Editor’s Note: Harry Hassall, retired pastor and resident of Franklin, Tenn., has spearheaded the development of the Wee Kirk Conference ministry program that has been operating for nearly 30 years. Outlook editor Jack Haberer recently sat down with Mr. Hassall to talk about the support of wee kirks.
JH: When I met you about 20 years ago, you were serving as associate pastor in one of the largest churches in the PC(USA). Yet you have a heart for wee kirks. Tell us about that.
HH: Before going to Dallas, I had served 16 small churches, beginning with [the third week of] my first year at Centre College in Kentucky. … That particular month I started working in McDonald Center in what was called the Knobs — a patch of bad land in the beautiful blue grass area of central Kentucky. The people who lived there were poverty-stricken, … doing subsistence farming, and suddenly this city boy — I did grow up in Nashville, in a middle-size church of 500 or 600 … found myself in a group of 20 people out in the country, hardly able to scratch a living. Through that experience I became a Knobby, that is, I began to see life from the perspective of a person who did not have adequate sources of income and living nor of church life.
From that point on I served other churches wherever I was. Even at Highland Park, I served two small churches utilizing two interns and my own self to minister and care for the people there. It’s just been a part of me.
JH: You’ve done some more in retirement as well.
HH: That’s right. Upon my retirement, I was recovering from colon cancer surgery, and after a year of recovery, I returned to two very small churches — who had almost nothing — south of Franklin, Tenn., two churches I had served during my first year at Louisville Seminary, and helped those churches grow to the place where they are now … seeking a fulltime minister.
JH: How are you defining “wee kirk”?
HH: Wee kirk, by our definition, is essentially a church of 125 members or less. That often translates to 100 members or less in worship. We in the Wee Kirk Conference ministry allow persons from churches of up to 200 to come and participate as long as they know that the food, the spiritual food, and the material, the emphasis will be put on shelves one and two, not three and four. By analogy, shelf one is the lowest one, a family church. Shelf two is the pastoral church. Shelves three, four, etc., are programmatic churches. We do not seek to minister to programmatic churches in this ministry.
JH: The first wee kirk conference was held more than 25 years ago. How did that come about?
HH: … I had been asked by the General Assembly of the southern church to serve on a planning team for a small church conference, a new ministry to be held in Montreat in 1976. We had a wonderful planning team; we had tremendous conferences, and our attendance in that first year was a full 300, but by the third year it had dropped to 75. I was convinced that it had dropped because we were bringing in speakers and putting emphases on how to do a massive programmatic church. We were simply putting the food, so to speak, out of reach of the people. And after the third year, the Assembly said it was not worth it. They cancelled it.
So I came home back to middle Tennessee, where I was working both as the executive secretary of Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians and also was the installed pastor of three very small churches. When I went to those churches they had a membership of eight, eight, and twenty, and when I left six years later, they had memberships of 20, 21, and 76. So they all were growing, and I got together some pastors of other small churches in middle Tennessee. We invited people from east and west Tennessee and had a great conference at Henry Horton State Park with 44 ministers. We felt like we had learned so much. We were teaching ourselves. We decided to go to Montreat the next year. I raised the money. I had somebody else to be the M.C. Somebody else with a Scottish background gave us the name, “Wee Kirk.” (We) had a full 300 wee kirk pastors that first year — spouses and laity were not included at that time. We charged something like $25 apiece. And we raised all the rest of the money.
JH: So that conference has been repeated annually, and others have been added to it over the years since then.
HH: Right. It will be having its 28th conference this coming October, and we now have eight additional regional conferences along with two more on the drawing board.
JH: And where are those other conferences held?
HH: We have a conference in the Idaho area for the synod of Alaska-Northwest. We have one in California, one in the Rockies that rotates annually from Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico and back (the only rotating conference we have). We have one in the Great Plains, at Sioux Falls, S.D., one for the southwest, including Texas and Oklahoma. Montreat takes care of the southeast; north central is in Indiana. We have one for eastern Ohio, Michigan, all of Pennsylvania and western N.Y., right out of Pittsburgh, and we have one in Jiminy Peak, Mass., for eastern N.Y., New England, and N.J.
