In a well-written post about the economics of small churches the Eclectic Cleric writes:
What makes "big" church "real" church? Well, lots of things...but mostly it's the fact that they can pay a (relatively) bigger salary to a "professional" minister. Which brings me to the truly irksome question: is the "real" mission of the church merely to provide clergy with paychecks? And if that's our tacit understanding, it's no wonder our churches aren't growing.
Of course, we all have to eat...and even though there are plenty of people (even in big churches) who would love to muzzle the ox, the laborer is worthy of their hire. Which brings me to the second irksome point: what are we actually doing to provide "value" to our "customers?" And if the very language of that question troubles you as much as it does me, then you are ready to move on to the next level.
OK, I am going to say up front that I am completely in water over my head and I am posting this with serious concerns that I am missing the point entirely. That said, as a layperson, I've come to have very little respect for tiny churches merely on the basis of the ones I have attended and heard about. I think tiny churches without ministers are very easy to romanticize if you've haven't attended one in a very long time, but I have, and what I found wasn't good.
Do I think/know ALL small churches without ministers are provincial and spiritually mediocre? Of course not. But I have seen some that are and I think that poorly-administrated small groups of people tend this way.
From my perspective, the "service" the minister provides most relevant to this discussion is being the guy (or woman) with a real vision of where the church is supposed to go and what it should be and, almost more importantly, keeping the church going in a basic religious direction. Linguistfriend has gone to a tiny church in the midwest for three years and at least TWICE in that time has there been a "sermon" that basically boiled down to somebody trying to sell something to the congregation, once reiki lessons, once a book the speaker had written that he mentioned over and over and was conveniently available for sale after the service. Reiki lesson guy had persuaded the head of the program committee to rent him a room at the church to give his lessons and do free advertising for him in the newsletter and bulletin.
I'm sorry, that just doesn't happen in a church with a minister. Even the worst minister I've ever had would not have let that happen.
Small churches without ministers are SO dependent on the personalities involved and can very quickly turn toxic if the personalities do. Even if the personalities are nice enough, there's the "Myrtle really isn't a very effective membership chair, but she's been doing it for twenty years. Your new ideas sound good, but we would hate to hurt Myrtle's feelings by implementing them" problem.
Preaching well is the best thing a minister can do to attract me to his/her church. That said, we should not be underestimating the job of being the person who can say "Jim, I know you're knowledgable and enthusiastic about environmentally-safe pesticides, and I'm delighted that you're willing to lead a lay service, but I don't think 'Safe Pesticide Sunday' is something we're going to do*. However, with your experience running a landscape company, I think you'd be the perfect guy to head up the building and grounds committee. How 'bout it?"
And anybody who has been reading this blog for any length of time knows that politics in church is a BIG issue with me and I have seen things I haven't liked on this issue from churches of all sizes. But most ministers make at least a small effort to be politically inclusive. Very small churches, in my experience, feel much less obligated to be accepting of those who are different, especially in this way.
FWIW, I have also worked for several small companies and found many of the same sorts of problems there.
*I have never attended a Sunday service that basically boiled down to gardening tips, but I've heard about several of them at small churches.