Friday, May 13, 2011

Why I keep at small town ministry even with the challenges

In previous posts, I have talked about the difficulties in being a small church pastor particularly in town and country settings.  Just because there are difficulties, does not mean that I don't value this kind of ministry.  In fact, I value it greatly and want to see town and country churches thrive and grow.  I also want to see town and country pastors and their ministry taken seriously.  I don't think this kind of ministry is for everyone.  But it is for me. So, let me tell you why I think this is a great setting in which to do ministry. 

1.     In a small town, I can (in the spirit of John Wesley) consider the town my parish.  I can be involved in the community and have a positive effect on the whole community.  In a town our size (~1900), our 190 membership is 10% of the town!  More realistically, our average attendance is about 6% of the town.  In order to get that kind of percentage in a larger town of, say 100,000, a church would have to average 6000 in attendance.  We can have a “mega-influence” without being a “mega-church.”  When I go to football games, band concerts, park days, etc.  my presence has a real impact. 

The downside of this involvement is that it is hard to be anonymous.  Any pastor who is uncomfortable living in a “fishbowl” should probably stay away from small town ministry.  The gossips can get after you and it is difficult to avoid people who just don’t like you.

Overall, however, being a part of the community is a small town is a joy.  I love going to the grocery store or the gas station or the pharmacy and actually knowing the people there.   I love the sense of being a part of the whole community and not just a little snippet of it.  I love being able to have lunch for the whole graduating class in one location.  The connections and relationships that one is able to form in a small town are truly wonderful.

I would encourage small town pastors to take their towns as their parish.  You may not be preaching to thousands, but if your church is the community center where kids come for their end-of-semester programs and graduating seniors come for senior lunch and everybody comes to vote, then when those unchurched folk need a pastor, they will think of you and your church as the community church.

Along the same lines, I would encourage small town pastors to get to know the local funeral director and volunteer to do funerals for people who were not church members. This is a ministry that touches the unchurched in a deep way.  You will plant seeds that you will not see grow, but the kingdom will be enlarged. 

2.      As the pastor of a small church in a small town, I get to use a lot of different gifts for ministry.  A small town/small church pastor has to be a generalist; we don’t have large staffs and most of the people who we work with are either volunteers or part-time staff.  We have to write our sermons while dealing with hail-damaged roofs, broken toilets and attempted suicides.  We might be visiting hospitals one day and leading a bible study the next.  We don’t have an office manager, so when we go into the “big city” we pick up copy paper and ballpoint pens.  We need to be good at worship, teaching, counseling, administration, evangelism, social outreach, youth and children’s ministry and if we can coach Little League or lead a Cub Scout Den then we do that as well.  Some of us get on the town council or the school board.  Many of us are members of Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions Club and provide leadership for those organizations.  I have listened to pastors that don’t fit into small town ministry tell me that they are bored, or don’t have enough to do.  I can’t imagine!  In a small town, at a small church there is always something to do or people to talk to.  There are always needs that aren’t being met because people do not have access to extensive social services.  Ministry in a small town can be frustrating, but it is never boring!

3.     Small churches are places where young people – children and youth – are not the “church of tomorrow” but the church of today.  We provide real opportunities for involvement and ministry for young people, not because we are trying to be nice to them, but because we really need them.  We can’t have VBS without youth helpers, we wouldn’t have a Praise Band if it weren’t composed of youth, our youth are generally our audio-visual people, and our youth contribute substantially to our committees.  Even in churches where “we’ve never done it that way” is a mantra, youth or children can get away with making changes that the pastor or other adults could never make.   Many small congregations are simply so happy to see the young people in church, that they let them get away with innovations that would otherwise not fly.  Smart  small church pastors know that inviting youth to be a significant part of any new activity can make the difference between older people griping or celebrating.

Of course, this only works if you actually have young people in your congregation. 

4.      Some small congregations have had a succession of student pastors or pastors straight out of seminary, so they are much more open than you might think to creative and innovative worship.   This openness to creativity has its limits and permanent changes can be extremely difficult, but I have found that I can try a lot of things once.  The ability to try new things occasionally helps to keep me from getting stale in my worship planning and preaching. 