JH: I understand you have one developing in Puerto Rico.
HH: That is our hope and our dream. That would be one in the Spanish language and it would have international implications in that our hope and dream would be that we could get wee kirk practitioners, both lay and clergy, from other Spanish-speaking areas, in the Caribbean, from Central America, South America, etc.
… I [also] dream of ways in which wee kirk leaders from Thailand, or the Congo or Russia, or Japan or Korea can come to America and itinerate among the Wee Kirk conferences, teaching us what they have learned and, in turn, we could teach them things we have learned. It might have to take a translator, but it can be done.
JH: The Wee Kirk conferences are sponsored by several partners. Tell us about that.
HH: The core sponsor is Presbyterians for Renewal, and that is the group that provides the general direction — though it is an apolitical direction — of meeting the spiritual needs of persons irrespective of where they are on the political spectrum. Our partners over time have developed to be the General Assembly Council. Through its small church ministry unit … we have invited several of the synods to participate as equal partners; five currently do.
JH: Wee kirks, the churches themselves, are having more and more difficulty finding the funds to pay fulltime pastors. Some have part-time; some have yoked parishes; some are utilizing commissioned lay pastors. What are your thoughts?
HH: I think that is the way it has to go when the price of a seminary trained minister is so expensive. Many of our churches simply do not have the resources to pay a full-time resident pastor. One of the best things that’s happened has been the Presbyterian adoption of the concept of the CLP. And we’re also in many places using healthy, retired ministers who still want to do more than just preach to serve the many small churches.
JH: What is your hope for Wee Kirk conferences?
HH: The purpose of our conferences is not just to have a feel-good moment.
Our first purpose is for each person who comes to have an opportunity to see … Christian faith through revised, renewed eyes and can knock some of the barnacles off the ship of their faith.
The second purpose is to help people gain self-esteem. We have many people who come to our conferences — lay, clergy, and CLP — who really feel that they aren’t making any progress, that they maybe just don’t count. Our goal is to help them to see that in Christ there is no second-class citizen. In Jesus Christ, if we are doing his work then we are a part of a winning team.
Just this last week I was visiting over the phone with a CLP in a tiny village on the back side of California, that’s the part near Nevada. She confided in me that if she did not have the opportunity for the annual trek to the Mt. Hermon, California, Wee Kirk Conference, for revitalizing and renewing of her soul, she said she would not be able to continue her witness in her county. … My conviction and most of the Wee Kirk leadership’s conviction is that every county gains great benefit from having a Presbyterian presence, so we want to keep all of those churches moving and going and growing wherever possible.
Another purpose is that we want to give people tools for doing ministry in a better way. What do you do if you want to have a choir, and you do not have a soprano? You still go ahead and have a choir. If you don’t have a pianist, what do you do? One of my friends said, “Well, you get up and read the hymns like the old Psalms, in a responsive reading manner.”
The last purpose is that we want everyone (who) comes to Wee Kirk to know that other Presbyterians cared enough to provide him or her a scholarship. I call that providing everyone a Presbyterian candy bar called “Bit of Honey”– just a bit of honey to know that there are Presbyterians who care.
For that reason I try to get the largest churches to participate. We have a method that works, and it’s asking every church, irrespective of size, to consider a dollar per member per year to take care of the spiritual needs of their brothers and sisters whom Jesus might well call “the least of these.” Many of these people in tiny churches don’t have vacations, or if they have vacations they don’t have the money to go anywhere except back to their parents’, so we try to provide a four-star experience in their locale at a two-star price.
… I think that is where the Presbyterian connectional system shines. We DO help one another, and that help is relational rather than just structural.
Harry Hassall is author (with Pat McGeachy) of Presbyterians: People of the Middle Way and of Presbyterians’ Unique Gift: Ordained Lay Elders.