfortable when people stop going to church or having neighbors who think that the kids soccer league is more important. Filling the church needs not to be a job but a passion of those who participate in it. If we don’t get this anew, it doesn’t matter where we plant our churches. Most of our cities have plenty of beautiful sanctuaries. We need to offer folks a compelling reason of why they need to be here. Everyone knows of Jesus. But, all we have to do is look at the way we are living our lives by and large in our culture and we know that most are not really following him.

    • Yes, and there needs to be a paradigm shift in congregations that are just hanging on. Another question that plays into this, i.e., how large is large enough and what determines that? I’ve witnessed discussions/read reports where growing membership appears to be related to budget balancing rather than bringing people to new life.

  11. Good idea. Don’t expect big churches to buy in, though. The very existence of small churches at all is not generally part of the “vision” of large rich churches. If it were they’d be doing this already. Not to be too cynical or anything.

  12. Jan, maybe you already know about Westminster in Minneapolis. I believe they just did this last year – calling someone to do a restart in a neighborhood church.

  13. Martha Brown is right– the Alban article makes some good points, along with yours.

  14. Large churches established new and satellite congregations beginning at least in the 19th century. I have served churches that were originally established in that way and became self-supporting in the flush ’50’s or earlier. One could also bus in all the single bus load congregations into a large church where all things can be done because of the many aggregated resources and economies of scale. There can be small communities within a larger context without being necessarily local.

  15. Ummm. In my youth (yes, it was years ago) small churches shared a FT pastor. It is another step toward “ours” rather “me and mine,” and deserves consideration. On another note, it’s not just the smallest churches, but I know too many churches who are simply defined by their buildings, not their mission, so their idea of survival is tied to “paying the bills” rather than “spreading the Word.”

  16. I think it just shocks me that these ideas are flying around facebook as “radical”. This should not be a grand revelation but the primary mission of the church. (however, thank you for reminding us of that!!)

  17. In my first call, a tiny church within a few miles of three or four other tiny rural churches, I had a dream of shared staffing – not just of clergy, but also of office staff. It didn’t happen while I was there, but it seems doable, because all the congregations are on rather equal footing… The tiny rural church I now serve is a bit isolated… “Outside” help would not be appreciated, no matter how faithful or necessary…

  18. I think you hit the nail on the head with regards to a shift – I think the age of the single pastor church are over. The needs of our congregants and communities are far more complicated than a single person (often not formally trained in most of the areas they’re required to deal with!) can handle. We are (as you said) supposed to be a community, so why did somewhere along the line decide that pastors should be going it alone?

    Let the shifting begin!

  19. Good post, Jan! Large churches are now doing something like that outside of our circle. The Big Parking Lot megachurch in DC has been intentionally creating “satellite campuses,” which expand it’s reach into other localities. For the smaller communities, there’s the benefit of a core with more resources. For the hub congregation, there’s the benefit of increased reach.

  20. We can put some “mission” money to work in our urban areas by helping support teaching elders there. My experience is that people who benefit from having a church in an inner-city neighborhood are not able to contribute more than a dollar or two a week to help support it, yet they are drawn to the stability and hope the church has to offer, if given a chance.

  21. Pingback: Partnering with Small Churches | annelowrance

  22. Let’s remember what true vitality is. It consists in the power of God, and relying on that power, and not in the abundance of possessions. There is an incredible variety in small congregations. Let’s be careful not to assume that they are all withering. Let’s be careful, too, to make sure we see networks of small congregations and small church pastors as true colleagues in ministry, and not a charity project of large congregations. The point is to draw people to Christ, and God has multiple strategies for doing that. Small, faithful communities are part of God’s strategy. Let’s be very careful to avoid condescension as we form new ministry networks of congregations of various sizes. Perhaps what we’re talking about here is similar to a very old idea of what a presbytery is.

  23. Pingback: Reforming the Presbyterian Church-Back to Basics | Reflections of a Pastor Couple

  24. Jan, I like this idea and have commended some version of it to enthusiasts of church planting and new ministry development I have been in conversation with. One challenge that I think will need to be worked through involves cross-cultural ministry. Many areas that church planters would like to move into, and where many small churches reside are ones filled with racial/ethnic or other marginalized social groups (who in those neighborhoods may very well be in the majority). When the mother church doing the sending is a majority culture one, cultural competency and savvy leaders will be a necessity if the enterprise is not to become colonization or patronization. How can we do church planting across cultural boundaries that becomes true partnership in the gospel (koinonia) and not a cheap imitation?

  25. I’m a bit on the cynical side with Paul Rack above. I’ve been serving a small congregation in an urban neighborhood that has been serving and serving and serving its neighborhood and community for 30 years with little to no resources. We survive on scraps and yet there are probably no other churches in our presbytery, large or small, who have more community mission going on in their buildings or outreach to their neighbors. We have continually sought partners in our presbytery, but none have any staying power. We approach with the hope of a long-term partnership and within a short period of time they are following shinier objects or simply not interested in a sustained relationship. Bit of a different situation than you are addressing, but illustrates how insular our larger, suburban churches can become. There are, of course, issues of paternalism and power to be dealt with in your proposal.