Most of the challenges in small town/small church ministry come from lack of resources, both people resources and financial resources. On the other hand, lack of obvious resources can provide a great incentive to helping people discover their gifts for ministry.  And there is a deep sense of satisfaction in watching talents, gifts and leadership develop in people that would be passed over in a mega-church setting.  What is needed from the pastor is a good deal of patience and investment in the lives of people – difficult if the conference is moving you every 3-4 years. 

When a small town church is healthy and the pastor has a long enough tenure, small churches are excellent incubators of disciples.  In a best-case scenario, a small church setting can be less threatening and more warmly supportive of people growing in their faith and discipleship than a large church.   This is what we need to work for.  We don’t have to work at doing ministry with the poor and marginalized because poor and rich, well-educated and uneducated, the town sheriff and the town drunk all worship together.  In a small church, if we are doing it right, we can accept people as they are and love them into being who God created them to be.  

Small town/small church settings have the potential for extraordinarily fulfilling and fruitful, hands-on ministry.  Instead of looking to close small churches, we need to help them see their possibilities.   Instead of telling pastors that they need to “do their time” or “pay their dues” in small churches and then will be moved “up” to a “better” appointment, we need to train and mentor pastors who see small town/small church ministry as a calling and a challenge.  We need to make sure that small town/small church pastors have solid grounding in theology and preaching; every pastor should prepare and  preach as if she were going to preach to 1500 instead of 50.  Because small town/small church pastors are more likely to engage the community than pastors at large churches, they need to have excellent skills in evangelism and apologetics, ready to give an account of their faith at any time.  And small town/small church pastors must be willing to live lives that embody the gospel and are above reproach. 

It's a tall order.  Small town/small church ministry is not place to stick incompetent pastors or pastors who are looking for an easy gig for the last few years before retirement, but a place to send those who are well-trained, well-formed in the faith and deeply committed to a highly relational long-term ministry. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The consequences of the appointive system

In my last post I said this: “We are appointed to a church, sometimes against the wishes of the congregation, who have no say in whether or not they want us – and therefore no investment in our success.”  This is a problem unique to the kind of appointive system that we have in the United Methodist Church.  In a call system, the pastor and the congregation have to mutually agree on working with each other.   On the upside, this means that both sides have an investment in the success of the pastor.  On the downside, when conflicts arise, the pastor can be ousted as quickly as he/she can be hired.

What are the consequences of having such a system and is there a better way?  We already have consultation in the United Methodist system, but the way we go about it is not entirely open and honest.  We ask both churches (SPR Committee) and pastors to fill out yearly profiles and state whether or not they think the appointment is working.  Usually the pastor sees the church profile filled out by the SPRC, or at least has access to it, so the pastor generally knows when the SPRC is requesting a new pastor.  However, the SPRC rarely sees the Pastor’s profile.  This means that the pastor can request a move, or at least be open to a move without the SPRC knowing.   This also allows the pastor to blame the cabinet for a move without taking responsibility for having wanted it.  

Once an appointment has been decided on by the cabinet, the pastor is told where he/she is going and is introduced to the SPRC.  Depending on the Bishop/Cabinet, the pastor may or may not be able to ask for reconsideration.  The church may or may not be able to ask for a different pastor.  Thus both sides may be wary of the new partnership, but neither can do anything about it.

What if the cabinet played the role of match-maker instead of appointment-maker?  What if both congregation and pastor were able to have greater say in finalizing the appointment? What if there were a trial period of 3-6 months in which both sides had the opportunity to say “Yes, this is working,” or “No this isn’t”?  What if we were paid by the conference instead of the congregation?  I understand this would be the end of the so-called “guaranteed” appointment system.  But the Bishops are pushing to do away with this anyway.

