My tenure in Texas has given me the opportunity to listen to many pastors, particularly those who lead small congregations in small and remote communities. What I have observed is that pastors who have learned to adapt have a few things in common:
• They love the Word;
• They love people;
• They are passionate about equipping for the mission of the church; and
• They rejoice in the place the call has brought them.
Looking at the list, I know that there are some pastors saying, “This is what all pastors need to have no matter the size.” I would agree. Having served four congregations during my tenure in Texas (two small & two large) if one is to pastor with joy and grace, planting seeds and bearing fruit, this list is not uncommon no matter where one serves. But given the nature and unique character of the small congregation, it is absolutely essential.
THEY LOVE THE WORD
I hear the passion for the Word, across generations. The character of the Word is remarkable. It is true and trustworthy. It is inerrant and infallible. Knowing the Word changes lives. It offers hope, and rest, and freedom. It assures forgiveness and brings health. At a chance encounter in a parking lot with my grandfather—an LCMS pastor, class of 1925—in the summer of 1977, he recited Psalm 1 to me from memory, in Hebrew. That being remarkable in itself, the content of the Psalm is even more to the point. It says in verses 1 and 2: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law, he meditates day and night.”(NASB 1995). I would conclude that the Word was in the forefront of his mind as it is in so many pastors that I know.
THEY LOVE PEOPLE
Pastors of both the large church and the small church certainly love the Word. However, while there is a measure of similarity between the working of the large church and the dynamic of a small church, there is an essential difference. The keyword in the small church is relationships. According to Ken Vaters, (a small church observer) the large church is tuned into processes, systems, and programs. These things are necessary to lead a large group of people. On the other hand, the keys for the small church, according to Vaters, are relationship, history, and culture. This means asking questions about what is important to members. It means listening to stories and laughing with—not at—people. I have observed the pastor who does not love people. The pastor who makes fun of people does not last long or serve well. Much is accomplished in ministry attending and enjoying a birthday party of a member or going to a football game on Friday night or praying at a wedding anniversary celebration. Perhaps one could rationalize more study and reading and sermon prep in place of one-on-one time with families of the congregation but there is wisdom in the lyric of a song that said, “The time you waste for them, makes a friend a friend.” The irony is, the time is not wasted.
THEY ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT EQUIPPING FOR THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Again, Karl Vaters points out that “Over 90% of our churches are under 200, over 80% are under 100.“ (Notes from PSD Online Small Church Conference). This is not unique to our time in history, but this has been the case for the past two millennia, from the very beginning of the church. Typically, it is a small church that we find at the “ends of the earth,” and not a large church. God bless the larger church and the values that they point so many in the church toward. But perhaps the small church is a key element in God’s strategy to go to the nations with the Gospel.
I think of congregations in rural and even remote locations that have joyfully responded to the gospel mission of the church by serving dinner to more than 1,500 in the community at Thanksgiving. I have in mind congregations in West Texas that embraced and support local campus ministry, reaching out to young adults who will go into the world as disciples. Baptisms and confirmations have taken place in those ministries. I think of service projects distributing back-packs for even younger students and regular visitation to nursing homes. I think of individuals who bring a missional presence to thousands through book distribution. The list goes on. Congregations, many times with the leadership of only one or maybe two can create a vision and make a great difference in the lives, not only of the community but of the other members of the congregation as well. The fledgling evangelist work in the Texas District can facilitate those led to such mission work. I know of small congregations that are determined to support church work students financially, knowing that such workers are needed in the church. There is a hunger to be in mission because that is the place of spiritual health, both congregationally and individually.
THE REJOICE IN THE PLACE THE CALL HAS BROUGHT THEM
Members of congregations are proud of their communities. They can also sense the reticence of a pastor when he thinks, if not says, “I’ll be here for maybe three years and then I’ll leave.” Why would anyone follow a leader who is not committed to the place he serves? When I entered into ministry the rule of thumb was that a pastor could not be effective in a congregation until five years had passed. Today I hear that this number is seven years of service before there is a movement toward a shared vision. At the front end, that is a little scary.
Knowing that pastors can be discontent, thinking that the first and best solution to struggles or just restlessness is to move, the answer may be what Paul, while in prison, says in Colossians 1:1 when he writes: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” In other words, while Paul is in prison, under guard, unable to travel, he recognizes that God has called him even in that place. As a result, he says, I am in this place and I rejoice because it is God’s will that I will be here. Love being where you are, or at least be content as Paul says, wherever you are. God may move you on down the road but for now, love your location knowing that you are thereby God’s will. Paul goes on in Colossians to talk about some marvelous things including gratitude and hope and faith. Each of those transcends location.
Whether one is serving a congregation of 12 or 1,200+ in ministry, this list is applicable. From my experience, the Lord knows you, where you are, and simply calls you to rest, serve, and trust in Him. He also knows your future. In the meantime, proclaim the Gospel in all you say and do wherever you are.
By Rev. Steven Misch
Area A – Mission and Ministry Facilitator
Texas District, LCMS