  26. We have many more small churches than we have large churches who could afford to staff, or partially staff those small churches. But it is an excellent approach for as many as could. We should do more helping one another as a connectional church.

  27. The idea of a small church yoked with a larger one is one I have been bouncing around other presbyters for several years or so now. It has its challenges, though. For one, rural churches might be an hour more drive from the larger ones, which are often in cities — often much more than an hour if the nearest city is a metropolis with heavy traffic. Will the larger churches see themselves as missional in such a way? Small churches don’t necessarily desire to become large churches, and they especially wish to retain their own identity. Yoking large and small together can be beneficial in many ways, yet such an idea is beyond the vision of most sessions and PNC’s.

    Outside of yoking, there are other methods for churches to be united and still have some measure of independence. Presbyterians, though, have not the polity to provide for such as satellite churches or chapel status alignments. Instead, the accepted practice is to have part time positions or yoked arrangements across two or more very small congregations, and often they still struggle.

    There are at least two other solutions. One can be described by only one word: tithing.

    Another approach would be very novel. Within a presbytery, a group of churches could band together and a also a group of pastors band together, with more congregations than ministers [“teaching elders”] in a matchup. The pastors would function as a team, rotating between pulpits and rotating between pastoral care visitations. Again, we have no polity provision for such an arrangement, and its implementation would be complex. It would solve the situation happens in small and mid-sized churches, that the one pastor is expected to be a super-human with all gifts and talents, yet the reality is that gifts of the Spirit are spread around with no one having all. An ideal team would have a variety of individuals with the totality offering the greatest collection of gifts and talents. Even mid-size churches could thrive is such a program. Jesus went about with a team of a dozen from various backgrounds, and even when He sent them out they went not alone but in pairs.

    Years ago I heard the adage, “Dynamite comes in small packages.” There is great potential for effective ministry in small churches. The median size of a PC(USA) congregation is now only a two digit figure. Now is the time to nurture the small churches that each may become effective in bearing fruit.

  28. But how many such large Presbyterian churches are there out there? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a pastor could handle three small churches or church plants, which might be practical if they are three established, albeit small, congregations. If you are talking about new church plants, I doubt that anyone could do three, probably one, maybe two if they have a lot of energy and talent. So are there enough large Presbyterian churches that can afford to hire an associate pastor to work on developing/maintaining satellite congregations? It sounds good, but how many large congregations with overflow money are there out there?

    • Kettle Moraine Parish in WI which stated in the 70’s and dissolved around 2006 did this. I think it started with 5 PCUSA congregations and 2 UCC congregations and 3 full time pastors.

  29. Pingback: Rich Church. Poor Church. Brave Church. | achurchforstarvingartists

  30. I think this is a great idea. I would love to see the large church I serve move in this direction, with a fresh church plant or a redevelopment partnership. But, here is a reality check with regard to redevelopment. Before my time at this large church, they tried this very thing. It was called a “hostile takeover” by the small church. I don’t know all the details of what and how things were done, and this example might have more to do with the particular churches involved, but it raises for me questions about how a presbytery could help bring about such relationships? Will all smaller churches feel threatened by a larger church coming in to do this? I see lots of opportunities for this in our presbytery, but I wonder if smaller churches would really be open to this kind of partnership? Would it be better to just start something new?

    • Shawna made a good point in a FB comment. Partnering with other churches definitely needs to be a partnership or else it definitely looks/feels like a hostile takeover. What can the smaller church offer that the larger church cannot? An endowment? A cool new neighborhood? Younger members? There needs to be some equity in terms of what each congregation can bring to the relationship.

      And – yes – let’s talk about how the Presbytery can encourage these relationships. This is an excellent time to consider some unique start-ups.

  31. I have not read all the comments but need to respond. I worked for ten years in Presbyterian Executive service. These idea being presented in this blog were around before I started working in Executive service. My experience was that the small churches do not want to share a pastor but would rather have “their own” part-time pastor who can meet their needs, particularly Sunday morning needs, rather then provide full-time pastoral ministry positions. I hope your work in the Presbytery of Chicago meets with better success then what I experienced.

  32. Great idea, and I’m glad that many replies have focused on the difficulty of getting from ‘here’ to ‘there.’ As usual in the whole C21 paradigm shift of what it is to be church, do mission and make disciples, the Brits are ahead of us – because they have experienced the collapse of the mainline church before us.
    In “High Street Monasteries,” Ray Simpson holds up the vision of ‘Villages of God,’ in which the Christian community acts as a focal point for community life in many forms, from Retreat Center to arts workshop to counseling center to place of education to activist cell. He lays out two patterns for such a ‘Village:’
    1] the Celtic Monasteries/Communities of the C6 to C10 (about). Strong center, open ‘walls.’ The neo-monastic movement can be a huge resource here. (Simpson, a C of E priest, is Founding Guardian of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, which I serve as US Guardian.)
    2] the Cathedral or Minster church. Denominations that do not have bishops or, therefore, cathedrals often have churches which have a similar standing in their region or city.

  33. Pingback: A Check List for Pulling the Plug? | achurchforstarvingartists

  34. I like what Presbys called the small number churches—Mission Outposts

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