Small churches have great blessings

September 21, 2021 by Robyn Davis Sekula

What’s great about small churches?

Lots, says Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley, Ministry Relations Officer for the Presbyterian Foundation. Small churches have strengths, she says, and those can be celebrated year-round, and especially during seasons of stewardship emphasis.

“In a small church, you have the sense that we are a big family, or a tribe,” Johns-Kelley says. “There is a sense of intimacy and accountability. It is intensely relational and there is a genuine caring for each other. Small churches are the places where everybody knows your name.”

Small churches are now the majority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Forty percent of congregations have a membership of 50 or fewer persons, and 19 percent of congregations have 25 or fewer members, she says.

Johns-Kelley’s presentation was part of Stewardship Kaleidoscope, an annual conference dedicated to church stewardship, giving and finances. This year’s conference was a hybrid event, with the in-person portions held in the Cincinnati area Sept. 13 to 15.

Focusing on vision and mission

Small churches sometimes overlook their strengths, Johns-Kelley says, and focusing on how the church improves the world around them helps a congregation to define what matters. One key question, “What would the community miss if your church was no longer there?” is a place to start, she says.

This can be a mission specialty, including a food pantry, a partnership with a local school, an international mission partnership, or even simply lending your building for local community meetings.

Your members need to see that the church is doing meaningful ministry to feel called to support the church in different ways, Johns-Kelley says. Think of it as a three-legged stool, in which members give time, talent and resources. This is particularly true in a small congregation when members pitch in to do a variety of volunteer tasks.

Charles Barton, who was attending the workshop, says he would add a fourth leg to the stool: influence. “That’s a great one to add,” Johns-Kelley says. “How often do we talk about our sports teams that we love or other things we support, but we don’t talk about our church? We don’t invite people to church like we did years ago.”

Small churches during COVID

During COVID, many small congregations were still able to meet because they were below the state threshold for meeting or event size, Johns-Kelley says, and that’s important because worship is the central defining event in the life of a small church. “It really is your weekly family reunion,” Johns-Kelley says.

Johns-Kelley notes that her father, a retired pastor serving a church 50 miles away, had refused to stop doing worship in person in favor of Zoom the first week the country was shutdown due to Covid until a week later when a funeral director stopped doing funerals in person. He decided that he was ready to try Zoom worship, and Johns-Kelley was right by his side ready to help.

One Sunday, the church had technology issues and couldn’t get worship on Zoom started on time. But the members of the congregation kept trying. “We did worship 20 minutes late, and we didn’t lose anybody,” she recalls. “They stuck with it.”

Anecdotes like this showcase one of the strong suits of small churches: they have a high level of commitment, and they are “hardy and tough,” Johns-Kelley says.

Transparency is key

In small congregations, it is not uncommon for two or three families to provide 50 to 60 percent of the budget, Johns-Kelley says, which makes transparency all the more important. Pastors should know how much members of the congregation give so that they can be prepared. A couple of elders ought to know too so one person is not carrying the burden of that information alone.

“As pastors, we are trusted with all kinds of information,” Johns-Kelley says. “We know who has cancer, who has AIDS, where there has been infidelity,  who has been in jail and whose kids are in jail. We are trusted that we will treat all of that information with pastoral confidence and appropriately.”

And pastors can treat stewardship and giving information with respect, Johns-Kelley says. “Pastors, you can handle this information appropriately,” Johns-Kelley says. “Elders, your pastors are going to treat people appropriately. If you have pastors who don’t, they are already doing that based on a guess.”

If pastors know giving amounts, they can prepare for the future. If the members who are the largest supporters of the congregation are in their 90s, for example, a pastor can encourage them to endow their pledge or consider another legacy gift as a witness to their faith after their lifetime.   A pastor can also prioritize cultivating generosity in younger generations to ensure the church’s future.

Also, giving patterns can point the way to pastoral concerns, Johns-Kelley says.

Two stories helped support this idea. In one church, a faithful, weekly giver stopped giving, and after the third week, an elder from the stewardship team volunteered to check on her. They learned she had stage four breast cancer and were able to pray with her and support her. Her decision to stop giving indicated a larger problem that needed pastoral support, which is often the case.

A member of the audience shared that a family came to the church office to ask to move their membership. When the pastor inquired why, they indicated they had stopped giving but no one had asked them if they were OK or why they had stopped giving.

At the very least, pastors should know if someone who usually gives stops giving, or if someone makes an unusual gift. “Something is going on in their life,” Johns-Kelley says. “You can be there for them pastorally without asking them ‘tell me about this money.’”

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing for the Presbyterian Foundation. She is a ruling elder in the PC(USA). You can reach her at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.

For full coverage of Stewardship Kaleidoscope 2021, click here.