of the General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley
August 31, 2022
I’ve been thinking about small churches lately. Maybe it’s because of the September 22 webinar presented by our friends at Pneumatrix entitled “Part-Time is Plenty.” I encourage you to attend this free seminar Link Maybe because Leslie Scanlon, writer for Presbyterian Outlook picked up on this story in a recent issue looking at the special challenges and opportunities for small church ministry. Maybe it’s because I had the joy of sitting with our Commissioned Ruler Elders last Saturday for their yearly training. (The training was led by Dr. Mark McCormick, Vice President and Provost of Academic Affairs at Stillman College. Mark is a Hebrew and Old Testament scholar and his overview of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible – was fantastic!! And thank you to Bev Dodson who organized it all!) Our Commissioned Ruling Elders all serve in part-time positions throughout our presbytery and provide invaluable pastoral leadership to our 49 churches with fewer than 100 members – well over half the presbytery! (And of those, 41 have fewer than 50 members.) And maybe it’s because in the last month, I have spoken with three congregations who believe they are now being called to close.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about small membership churches lately. I have the joy of regularly visiting our small churches (though I haven’t made it to all of them…yet). What I see are faithful people who provide spiritual care through worship, excellent preaching and, often, inspiring music! I see lay people who provide pastoral care for one another. I see churches being creative in pastoral leadership – several have developed very effective pastoral rotation models – and making their church building available for outside partners. I see churches who give generously and many of them take part in local food ministries, support the Presbyterian Home for Children, and engage in other local ministries of caring and aid. I see faithfulness and witness.
I also see congregations who have come to the prayerful awareness that it is time to close. I see the pain of that decision, the grief, the sense of loss. And sometimes a sense of failure. Yet all churches, much like human beings, have a life-cycle. Unlike human beings, their life-cycles tend to be longer what with new generations coming up to renew their life. Nonetheless, sometimes, like humans, churches get old and die. It is at that time that what is needed more than anything else is celebration. Celebration of their witness to the gospel through long years and changing times. Through sorrows and joys. Ministering in Christ’s name in the fullness of time as the decades come and go.
So to all you churches that are discovering new ways to connect with and minister to your community, who are taking bold risks to experiment with new ways of being church and forming new relationships and partnerships, who are willing to try new ways to proclaim the timeless good news of God’s love and grace, and to you who have come to the end of your life as you’ve known it, I encourage you to trust the God of dying and rising, the God who is able to do (and is doing) far more than you can think of even imagine. Take heart. For God is faithful and God will do it!
It is a privilege to walk these paths with you.
As ever in prayer,