Bob Browning, a lawyer from Pineville, W.Va., could write a book on pastoral leadership in small Presbyterian churches.
He’s trying to help figure out how four congregations in his part of the state will get along when their ordained pastor leaves at the end of this year. For the past several years, the four congregations — with fewer than 50 members apiece — have been sharing the services of one minister and two commissioned lay pastors, working together formally as the Presbyterian Parish of Southern West Virginia, “which we just call the parish,” Browning said.
But now the pastor is leaving, and the congregations are revisiting the question of what arrangement could work best and what’s financially viable.
People in those churches grew up with the idea that “going to church meant hearing a sermon by their pastor who is an ordained minister,” said Browning, who serves as moderator of the parish council. “But we can’t afford that any more.”
A project team of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently issued a report on “hard-to-call” churches — churches that have difficulty finding consistent pastoral leadership. Often, but not exclusively, they’re small, rural, aging congregations that can’t afford a full-time minister.
“Most of our small churches struggle financially,” said Deborah Fortel, one of the authors of the report. “I think about congregations like the one my mother-in-law belongs to, which is in a small town in southern Illinois and is declining in membership and has been for a number of years. It’s mostly older members who are eager to be in ministry, but are weary. They don’t have the energy they did 20 years ago. They’re spending down their endowment in order to continue in ministry. … They’re all bright, and they know there will come a point where they can’t continue to do that. It’s a cloud of heartache on their future for that small congregation and for others like it.”
But that’s not the whole picture. Other hard-to-call settings can be small racial-ethnic congregations or urban churches whose membership has steadily declined.
The PC(USA) is a denomination of small churches. In 2005, nearly half of the congregations — 48 percent, or 5,191 churches — had 100 members or fewer. Less than 10 percent of PC(USA) churches — 9.4 percent, or 1,024 churches — had 500 members or more.
And the number of small congregations in the PC(USA) is increasing — which helps explain why the number of Presbyterian congregations has not dropped significantly in recent years, while the denomination’s membership has.
From 1984 to 2005 — in a little more than two decades — the number of PC(USA) churches with 100 members or fewer jumped by almost 25 percent, from 4,171 to 5,191. From 2002 to 2005, in just three years, the number of small churches (with 100 members or fewer) increased by 187, while the number of big ones (500 members and up) dropped by 100.
So the picture is this: lots of small but valued Presbyterian churches are scattered across the land.
The report concluded the problem was not a dearth of ministers — “contrary to conventional wisdom, we do not have a shortage of ministers in the PC(USA),” it states. But many of these congregations cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor.
Although minimum salaries for pastors vary from presbytery to presbytery, a common rule-of-thumb is that a congregation probably needs an annual budget of at least $100,000 to be able to afford to call a pastor, have money for mission, and take care of “just the basic stuff of keeping the building up,” said Fortel, who also has been the PC(USA)’s associate for mission support working with committees on ministry. (She’s leaving that position to become an interim minister in Indiana.)
“The reality is that small churches can seldom match the compensation offered to pastors by larger congregations,” the report states. “Although the terms of call are not the only factor in a minister or candidate’s decision to accept a call to a particular congregation, financial considerations do play a part. Some candidates and ministers are so burdened with educational debt that they are unable to accept a call to a congregation where the compensation is lower than what they are offered elsewhere.”
If the minister is married, his or her spouse may have a hard time finding work in a rural area — and they may need two incomes to get by. And the study found that nearly half of inquirers and candidates come from large congregations, so they may have little or no experience of living in small-town America or ministering in a rural church.
Living with these realities, some small congregations, like Browning’s, are thinking creatively: trying new arrangements, new combinations, to ensure that the faithful Presbyterians from those small churches have the pastoral leadership they need.
Mitch Coggin, for example, was called more than five years ago to be the pastor of two small churches in rural Indiana: Scipio United Presbyterian, with 89 members, and Grammer Presbyterian, with about 25 members, both just a little southeast of Columbus.
Before he came, Scipio was served for nearly a quarter-century by a commissioned lay pastor who traveled 45 miles each Sunday to get there. Grammer had used temporary supply pastors for years. Coggin — a 50-year-old former hospital chaplain — was the first installed pastor Grammer had had in more than 60 years.
