By Jeff Brumley
Being the sole pastor of small church isn’t for the faint of heart, Baptist ministers say.
Sermon preparation, visiting the sick and balancing the budget can be even more nerve-racking when being performed by a minister serving on a one- or two-person staff.
Pressures can rise even higher, experts say, for those pastors of moderate and progressive Baptist churches who find themselves geographically isolated from like-minded communities and theologically isolated from other Baptists all around them.
“We are kind of out here on an island in the middle of the mountains,” said Jody Griffin, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Spruce Pine, N.C., located about halfway between Asheville and Boone. It’s conservative Baptist territory, he said, “and the furthest right end of it you can get.”
‘Someone’s paying attention’
Denominational leaders and consultants are increasingly taking note of the difficulties faced by churches so small they can afford only one or two staff members — including a jack-of-all-trades minister — or rely on bivocational clergy to shepherd their small flocks.
The Cooperative Baptists Fellowship of North Carolina, as an example, this year has hosted three small-church summits. Congregations with two or fewer staff members, and 150 or less members, were invited, said Rick Jordan, CBFNC’s church resources coordinator.
The gatherings were designed to provide networking and fellowship opportunities and a chance to learn best practices from ministers and lay people from other small churches, Jordan said.
“It was also to let them know that someone was paying attention” to their needs and challenges, Jordan said, adding that many of those who have attended are from congregations of 30 to 75 members.
Jordan said CBFNC also learned just how isolated and financially strapped many of those congregations are. He’s gone away from the events determined to find ways to make CBF’s peer learning groups work for the pastors of these churches.
“I don’t think that’s been modeled for them, yet,” Jordan said. “That’s part of our responsibility, to make them feel less alienated.”
‘Really pinched financially’
The feeling and fact of isolation is one of the most serious challenges facing ministers serving on one- or two-member staffs, Jordan said. It’s exacerbated by being a moderate separated from your peers, he said.
“For the pastors themselves there’s a real feeling of isolation … because they are the CBF church in the county,” Jordan said. “You feel like you are the lone moderate voice” in a community.
“What that means is they don’t have peers close by and they don’t have mentors nearby,” he said.
Another challenge is money and downward spirals in giving generated by aging members and young adults leaving small towns never to return.
“A lot of them are really pinched financially,” Jordan said.
This feeds the isolation because many ministers don’t have enough time or money to drive more than an hour to attend a peer learning group.
“That’s a lot of gas. They just don’t have it,” he said.
For Merianna Harrelson, the isolation that comes with leading a small church has just as much to do with shouldering heavy loads alone.
“Just as incredibly lonely is that there is no one to share the burden with ministerially,” said Harrelson, the bivocational pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship, a 40-member CBF congregation in Lexington, S.C. “When you have eight people in the hospital in one week, that’s when you feel you have no one to share the burden with.”
It’s also felt when decisions need to be made without the input of other clergy, she said.
“You lose the collaboration,” Harrelson said. “I talk to other ministers who dread staff meetings and I laugh and say it would be great to have someone to bounce ideas off of.”
But Harrelson noted that leading very small churches is anything but a big negative. In fact, she said there are many positives that come with being the sole clergy member for a congregation.
“For me, it’s the congregation, where the lay leadership and the participation are so high,” she said.
Because she has a non-church job as part of her bivocational arrangement at Emmanuel, its members understand she must often work and travel at times when other pastors might be available.
“They understand I can’t do it all, which empowers the congregation to be more involved with the life and work of the church,” she said.
That may include having to ask church members to go on hospital or nursing home visits when she is traveling.
Smaller congregations also tend to be more flexible when it comes to trying new things and usually can vote on decisions in a matter of days or weeks, Harrelson said.
‘More humble and gracious’
Griffin said he’s found that some of the challenges associated with leading a small church have corresponding blessings.
It’s the same with being a moderate voice in a theologically conservative environment. For Central Baptist, it’s forced Griffin and the church to build relationships with moderate non-Baptist churches in the area.
“We are ecumenically connected and participate with other denominations in town … like Episcopalians and Methodists and Presbyterians,” Griffin said. “We get together and plan Lenten services and have those in our churches.”
The small church summits this year pointed out another blessing, he said. “It helped me connect with others from smaller congregations, which helps you realize you are not as alone as you might think you are.”
He added that smaller churches are a joy to pastor because they tend to be “more humble and gracious” and not fixated on metrics such as church and tithing growth.
“In my experience they are much more able to enjoy being who they are and not so intensely concerned with what they might look like tomorrow,” Griffin said.