By R. Duane Cragun
Today I had lunch with a fellow pastor of a larger church. During our conversation he asked me if I had ever been asked advice from another pastor in my type of setting, I responded “yes, I have.” Then he surprised me by telling me he was going on a mission trip and one place he would be stopping was a church of only nine people, then he said, “What do I do?” This took me back to a friend that called me and asked the same question about six years ago, he was trained like most of us by different pastor’s and profs, that had served in a larger church setting. Nothing he had been told seemed to work, he had no staff, little funds, no space, and the people seemed to resist any changes that he wanted to bring to the church. I pondered my response to him, and I have decided to write a three-part blog about what I have learned over the years I have served in a small church setting.
Part 1. Learn:
This may sound odd to you, but the greatest thing we can do when serving ether in a larger congregation or a smaller one is to learn from our people. We learn by listening to what they say, and looking for areas that seem to be of concern to them. Remember, many smaller churches have a history of changing pastors every two to four years, they have not really had a chance to every develop a vision for their church ministry. In my own experience, I went to a church that was 115 years old and I was the 84th Pastor, you do the math. The fact is that they would often say to me, “We are a good place for starting pastors.” When I asked about their missional vision, they had no idea of what the vision was. So, I spent the first two years learning about them, which also allowed them to learn about me.
I didn’t just look at old glory day records, I talked with people that remembered them. I also conversed with them about why those days had ended. This does not mean that I am not a progressive pastor, I am, but I also know that people will resist change that seems to exclude their wishes and likes. Many of the prior pastors where young, just out of college. They were pastors that wanted to make the next mega church. This isn’t a bad thing, but it cannot be done by excluding the current church body. So, I took some time to learn my congregation.
I also learned about the social needs within our community. Here are some of my findings see if they reflect any in your situation. I found a high divorce rate, high unemployment, high drug and alcohol consumption, and a high school level or less for the average education of the people. Learning this helped me to understand how to speak to needs within the community and how to better communicate to the people.
I became involved in the community watch program as this town was so small it did not even have a police officer. I started volunteering in the local school system to learn what the younger members of our community saw as important within the church. In all of these things, I learned about the people of the community in which I served.
I learned very quickly that the members the congregation did not want two things to happen, (1) they did not want any “big church pastor to tell them what to do in their small church.” It was not that they didn’t like the larger church. They just did not like be treated, or what they saw a being treated, like dumb people by those in a larger church. (2) They didn’t want the pastor making big plans and then leave them with the continuation or problems.
When you are called to a smaller church setting, be prepared to commit to seeing it through. I stayed ten years at my last church assignment, and many changes were made. This included me teaching them to stop saying “we are a good place for starting pastors.” Instead they began saying “we are a good place to pastor.” But it all has to start by being still and listing.