Many small churches are thriving today because they share ministry, mission, and/or leadership with other small churches. Once a model for the rural church, shared ministry is becoming an effective approach for urban and suburban congregations as well.
In late July, a Consultation on Shared Ministry, sponsored by the Synod of the Northeast, Auburn Theological Seminary, and the Mission at the Eastward, was held in Farmington, Maine. It brought together pastors and lay leaders who are engaged in shared ministries along with staff and members from the presbyteries within the bounds of the Synod of the Northeast. Its purpose was “to learn how rural and urban environments are similar and shape congregational cultures and ministries; and to identify viable models of shared (team) ministry in rural and urban settings.”
Mission at the Eastward (MATE), where the conference was held, is one of the oldest shared ministries in the country, serving small, rural communities in West Central Maine. MATE was founded in 1954, and today, is a cooperative parish of eight congregations. Scott Planting serves as coordinator of MATE and as pastor to three of the Presbyterian churches in MATE. This particular parish shares both pastoral leadership and community ministries that include Camp at the Eastward, North Parish Housing Ministry, and a South Africa Partnership.
Another cooperative ministry participating in the consultation was Ministry in the North Country (MINC), an ecumenical shared ministry in northern New York consisting of 26 congregations representing various denominations — Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, and Baptist. MINC was organized in 1989 to serve its larger community. Rachel Roberts, the coordinator of MINC, also serves one of the participating congregations as a commissioned lay pastor. Unlike MATE, MINC does not have a shared pastoral staff team. MINC’s mission is community ministries such as a rural housing rehab program, food and emergency assistance for families in need, and a gardening program.
While historically shared team ministries have emerged and thrived within rural settings, financial, membership, and staffing challenges are pushing more urban churches to explore and develop this model of ministry. One of the newest urban shared ministries is Four Corners of Faith in Port Murray, N.J. Four Corners of Faith was formed out of a conversation among representatives from four small congregations that were members of the Hackenstown Area Presbyterian Churches. These congregations had been struggling to survive and were being served by pulpit supplies and part-time pastoral leadership. After much conversation and exploration, and with the support of the Presbytery of Newton, the four congregations agreed to minister together. Each congregation continues to maintain its own session and building, and a Cabinet, with equal representation from the four congregations, coordinates the shared ministry and mission. A year ago, Four Corners of Faith called Barbara Smith to serve as its pastor. During the past year, two additional part-time clergy have been added to the shared pastoral staff team. Barbara Smith said that the past year has been one of Bible study and discernment for the members of Four Corners to see where and how God is leading them to serve their members and their larger community.
Shared ministries exist in many places across the country. For example, there is the North Coast Presbyterian Parish in California, the Mountain Valley Parish in West Virginia, the Portland Urban Network in Oregon, the Presbyterian Pioneer Parish in northern Minnesota, the Greater Laurens County (South Carolina) Coalition for Christian Action, and the Four Faith Parish in Sullivan County, New York. In other places congregations are exploring the value of shared ministries. For instance, Chicago Presbytery is supporting two clusters of urban congregations in their discernment process, and the Presbytery of Scioto Valley is working with several churches that have captured the vision of shared ministry.
Many smaller membership congregations want to move beyond survival and maintenance. Shared ministry provides an opportunity for them to discern and live out God’s call to serve their members and neighbors with a broader vision and enhanced resources.
If you are interested in exploring this model of ministry and mission, our staff at the Small Church & Community Ministry office of the General Assembly can provide consultation and networking opportunities.
Phil Tom is associate for Small Church & Community Ministry in the Evangelism and church growth division of the General Assembly Council, PC(USA), Louisville, Ky.