At the very least, we need for our District Superintendents to know enough about the congregations to let the pastors know what they are really going to be facing -both positive and negative.  Many of us are willing to take on a challenge if we know what the challenge is.   But often we are simply told “Preach good sermons and love the people.”  “These are people who love their church.”   The churches are told that this pastor is happy to serve them and is just what they need, whether this is true or not.  The congregation doesn’t get to know if the pastor has had problems at former churches or not.  And, with regard to Town and Country churches, not all pastors want to serve in this setting. None of this is the fault of the District Superintendents, or even the Bishop.  They have too many churches and too many pastors to oversee to be able to know them well.  

Yes, I agreed to this system when I was ordained.  Yes, I will abide by this system as long as I am an Elder in the United Methodist Church.  But this system, which worked extraordinarily well in a former time and culture, may not be the best way to operate now.  

I grieve for churches and pastors who are in mismatched partnerships.  I grieve for pastors who are having an uphill battle to establish themselves in a congregation that doesn’t want them.  I grieve for churches who have had to take pastors that have damaged every church they have served. 

Once again, all of this is what I perceive to be true about small churches, particularly in small towns.  Large churches have different dynamics and sometimes (not always) more control over who they receive.

I would love to hear what other options people think might work.  I have suggested a few. What else?

Monday, May 2, 2011

The life of a small church pastor and why “All it takes is good leadership” is a myth.

The purpose of this essay/post is to lay out what I think is the state of many, if not most small United Methodist churches, particularly in town and country settings.  I am trying to describe the reality of life for pastors who serve these churches.  Some will accuse me of complaining – I believe I am simply trying to tell the truth.  I have many friends in small T&C churches who have a strong, passionate faith, a clear call to ministry, and deep love for the people in their congregations.  They are totally committed to the mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  But they are discouraged and disheartened and more than a few consider leaving the ministry; some actually do leave.  In this essay, I am going to try to lay out why I think that is.  

As pastors in the United Methodist Church, we are appointed to a church, sometimes against the wishes of the congregation, who have no say in whether or not they want us – and therefore no investment in our success.  This is especially true for women, who have to deal with people who simply can’t accept a woman pastor.   We have no real authority when we begin because real authority depends on relationships.  If there is buy-in from the congregation on some level, we may have a brief honeymoon period where folks will follow our lead to a certain point.  But in most cases, this is superficial.  

We are faced with a dilemma: do we make the changes that are clearly needed and risk upsetting people – i.e. do we attempt real leadership early on, or do we simply sit back and get to know the people for a year or two?  In the case of a declining church, a year or two means further decline; every slide downward makes it that much more difficult to start the journey back toward health and vitality.  Sometimes keeping the status quo means continuing business practices that are, at best, shady, and at worst, illegal.  Even if we make the changes that we truly believe are critical for the spiritual, financial, and organizational health of the church, we are in trouble.  If “this is the way we have always done it” comes in to play, then no matter what the change, the pastor will be a target for criticism, gossip, and yes, hatred.

There are a number of reasons for this.  The first goes back to my statement about relationships.  Often some of the people, even some of the leadership, welcome the changes – they might have been pushing for those changes for a while.  But when one of the patriarchs or matriarchs gets a bee in their bonnet, even the leaders who welcome change generally will side with them against us.  This is understandable: they have had relationships with these people for many years and they will continue to have to live with them after we are gone.  No matter how positive a change, conflict is always seen as negative.  If we insist on certain issues, then we are accused of being over-bearing and controlling, of saying, “It’s my way or the highway.”  We are placed in the position of either having to cave in to the patriarch/matriarch or of potentially driving them off – which causes conflict in the congregation.

This is the second reason, then, that we are handicapped in our attempts to lead – conflict is seen as the worst thing that can happen to a church.  A pastor who causes conflict is the enemy.  This is true even in, especially in, dysfunctional churches.  The more dysfunctional the system, the more push-back and sabotage we receive.  No matter how much members of the congregation dislike the patriarch/matriarch, they will always support them over us.  And despite workshops and seminars held by the conference on the benefits of conflict, no District Superintendent is pleased when a pastor causes conflict. The pastor is usually assumed to be at fault and a poor leader.  Sometimes this is a covert assumption, but it can also be overt.

