Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Itty Bitty: CC responds to the eclectic cleric

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.


The Eclectic Cleric said...

Great Response! You don't entirely miss the point, but you don't exactly get it either. One of the difficulties of carrying on a conversation like this in multiple forums is that not all of the participants get to hear all of the contributions. My post was originally a response to a much longer thread on this topic in the UUMA-chat, which I cross-posted to my blog because I'm basically a lazy enough blogger as it is, and felt it deserved a little wider audience.

Among the ministers, several have attempted to distinguish between the issues of "size" and quality or excellence. There is a difference between being good (or bad) at what you are (a small church), and being dismissed as inferior simply because you're not something else (a larger church).

Which still leaves in place the most urgent question: how do we best help small churches become more excellent?

Obviously, as a minister myself I like to believe that what I do is important, valuable, and worthwhile. And yes, the issue of leadership is CRUCIAL. But I've known (and worked effectively with) many superb, visionary LAY leaders in small churches; and I also know that simply because someone has jumped through all the hoops and acheived ordination does not automatically make them a good leader (much less a good preacher).

Finally, I've been doing this work long enough to harbor very few "romantic" notions about churches of any size. But for me, the "performance" aspect of the large church experience ultimately seems a little hollow, while the authenticity of caring about Myrtle's hurt feelings feels a little closer to what church SHOULD be about. That's not to say that feelings won't be hurt -- the Church is an institution which routinely breaks our hearts because it aspires to be so much, and unavoidably disappoints. And one of the most heartbreaking things about serving small churches is that you are compelled to take the disappointments personally. In the large church people simply disappear, and we never see or hear from them again.

Lilylou said...

CC, you may not have hit EC's nail on the head, but you sure hit an important one. Ministry is (IMHO) critical for small congregations to get past that sense of "let's use everyone in the congregation and community as free speakers on their pet topics, so we can say we are doing church."

The Fellowship movement of the 50's created a lot of small churches of which some are still thriving and others "sitting on the franchise", as one wag has put it. The most effective ones grew enough that they could bring a minister in, at least parttime. That's what happened at Vashon.

However, the minister who comes into that situation faces some challenges-----mostly around shared power, because the small church doesn't know how to do that very well. That's the source of many of the political difficulties. So a minister needs to listen, say yes a lot while shaping the vision and message to reflect a real mission, not just filling the pulpit on Sunday.

I'm grateful to EC, who did that in many ways for my Whidbey congregation years ago. I've done it now for my Vashon folks and their next minister will have a little easier time of it. My first congregation was a little tougher situation (EC was there too, interestingly) but we all survived and grew from that experience.

It's extremely important to hear the point of view of laypersons who have experienced an ineffective small congregation and who want more. Thank you for your strong words.