Many PC(USA) congregations are considered “family-sized.” According to Alice Mann’s work on congregation sizes, a “family” congregation has up to 50 adults in worship, is organized around matriarchs and/or patriarchs, may have a part-time pastor and operates like an extended family. These churches have the strengths and weaknesses of families. Positively, everyone knows everyone. Negatively, everyone knows everyone else’s business! Family-sized congregations can be resistant to growth because current members treasure the benefits of their smaller size. Pastors in these congregations are not, typically, the most important leader. Leadership is rooted in members with the assent of the matriarch/patriarch. In this article, we examine two family size congregations in New Covenant Presbytery.
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH — JASPER, TEXAS
The congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Jasper, Texas, is called to help its community move beyond its heritage of strife and toward a shared life where prejudice and distrust do not drive the discourse, but one where peace and justice is the norm promoted for all. To that end, the congregation has launched an initiative to become a missional church aimed at healing the divisiveness in this racial hot spot. The traditional rift between blacks and whites is now unfortunately setting the tone for relations with the growing Hispanic population.
Many have heard of Jasper and its history of racial strife: The James Byrd murder several years ago received national notoriety and recently, the city was required to pay nearly a million dollars over the racial firing of an African American police chief. Jasper suffers not only from racial division found in many places, but also from the burden of being known as a place of racial discrimination.
However, Jasper is so much more! The city hopes to build a coalition of the willing who will build bridges across these divisions and also to celebrate the genuine graciousness of many in Jasper.
First Presbyterian Church in Jasper has formed Peace Beyond Understanding (PBU), LLC seeking to actively create a safe space in town to embody the peace of God. Currently in Jasper, what passes for racial peace is simply the absence of open conflict. The congregation desires authentic and genuine connection and community where all are welcome. First Presbyterian Church aims for the peace set out in Philippians 4:7 “ … the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The church is dedicating a half-time professional minister to help identify those ready to move beyond racial mistrust and build a healthy, loving and inclusive community. The congregation sees this as a task of education, community building, motivation and prayerful urging. The members believe that lasting change starts at an interpersonal level as they develop authentic relationships across color lines.
The call of Cyndi Wunder as their new minister was affirmed unanimously by the congregation on November 30, 2014. Wunder said, “I was excited to answer Jasper’s innovative call as a missional church because mission to me is not simply an arm of the church but is church. I do not do church- as-usual, but am inspired by a church that invites change and transformation, that invites the Holy Spirit into our lives. This is where my passion lies and this is my understanding of a missional church.”
The church plans to enable the development of a multicultural and multiracial community where all people will be welcomed with the love of Christ, their identity as children of God will be affirmed and their unique gifts celebrated. First Church currently hosts a Hispanic Pentecostal congregation in their fellowship hall and hopes to continue work to sustain and increase connections and relationships with all people without regard to ethnicity or race.
Interestingly, before the congregation made its plans public, two civic moves were announced. The mayor of Jasper announced the formation of a Race Relations Board and is in the process of filling that board. Further, the mayor has appointed the new police chief to coordinate with the U.S. Justice Department to hold half-day racial sensitivity classes. The members of First Presbyterian Church are convinced that the Spirit is moving in their community and the time is right for this action and have shared their vision with both of them.
The congregation views civil rights as an essential first step. Civil rights leave one “free from” obvious prejudice, abuse and neglect, but can result in not being “free to” live out dreams, have a promising future, move freely with an assumption of integrity, be trusted, etc. It is a dilemma the philosophers call “hovering,” which unfortunately impacts many people for life. The church envisions a Jasper future both “free from” and “free to;” a Jasper where supportive relationships across racial lines at the friends/family/church level are the norm rather than the exception; and a Jasper where justice and peace would free people to fully live the life God intended.
The congregation is soliciting grants and other funding to facilitate the PBU mission. Response thus far has been good but it still seeks financial help for this mission.
WAVERLY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH — OLD WAVERLY, TEXAS
Waverly Presbyterian Church, a classic example of a family-sized congregation, is located in the Texas town of Old Waverly, once an economically vibrant farming community about 70 miles from Houston. In the spring of 1860, six Waverly
citizens met to form the Waverly Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t until 1903 that they were ready to construct their own building. When the Presbytery of Brazos denied their request for funding, two church members financed the construction.
History has not been kind to Old Waverly. The growth of the railroad and the trend away from country life has obliterated the town. Its flourishing stores, two colleges, all of its commerce and many of its inhabitants deserted the community. But the Waverly Presbyterian Church has remained a symbol of faith in the area. In fact, Google searches for Waverly routinely come up with a photo of the congregation’s beautiful building.
The congregation is Scripture-centered with a growing Sunday school. Attendance has risen from 30 to between 35 and 40. The members pride themselves on the fact that children raised in the congregation have become strong, mature Christians.
For over three decades, Waverly Presbyterian Church, Dan Alexander has served as the part- time, tent-making pastor; he also has a full- time job as a teacher. According to member Martha Carol Giese, “the model has worked exceptionally well over the years.” Giese says that the congregation is a “spiritual church that ties the community together, adding a lot of maturity and solidity to the community.”
Giese describes much of the membership as “old settler families” and newer members. From the “settler” group, one member’s grandparents gave the land for the church. Is it any wonder that members describe their congregation as not bending to the trends of the day?
The Waverly area has seen many changes over the past 154 years: “Peace and war, prosperity and adversity — it has known all of them. Only one thing has not changed — the sovereignty of God and the Holy Spirit that has led and inspired this church through the years. Our hope and prayer is that it will always be the House of God where free people can worship according to the dictates of their own hearts.” (Excerpt from “100 year celebration: 1960,” given by Bridges Browder). When asked the primary purpose of Waverly Presbyterian Church, Giese responded, “To be a house of God!”
To learn more about family-size congregations:
In addition to Alice Mann’s writing (“Raising the Roof” is especially helpful), Carl Dudley’s “Unique Dynamics of the Small Church,” while dated, remains a classic because little has changed in the dynamics of family-sized congregations.
HILL KEMP is a ruling elder at Jasper Presbyterian Church. CAROL GIESE is a ruling elder at Waverly Presbyterian Church.