Small churches are important. And often unnoticed. So I was wonderfully surprised when I was recently asked to give a short training seminar in our Diocese called Staying Faithful in a Small Church. The unique privileges and problems of small churches are often overlooked by those from bigger churches. Subconsciously, bigger means more successful, leaders of larger churches are seen as more skilled therefore asked to do training, speak at events etc…and small churches are the ones that you go to to ‘learn’ before going somewhere ‘proper’.
So, because I was asked, and not because I think I’m an expert or that this is in any way a definitive list, I offer you ten principles for staying faithful in a small church:
- Know your purpose
We are an open community of disciples, who gather to worship God, live the kingdom and serve the world. We are not a closed group of faithful people who maintain a shrine or a museum. We are not yesterday’s church but tomorrow’s church. We are not a social club, a community centre, or just a venue for a toddler group. We must know our primary purpose. To worship, to live, to serve. So do that well.
- No more empty chairs
Shrink the worship space to be realistic. Don’t lie to yourself about how many people are in your church, or are likely to turn up. We used to have 40 chairs for 15 people, so I took 10 away. It felt good when we had to put them back, and then get extra ones. It’s demoralising – and impractical – leading a service with a few people dotted over a large worship space. It may be comfortable for those already there, but it’s not welcoming to newcomers.
- Plan for growth
Being small doesn’t mean you can’t have a big vision. We have one: the transformation of the St Helier estate. But it’s realistic: 1 person at a time. On a small estate church like ours, any more that that and we’d be overwhelmed. But plan for growth – it does need a plan. We got a colouring table ready so that if a child came, they would feel welcome. They did. We’ve now had Sunday School for 3 years with 5-15 kids. Our welcomers used to count their friends in and close the doors, as no-one else was expected. Now they don’t. Grow a sense of expectation. Have a plan.
- No more disheartening singing
We have no musicians in the parish. We used to sing to organ backing tracks, but with just a handful of mostly older ladies and me, the singing was not great! So we soon moved on to singing to MP3’s from a laptop over the PA system. There are hundreds of suitable songs, and it takes a while to get used to but then it feels normal. Let’s face it, it’s no weirder than singing to a pipe organ. Now we sing a blend of traditional and current songs, from Wesley to Rend Collective. It took the pressure off the singing, and makes the congregation feel much fuller! You don’t need to be young to operate it – one of our laptop operators is in her late 70’s. It is much more welcoming to new people when the singing is filled out by the backing tracks.
- Share the jobs
In a small church it is easy for (accidental) monopolies of power to occur, as the same people do the same jobs. So I created the “I’m happy to help list”, in which people could indicate what they wanted to help with, and what they didn’t. I know, it’s a rota. But it worked in sharing out the jobs, involving people who had felt sidelined and giving a break to those who felt they couldn’t stop doing things because nobody else would. It is also a great way of including new people.
- Only do what you can resource
This might apply especially if you’re church is small because it has shrunk. You will need to shrink what you do to match your resources. An important role of a leader is to give permission for things to stop, rather than them being sustained for the sake of it. This can be tough, but we did it with an older ladies group and they appreciated being able to stop gracefully. It’s also important if you are a small church with an enthusiastic vicar who wants to change the world (!). Only do what you can resource. Fragility is ok – you live with it daily in a small church – and don’t take things on to ‘save them’. Let them go.
- Be the vicar to the parish, not chaplain to the congregation
Our church is small, but our parish has 20,000 people in. Be careful not to get drawn in to simply maintaining the church building and it’s faithful inhabitants. When we look outwards, so do (some of) our congregation. Tell them what you do – assemblies, occasional offices, hospitality – and learn what they do and praise it. It was looking outwards that began our detached youth work on the church roof a few years ago, which led to a previously unchurched young person being baptised. It means we might take our eye off the ball close to home, and that people need to realise Sunday isn’t actually the focal point of your week. Gasp.
- Find your allies for change and growth
Listen, pray, and watch. There will be those who surprise you in their acceptance and desire to see things grow. I was lucky in that most of our older ladies were so happy that they had a vicar and people were beginning to come that they forgave my informal style and lack of robes. In fact, because they know I love them, and that I understand the pain they feel at how small their once proud church had become, that they work with me and not against me. All those who were there when we arrived are still coming and 5 years and still the bedrock of service. I am forever grateful to them for that.
- Connect to networks
Small church leadership can be lonely. Find yourself supportive networks, and don’t be ashamed about your need for that. Whether it is chapter, or a the local church leaders breakfast; or maybe it is going to another church every now and then, or to conferences. Don’t be lonely, don’t feel nobody shares your experiences. This applies also to your personal life. Small churches can take over your life as you are the caretaker, the warden, the musician and the youth worker. Take your days off, maintain your hobby, which for me is being part of a running club. This is important! Oh, and read I am the vicar I am, of course.
- Know yourself
Know your strengths and weaknesses, and build a team around yourself that compensate for them. Practically, and theologically. In a small church you might be the only voice they hear. Work out how to give different perspectives, and invite others to lead and preach. Know what makes you feel good, know what you default to when you are tired, and know when to ask for help. And know when to laugh. Nurture you sense of humour! You’ll need it.
I finish with something that was said to me in my interview for this job, and it’s about frailty and failure. The church was very small, and though they felt it was right for a vicar to be placed there, they didn’t know if it was to close the church gracefully, or to be part of growing it. The question I was asked was: if closing a church feels like failure in ministry, can you handle failing? My answer was something along these lines: this is where I feel God is calling me to be. If that leads to the church growing, or to it closing, this is where God has called us, so this is where we come. To do what, we don’t know. Yet. But here we are. That was 5 years ago. Now we intentionally aim for growth. Smaller churches are more likely to grow.
Live with the fragility. Enjoy the intimacy. Serve faithfully. Risk failure. Small churches rock.