So, you might say, why not simply spend the time those first few years getting to know people.  It sounds like a good idea, and certainly in the first few years of an appointment (well, really every year), we should focus heavily on relationship building.  But that will not solve the problems.  The conference expects results and waiting 1-2 years to even begin to address decline does not bring the desired results.  Secondly, no matter how friendly people are, no matter how much time you spend getting to know members of the congregation, the truth about the church as a system will not be apparent until the system is challenged.  In addition, if we don’t manage to figure out the power structure very, very quickly, then we will wind up building relationships with people that are not “approved” by the powers that be.  The patriarch/matriarch will be jealous of our relationships with those outside of the approved circle of influence.

Another aspect of this leadership problem is that very few small church pastors have any control over their staff.  Staffs often consist of essentially paid volunteers who are members of the congregation or they are members of the community with ties to church members as friends or relatives.  We have no way to dismiss ineffective or insubordinate staff people if they have support of any of the leaders of the church.  That causes conflict – bad, bad, bad.  The problem is exacerbated when it comes to lay leadership.  Effectiveness of lay leaders matters far less than their standing in the congregation.  

Then there are financial issues.  We are dependent upon the Bishop for an appointment, but we are dependent upon the church for our salaries.  If a leader who disagrees with or dislikes us is also a big giver, then our problems are compounded.  Any pastor who takes a stand, whether on a theological point, a financial issue, or an organizational issue risks not getting paid.  Most small church pastors are paid small salaries.  They are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to lose a month or two of salary.  I do know some pastors who have been willing to forgo salary for a while. However, each of them has had a spouse that is able to take up the slack or is independently wealthy.  For a pastor who truly depends on his/her salary for living expenses, this is a serious problem.  

Sometimes the opposite problem holds: the patriarchs fight us when we try to use good stewardship practices, including knowing who gives what, and where the money is going because they are not big givers.  I can’t prove this, but I suspect that those who are reluctant for the pastor to know how much they give are giving far less than most people assume.  They do not want to be held accountable for their own meager giving; they would prefer to be able to let everyone think that they are the most important supporters of the church.  This kind of hypocrisy won’t work if the pastor is in the loop on giving.  Of course, these same people are the first to challenge a pastor on every purchase, on every parsonage repair, on every item on the Pastor’s Accountable Reimbursement account – which is public record.  

In summary, small church pastors face a number of challenges to being what the conference calls an effective leader.  Large church pastors may face some of the same challenges – I am not able to comment on that, because I have never been pastor-in-charge of a large church.   I do know that small size exacerbates many problems because our options for lay leadership and financing are limited – the loss of one family can cause serious problems.  Also we have few, if any, opportunities for expensive coaches or high-powered mentors (unless we have the personal financial resources to pay for them ourselves).  We are out here trying to be faithful to the gospel among people who have been discipled either not at all or sporadically by our predecessors.  We do not “move up the ladder” in our careers; we can look forward to being moved every 3 or 4 years to a similar small church, to starting the cycle all over again.  Our reality is that the churches we serve might do a little better if we are a good fit and a good pastor and preacher, but the long slow decline of congregations and the burnout of pastors will continue if we continue to place pastors in these situations.  

Please note: I am blessed in my own congregation with a number of leaders who are more interested in building the kingdom than in preserving the past. I love and respect those layfolk who are trying to challenge the system and who serve faithfully with grace and humility.  But I think the system is fundamentally flawed. In this post I have tried simply to state what I see as the realities of life for small church pastors.  In future posts I will address where I think the flaws are that allow for this reality.  And down the road I hope that I, together with those who read and respond to this blog, will be able to think deeply about new ways of doing ministry that address these flaws.  May the Holy Spirit guide us as we continue to answer the call to serve.

Why I am putting my name in for GC Delegate - a repost from my other blog

I have resisted putting my name on the list of those interested in being a General Conference delegate for a variety of reasons, but since I have now done so, I feel that I need to be clear about what is important to me. On, Steve Wende suggests that we need to look at the beliefs of those going to GC: The official delegate form for the NTC did not have a place to let people know what doctrinal position one holds. Therefore, I have pointed that form to this blog.

