I’m getting to the part of my senior course where I urge ministerial students to start out their ministry in small churches. It is a hard sell. At IWU we have more than 400 students in our religion division. The median church they come from is about 700. Really! Half of my students come from churches larger than 700 and the other half from “smaller” churches under 700. The first thing I have to do is define what I mean by “small church.” I don’t mean a church of 300, but one of 40 or 50 up to 75. Some are astonished at the idea, but I give my ten-minute pep talk anyway to my seniors. Here is what I say are the advantages of small churches:
1. Small churches are forgiving.
You can make a lot of mistakes in most small churches and get away with it. They are used to mistakes and they forgive them easily—especially if you’re young and know how to apologize. On the other hand, if you make three serious mistakes while on a large church staff you’re dead meat.
2. Small churches are grateful.
Most of them think they don’t deserve a bright, energetic young minister right out of college, and they assume they’ll lose you as soon as someone else discovers you. They’ll shower you with appreciation hoping you’ll stay another year. They’ll even praise a bad sermon if you’re a good person. Large church staffs pay better, but they expect you to perform better too. Small churches know they have to pay you affirmation, support and gratitude to keep you around another year.
3. Small churches give you a chance to do everything.
In one year at a small church you’ll get to do 25 times the things you’ll get to do on a large church staff. Weddings, baptisms, funerals, hospital visitation, budgeting, preaching, prayer meetings, leading board meetings, and a hundred other things are normal for a year’s work in a small church. On a large church staff you may serve ten years before you get to do 90% of a minister’s ordinary work. Plus, in a small church your ministry impact is directly measurable—you can see the effect quicker driving a small craft instead of working on a huge aircraft carrier.
4. Small churches are good laboratories for relational ministry.
Students are always telling me they want a different model of the church—“doing life together.” They want church to be a place where people know and love each other, care for each other, pitch in and help each other, and eat together often. This is the ordinary life of a small church. Huge sprawling churches spend lots of their time trying to “program” to recapture these things. You want the church to be like a loving family? Small churches run exactly like an extended family—sometimes they are actually a few related families! So try out your theories there. You complain about big businesslike churches that run more like cold-hearted businesses than the loving people of God—well try a small church where they live and love together. In a small church you can test your commitment to “All ages doing life together in love.” I worry sometimes when young idealistic graduates with relational values go into huge churches that operate more like businesses than families. I get their disillusioned emails as they question the nature of a “real church.” Smaller churches give a chance for these hyper-relational experiments.
5. Small churches will develop you.
Most students want to go to church where “the senior pastor will take time to mentor and develop me.” Forget it, it seldom happens. Large churches use you to do a job. They figure if you want mentoring you ought to pay tuition and go to college where the professors get paid to mentor you. Large churches expect you to “produce.” The laity in small churches, however, will actually take the time to mentor you—they’ll encourage, urge, correct, rebuke and guide you as you grow and develop.
6. Small churches will let you preach.
You might be able to land a job on staff at a church of 1000 or more right out of college—many of our graduates do. But don’t expect to get many chances to preach to those 1000 people. Your audience in a large church will often be about the size of, yeah, a small church. In a small church they’ll be happy if you preach every single Sunday, maybe Sunday nights and in some you can even preach on Prayer Meeting night! In one year you may preach 100-150 times in a small church. If you plan it right you can do a lot of developing while preaching 100 sermons a year. Where do you think great preachers like Steve Deneff learned to preach? Right! He learned while serving in unknown places in a small church.
7. Small churches are generous.
While they pay less than staff positions in larger churches they are more generous otherwise. In small churches people bring you pies, and bushel baskets of apples, and they slip $20 bills into your hand when shaking hands at the door. Small churches have people who will go shopping with you and pay for your new “funeral suit,” and they’ll collect more money for your Christmas gift than any large church board-set Christmas gift policy that comes through in your “payroll check.” Indeed in many small churches they will be happy if you even get a part-time job elsewhere so that combining this with free housing and their salary you may actually even earn more per year than you’d get in a large church.
I admit that some small churches have carnal, self-centered church bosses who can make your life miserable. But large churches have carnal self-centered senior pastors and executive pastors who can make your life miserable. In large churches the senior pastor fires you. In small churches the laity have to get together to fire you—getting fired happens both places. However, here’s the twist: When you get fired in a large church people consider you a failure, but if you get fired from a small church people simply consider the church as carnal! It may not be fair, but it is true! But, keeping from getting fired is not the best reason for starting out in a small church—it is that your chances of surviving the 20s is higher and it is because of some of the things I’ve mentioned above.
So, every semester I urge some of my students start out in their ministry as a “general practitioner” in a small church. I say this every semester, but usually they all ignore it. Few actually take my advice, yet I keep giving it because I keep getting emails from students who got burned out or burned up in large churches and they all tell me to keep telling my students what I’ve been telling them. So I keep doing it.
So what’s your take on this. What advice would you give my students?
(copyright 2007, Keith Drury)
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.