How did they do it?
First, they were willing to share. Coggin started off as a supply pastor to the two churches and, as their relationship grew, they decided to stretch and try to call him full-time. “I thought I would never have enough to do at these places to keep me busy,” he jokes. “Those were famous last words.”
One thing Coggin understands is how important these small congregations are in the lives of their communities — and how much strength such churches can have.
“They’re extremely family-oriented in the sense that you have patriarchs and matriarchs in a good way,” he said. “You have people who grew up in this small community and who have lived there for 60, 70, 80 years, have maintained the same friendships since grade school.”
Many members of small churches say they love being part of a close-knit community, according to Fortel. People say, “I really matter here, people know my name, people know my grandchildren. It’s that intimacy of relationships that is so very important.”
And with fewer people in the congregation, everyone plays an important role in ministry. “Their active participation is really necessary,” Fortel said. “They can’t choose to sit out three or four years and expect the church to get along fine without them.”
Those small churches also can be vital institutions in rural areas where the economy can be rough and many young people have moved away.
In Grammer, only one business remains, Coggin said. The town has no schools, no stores, and a somewhat transient population living in rental housing.
But of the 25 members of the church, probably half are under 50 years old, Coggin said. They’re members of some core families in the area — and “they continue to be committed to the survival of that church” and to reaching out to the surrounding community.
Presbyterians serve on local boards and agencies. The churches provide emergency assistance and periodically host the local bloodmobile drive.
Coggin recounted a conversation one elder had with a local citizen — someone who isn’t Presbyterian, but who always looks for lights on in the church and cars in the parking lot when driving by.
“It’s important to this community that we still exist,” the elder said. “The church gives the message to the community that they are still viable.”
Many congregations that can’t afford a full-time pastor are trying other approaches. For example, the Scipio congregation has an 82-year-old elder who provides pastoral leadership to two other small congregations 30 miles south.
The “hard-to-call” report talks about that too — about how some small congregations may not have an installed minister, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they lack pastoral leadership. Many find other ways.
A March 2006 survey by the PC(USA)’s Research Services office “suggests that the number of congregations without an ongoing relationship with a pastoral leader is probably less than 1,200 and may be as low as 750,” the report states.
Congregations use a variety of approaches to find leadership, including interims, commissioned lay pastors, supply pastors or tentmakers (who may work as farmers or teachers or accountants, then pastor a church on the side).
In some small towns, churches have “yoked” arrangements — for example, one pastor may serve both the Presbyterian and the Lutheran congregations. Some conversations are taking place about working across denominational lines in new church development and in multi-cultural work.
The report praises that kind of creativity — and urges presbyteries and Committees on Ministry to work with small churches to figure out what solution is best.
While it’s important for presbyteries to support small churches, “presbyteries are also called to be good stewards,” the report states. “It is possible for a presbytery to spend an enormous amount of time and energy with a very few very needy congregations — often to very little effect.”
It encourages presbyteries to carefully develop mission strategies, and to “be clear about which congregations need and can probably benefit from an investment of the presbytery’s resources, and which probably cannot.”
The best candidates, it suggests, are those that engage in “intentional transformation” and have the potential to grow both spiritually and numerically, including racial-ethnic churches and immigrant fellowships.
In West Virginia, Browning sees both the economic realities and the spiritual role these small congregations play.
The coal industry is the primary employer, but it no longer hires at the levels it once did. “We do not have a stop light in the county,” he said. “Nor do we have a movie theatre. We have some fast-food places. We do not have a hospital.”
People drive to Bethany, about 40 miles away, to shop or go to a restaurant. But the area is beautiful, clean and safe, with parks, swimming pools and decent schools. Family connections run deep.
One of the four churches in the parish has a big, beautiful sanctuary — constructed in more prosperous times — but typically only a dozen people attend worship.
Not surprisingly, money is scarce.
But Browning suspects that if any of the four churches — Welch, Pineville, Kopperston or Mullens — were to close, the members of those congregations, most of them elderly, would not drive 20 miles or more to go to another Presbyterian church. They’d likely switch to another Protestant church closer to home.
So the parish is thinking, praying, counting the dollars. And every Sunday, faithfully, knowing every face and every name, they gather once again to praise God and give thanks for their blessings.