Risley’s thin, plain-spoken book is a solid addition to the genre. It comes not a moment too soon: According to the book, the number of churches in the PC(USA) with 100 members or less grew 19 percent between 1999 and 2007. This trend is sure to continue.
Risley’s book is divided into three sections, describing what a small church is like, what it does and who the pastor is in the midst of it. Risley, a minister in the PC(USA), strikes a good balance of high-level principles with specific examples. Her discussion of the “family” dynamics, integrating of newcomers and managing conflict were all on point.
Not all of the ideas translate everywhere. Risley describes well the lack of structure in small-church ministry: “Other than Sundays, which come around regularly, and the seasons of the church year, there is no obvious way to choose what to do next at any given moment.” She then notes her difficulty in “getting ahead” on worship planning. For me, the ability to begin planning worship weeks or even months in advance (planning sermon series, liturgy, creative worship elements) is one of the greatest gifts that the small church’s lack of structure provides. Perhaps the book would have been deepened by surveying other small-church pastors for their perspectives.
Risley, who lived near a church she served, would “open” the building every evening from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Members and others in the community would drive by, see the lights on, and know that the pastor was available for consultation. This is a charming idea, but I wonder how many pastors are able to implement it. Many of us live far from our churches, or have small children at home who need us during this “witching hour.” Others live in urban or suburban areas with a church membership that is geographically dispersed. While face-to-face interaction will always be the gold standard, many pastors are doing more and more ministry through e-mail, Facebook and even texting.
One of the tensions I feel as a pastor of a small church is that, yes, we are called to the preaching and teaching, caring and burying, but we are also called to be community organizers, visionary leaders, technological communicators and more. It is especially difficult to manage these multivalent tasks when many of us serve part-time — an economic reality in many small churches.
Risley tells the story of a pastor who lost the trust of a couple in the congregation when he miscalculated a pastoral need. The pastor spent extensive time with them on the phone, but was completely exhausted after a long and demanding day, so he did not go and visit right away. The couple concluded the pastor did not care about them. I recognize the truth in this example. Who can hope to measure up? Risley does not provide easy answers, but her down-to-earth style makes this book a good companion in the midst of the questions.
MARYANN MCKIBBEN DANA is a writer and the pastor of the Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Va.