Every year, since I have been attending sessions of Annual Conferences (over 30 years now) I have heard some speech regarding how the small churches are not being treated fairly and the big churches have it so much better. Usually the topic has something to do with the cost of keeping a full time pastor. This year it struck me, perhaps for the first time (which shows how slow I am) that the very framing of the question misses the real issue.
Somehow most of us in the church have come to believe that the goal of smaller congregations is to have their “own” full time pastor. The sign of success and health became supporting a full time pastor. Tied to this belief is a second belief that if the church has a full time pastor then she or he will grow the church and take care of the ministry needs of the congregation.
Now as a district superintendent I have witnessed what happens when a church tries to support far more pastoral ministry than they can afford. The church ends up spending most of its time struggling to raise the needed dollars and less time on ministry, fellowship, evangelism and mission. When the pastor, sustained by these heroic efforts, does not provide the desired growth and stability, the congregation becomes disheartened, frustrated and angry. Often there is a sense of failure on the part of the congregation and the pastor. Sometimes it feels like we cast around for the perfect match of pastor and congregation which will make this formula work. This rarely happens because the formula is flawed.
I believe we need to look at this from a different angle. Our problem isn’t that the cost of supporting a pastor is too high. The truth is, at the current levels of financial support, a congregation needs a minimum of 120 persons in worship to support a full time pastor. We do not have enough people in most of our churches to support full time pastoral ministry. Our answer to the problem is not simply to shift ministry costs to other congregations. It is to change our understanding of what success means for a local church.
The model of the pastor as the person who does the ministry of the church simply does not work in most of our churches. In fact, I think it is harmful to the growth of disciples for Jesus Christ within our congregations. Rather than the church empowering one person to do its ministry, let the church, with the help of its pastoral leadership empower its members to be in ministry to the community, the world and each other.
This is a dramatic shift in our thought processes and our values. It recognizes our goal as making disciples for the transformation of the world, not growing congregations large enough to support full time pastors. It honors the ministry of all believers. It measures the health and vitality of a church by the lives changed not simply the pastors supported. It calls for a different focus by pastors as they become the leaders responsible to help equip, nurture and send out new and renewed disciples.
I hope to live long enough to witness the session of annual conference when small versus big is not even mentioned. I dream for a time when we wrestle how to deploy in ministry to the world an over abundance of enthusiastic, committed disciples of Jesus. I imagine at the same time we will struggle to figure out the best ways to use all the extra money we’ve receive as well.
Maybe I’m a dreamer. I do dream of that new heaven and new earth, the Kingdom of God Christ invites us to participate in now and into eternity.
Won’t you dream the dreams of God with me?