The Cross and the Small Congregation

In small congregations, the temptation of the pastor is to flee, to run to a larger, more active congregation, to a more “normal” set of circumstances. We struggle against apathy (both our own and our congregation’s), dwindling numbers (and with that, dwindling finances), and loss of hope for a good future. Those whose churches do not have large endowments and General Savings accounts must live from paycheck to paycheck, and those who do must worry about how much from savings the treasurer has to take each month.

Our theology says that God is found in the cross, in the humble circumstances of this parish, His glory concealed beneath the common forms of bread, wine, and water and our constant fight is to believe this. We must live by faith, because if we lived by sight we would conclude that God had abandoned this town, and these congregations. Every week we must convince ourselves and our members anew that numbers do not matter, that there is no such thing as a small congregation (since we are gathered with angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven), and that what we do really matters.

I’m not saying that pastors in larger congregations are devoid of these challenges, but it simply makes sense that they are more overt in smaller ones. I live for Easter every year, because after a six week stint of 3-4 people showing up to church for midweek services, it takes Easter to reconvert me to the true faith again, to the belief that if Christ has risen, and lives, that there is method to my madness, that there is hope, that my faith is not in vain. Every year at the Festival of our Lord’s Resurrection I breathe a huge sigh of relief, in the knowledge that the resurrection validates the ministry which I am supposed to be carrying out among these sheep of Christ. This has kept me going here for five years, and hopefully more, unless the Lord should call me elsewhere. I try not to hope for this, but the flesh is weak.

Larger congregations have their own crosses. Rather than apathy, pastors must deal with overly-active members who like to sit in the driver’s seat and tell the pastor how to run the church. There are more weddings, more funerals, more opportunities to make mistakes, more opportunities to offend the people, more sheep to tend. There are more meetings, which means less time for boredom, but also less time for family and for study. These are no less crosses than those of a pastor in a smaller congregation. Just a different nature.

One thing I have been thankful for these past five years is the time that I have been able to spend at home with my wife and children. I probably have had more time with them than most men have with their families, even pastors. One thing I am ashamed of is that with all the time on my hands that I have had due to the minimal responsibilities of the congregations, is that I have not been more studious. I feel that I have wasted more time than I have used productively. Because I have more time than pastors in larger congregations, I feel like I should be able to do more for those who are committed to my pastoral care, and no doubt I have failed there as well.

Frankly, it is hard to ignore the gnawing sense of failure that seems never to go away. If the parable of the talents is any commentary on the work of the Holy Ministry (which I fear that it is), then I feel like the one who buried his talent in the dirt, knowing that the Master was a cruel man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he has not scattered. Christ has entrusted me with much, but I fear it has yielded little (BTW, has anyone ever considered that the talents are actually Christians, who have been entrusted to Christ’s called servants? Christians are seen as treasures elsewhere in the Gospel. And in the New Testament ministers will be called to account for the souls with which they were entrusted. Hmmm…).

All is not bleak though. Since I have been here both congregations have increased their frequency of Holy Communion to every Sunday. Services have been conducted with dignity and reverence. The Word of God has been taught faithfully through sermons, Bible studies, and visits. I think that I have a lot to learn about how to put into practice the Office of the Keys in individual situations, however, particularly the binding key. Children have been baptized. Sinners have been absolved. Hungry souls have been fed with the true Manna from heaven. The light of the Gospel has shone brightly from the altar, the pulpit, and the font, even though it appears that few have seen this light and run to it for salvation.

May God deliver us from the temptation to believe that smaller congregations deserve less than larger ones. May He ever give us faith to cling to His promises, especially when He says: “Wherever two or three of you are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of you.” Lord, have mercy upon us.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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7 Responses to The Cross and the Small Congregation

  1. Rev. Eric J Brown says:

    These thoughts off negativity seem to come even more quickly when dealing with Synodical officials and policies. Small is bad – who wants just a “maintainace” ministry?

    The people at my Church who need one.

    The hardest part for me here is convincing some folks in the congregation, who remember the glory days before their town was dying and all their kids were moving away – convincing people that if we don’t trebble our size it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or we are not doing what we should be doing.

    I’m glad I’m at a small congregation – I do work my kiester off – at least when I don’t have mono – and they are moving, they are doing better than when I got here. There are plenty of small congregations – and they are valuable too. 2 or 3 – not 2 or 3hundred.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Very insightful post, Pastor Beisel. You ought to shape it up a little and submit it to one of our synodical publications. It might be helpful to many pastors who serve in similar circumstances to have the opportunity to read these reflections.

    I’m sure you are aware of the fact that the SP invites pastors of large and growing congregations to a special dinner to recognize their work. I’ve been tempted to write a letter to Synodical HQ to suggest the President consider inviting faithful pastors of “small,” struggling congregations to a special presidential dinner and celebrate the work that is being done in such congregations under trying circumstances with no pats on the back other than the One that counts. I think that would be a more fruitful use of presidential kudos. Of course, that is just my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions…

    Having served in a tiny congregation, you have no idea how much respect I have for pastors like you who labor so faithfully in circumstances in which you find yourself.

    Rev. Tom Fast

  3. Lawrence says:

    May God deliver us from the temptation to believe that smaller congregations deserve less than larger ones.

    But this is little different than the temptation to believe that larger congregations deserve more.

    I wonder, wat is the percentage of apathy in larger congregations as compared to smaller congregations?

    Is it that smaller means more problems, or are the problems just more aparent?

  4. wicked miles says:

    I downsized to two(!) smaller congregations.

    A couple of things I have discovered.

    + The congregations had a Messiah-sized expectation of me. I was to restore the Kingdom to Israel. I couldn’t do it.

    + I rediscovered the proverb, “A few things done well”

    + The half-life of ideas/programs is shorter than in larger congregations.

    Pete

  5. wicked miles says:

    And another thing.

    I HATE the mantra, “all we have is older people” As if going to a church dominated by those with a few years under their feet and a bit of snow on top is a disgrace. The idolatry of youth is still idolatry.

    And another thing.

    It seems. I’m not speaking as the Pope, but it just seems that members of small congregations can move away and join larger congregations easier than the opposite. It seems like some have a hard time down-sizing, for whatever reason; choirs are smaller, no preschool, smaller youth groups…etc

    Pete

    (yep I got a new handle, I was bad ice because I fell through the ice, now the miles are just wicked)

  6. wicked miles says:

    When those with a few years under their feet and a bit of snow on top repeat the mantra, “we don’t have any young people” it is because their eye is on the future and they have a bit of sadness because they love their church-and want it to last for a looong time. I understand that.

    But I think that we should get churches to see themselves like Christ sees them; A holy beautiful bride, without blemish or spot. And right now the world might think that she’s not much…but you just wait till the last day….then they’ll see…then no one will miss her beauty…not one.

    Pete

    Feeling verbose today. I should be saving the words for a sermon.

  7. Pastor Beisel says:

    I’m right there with you Pete. It’s a shame that congregations that have an older membership are seen as somehow “lesser” than those with a younger, more “vibrant” population.

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