Here is what I think important for a GC delegate:
Committed to the orthodox faith as found in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed, including the primacy of Christ!
Passionate about making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Passionate about the local church.
Preaches and teaches the orthodox faith and lives explicitly under the reign of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Has a high view of the authority of the bible.
Committed to a life of healthiness and holiness.
Can and does think theologically.

These are the things to which I am committed. There are also certain issues that I think are critically important. I listed some of those on the form, but here is a more complete list:

1. Reduction in the General Boards and Agencies - they are too big and too far removed from the realities of the local church.

2. Guaranteed appointment system - We don't really have a "guarantee" of appointments. The language says that we "shall" be appointed if we are in good standing. Paragraph 334.2 lays out the requirements to remain in good standing. Paragraph 334.3 provides for a process if effectiveness is questioned. Paragraph 334.4 tells what happens if a clergy is found to be ineffective. We do not need new procedures, and we certainly do not need for the Bishops and Cabinet to have even more power - in particular the power to decide without a process that a pastor does not deserve an appointment. We need to follow the procedures that we have, which both protect the pastor from unjust removal and allow the Bishop to remove ineffective pastors.

3. Continued strength of the worldwide church not watered down by a regional system. Many of us look to Africa to provide leadership in the growth of the United Methodist Church. This is an area of the world where the Spirit is moving; putting legislative barriers between the US and other parts of the world is a poor idea.

4. Seminaries and University Senate. At least one of our seminaries (Claremont School of Theology) is now training clergy/leaders in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. as well as United Methodist Clergy. They are more interested in meeting "the cultural and religious demands of a world in transition" (from their website) than in lifting up the uniqueness and primacy of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

5. Belief in and teaching of the uniqueness and primacy of Christ - This should be required teaching at all approved United Methodist Seminaries and should be required for United Methodist clergy to remain in good standing.

6. Authority of Scripture. Placing ourselves under the authority of Scripture does not mean taking the bible as "inerrant" or "literal." But we need a more thoroughgoing understanding of the authority of scripture for our theology and our life together as a community of faith. (If you wish to hear if I preach what I espouse, then please see my congregation's website:

7. A commitment to a life of holiness. Yes, for me that means celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. The homosexual agenda has not gone away. I have searched and studied the scriptures, listened to those in the LGBT world and prayed deeply about this issue. I believe that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and thus while we welcome all persons of whatever sexual orientation as members of our community of faith, that we should not either preside over homosexual unions in the church or allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God and it is incumbent upon those of us who hold these views to do so with great humility and the knowledge that this causes pain to our brothers and sisters of different sexual orientation. I am burdened by the pain, but I cannot, with integrity hold a different point of view.

8. The process of Ordination. I too believe that we need younger clergy in the UMC. However, that will be difficult with the torturous path now required for ordination. As one who spent 16 years in the process, I can assure all that the process is not a good one and that we are greatly confused about the meaning of ordination. We need to completely rethink ordination, how we prepare people for ministry and how we maintain effectiveness in ministry.

9. We need a passion for young people. My heart aches for the young adults who are leaving the church in droves and for those of us who are left bereft of their presence. We absolutely must go to them in love and genuine friendship, since they have decided not to come to us. Our focus on mission and ministry with the poor and our concern with global health might help us connect. But we need to think more critically about how our church structures are helping or hindering our engagement with young adults.

Finally, we must recognize that superficial changes in our structures, while perhaps helpful, will not, in the end, save us. Only a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a revival of our commitment to Christ will do that. If we are not spending the majority of our time preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, then we are not sharing the kingdom. If we are guided more by "best practices" than by the Holy Spirit, then we will be a well-run - and dying - church.

Being a small time pastor at a small United Methodist church, I do not expect to go to General or Jurisdictional Conference as a member of the delegation. However, I will go, one way or another, because I feel it is important to know what the General church is doing.

There are many fine people and leaders who are seeking your vote. Please engage with them and discover what grounds them in the faith and what will ground their decisions at General Conference. May God have mercy upon us as we enter into this time of coming together as the whole United Methodist Church.

Pastor Martha