Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: Imagining the Small Church

When I was small my mother always told me good things come in small packages. She was right most of the time! For the past thirteen years I have pastored a small(ish) parish of about fifty adults. At times we got as big as 78 and when I arrived we had about 30 or so. After looking around I found out that we were not unique. More than half the congregations in our country have under 100 souls. Astounding. So many times I compared our parish with the "big steeple" parishes in town; you know, the ones with the fancy stone or brickwork, the large halls and rectories (manses/parsonages), and of course the belltower. 

After a while though I realized that my job as a pastor was not to turn my parish into a "larger, bigger and better" congregation but to love them, care for them, console them, and love them the best that I could. If we grew in numbers, fine. If our collections increased, fine. But I could not loose track of my main job as a shepherd and to love the sheep under my care. 

Unfortunately however most national Church bodies, including seminaries, graduate schools, and denominational boards use the "large parish" model as the "example" for all of us. We are told time and time again that we must "grow" and "expand our budgets" and "have lots of programs." Well, my motto is live and let live. 

For years there have been small parishes, mostly in rural areas but also in suburban ones too, who have done good work. 

I am grateful for Rev. Steve Willis' new book Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Herdon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2012). Willis is the pastor of the Virginia Presbyterian Church in Buchanan, VA. He has pastored small churches for most of his life. 

Don't let the small size of this book distract you from the content inside! Willis writes is a fine down to earth style which is so different than many of the dense theological books written on parish growth, evangelism, and mission. Willis writes as if he were in the room with you, offering advice to pastors sitting around drinking coffee and sharing.

The book is divided into seven chapters: 


Each chapter deals with a certain aspect of small parish life. I especially liked the stories which Willis told as jumping off points in the book which served as illustrations emphasizing his main points. 

One might think that Willis argues that a small parish is "better" than the large "big steeple" parishes across the country, but he doesn't. He argues that national Church bodies need to take a long hard look at how small parishes work since in the future these large steeple parishes will have to re-think their own existence as memberships shift and financial income decreases. In many ways the small parishes are lean and mean! We have little overhead, no mortgages, and no paid staff except for maybe the pastor. Some small parishes don't even have a full time pastor, they might have a lay minister or maybe a pastor who works part or full time outside the congregation. 

I read this book with joy and wanted to underline almost every sentence. Each page I wrote down notes or personal reflections since Willis spoke directly to my situation. For years I was looking for resources which confirmed my own thoughts about pastoring a small congregation. I just wish that he included some additional resources for small parish ministry in the Notes section since many of the ones he mentioned I was already familiar with. 

Imagining the Small Church is a great resource for students currently in pastoral formation in seminaries. Even thought many seminarians will wind up in a medium or large church, the majority will most likely wind up in a smaller congregation which means less resources, income, and benefits. Pastoring a small congregation often means more headaches too since the brunt of the work may fall on the hands of the pastor. But there are plenty of joys too; more connections and relationships with parishioners, more time to learn about life together and share faith and fellowship, and to grow in Christ. 

I hope Willis keeps writing and reflecting on the nature of the small parish. He may feel like a prophet preaching to the wind but there are many out here who need to hear his voice.