Doing more with less: Smaller PC(USA) congregations face new leadership realities 

What are small churches to do? Gregg Brekke explores the challenges facing shrinking congregations and how some pastors and presbyteries are addressing the issue. 

The sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, Lincoln, Illinois.

A recent article in the Presbyterian Outlook resulted in a vibrant online discussion regarding the role and function of pastors in the PC(USA), especially in smaller congregations. Catherine Neelly Burton’s article “The future of the PC(USA) is pastor-less, and that’s OK” begins by saying, “A church doesn’t need to have a pastor to be a church.”

As true as that statement may be organizationally, and as realistic as it is throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it left some people feeling defeated, as if the mere proposition of a pastor-less church is resignation to failure. But Neelly Burton sees it another way.

Of the 30 rural PC(USA) congregations in her Presbytery of Southern Kansas context, just six have installed pastors, six more have other Presbyterian leadership and the remainder are contracting with non-PC(USA) leaders for part-time leadership. Across the PC(USA), 30% of congregations with fewer than 150 members have installed pastoral leadership, so at 20%, the rural congregations in the Presbytery of Southern Kansas are below this average.

Despite this lower rate of installed leadership, Neelly Burton, quoting from the Book of Order (section G-1.0101), says the good news is many congregations are already embracing the statement that “[t]he triune God gives to the congregation all the gifts of the gospel necessary to being the church.” She concludes, “It’s time to offer training and to learn,” in the effort to address this change in congregational structure and the ability to pay installed clergy.

The percentage of churches consider small – those with fewer than 150 members – is increasing across all U.S. denominations. The Faith Communities Today report by the Hartford Institute shows an increase in small congregations with fewer than 100 members in America from 58% in 2015 to 65% in 2020. Similarly, the PC(USA) has seen the percentage of congregations with fewer than 150 members grow from 70.72% in 2015 to 77.8% in 2022. 

Smaller congregations

Recognizing this trend, the Association of Smaller Congregations, a volunteer-led group within the PC(USA) Synod of South Atlantic, was organized in 1987 to begin addressing the needs faced in this segment of the church. Rather than seeing the size of congregations as a limitation, the association holds an annual convention and seeks to encourage smaller congregations by helping them train and facilitate leadership, along with building partnerships between churches and the wider church.

Caroline Dennis, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, serves as the association’s current president. She says the convention provides space for small church leaders to have fellowship with one another, share what’s working for them and build relationships for mutual support. Though it began as a regional effort, the conference is open to attendees across the denomination.

Dennis is especially pleased that the conference brings in national experts and has drawn workshop presenters from the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, the Association of Partners in Christian Education (formerly the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators), the Presbyterian Foundation, the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“We’re able to focus on these particular areas with the lens of the small church,” says Dennis. “We’re excited for this interest … We leave there with ideas and we bring ideas, too. We’re encouraged that when we tell our stories, other people go, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Let’s try that.’”

Programs from the Board of Pensions help new, small and revitalizing congregations provide benefits for their pastoral leadership. She says the board’s Pathways to Renewal – a program that provides reduced-cost benefits to small churches calling newly ordained pastors and candidates – has been used by several congregations in her network. Another program, Ministers Choice, provides benefits to non-installed pastors employed by a congregation at least 20 hours each week.

With a focus on partnerships, Dennis says the Presbyterian Foundation’s Project Regeneration has been a great help to the smaller congregations in her region. There’s no cost to churches for the service in which the Presbyterian Foundation’s Ministry Relations Officers guide congregations in a time of discernment regarding their potential for continued mission and ministry.

“The project helps congregations ask the questions: Are you able to continue to thrive or is it time to rebrand or is it time to close?” she says. “Or is it a time to partner, and some of that partnership work is really where I see a lot of energy and excitement in our congregations.”


Sue Washburn serves as the transitional pastor for Cross Roads Community Presbyterian Church in Leechburg, Pennsylvania, and says, “Every church feels like they’re the only ones who are going through financial challenges. But the reality is it doesn’t matter how big or small the church is.”

A second career pastor, she arrived at Cross Roads in 2022 understanding changes were underway and more would be needed. The large downtown facility supported the population of a once-thriving mill town. When the mill closed and the population of Leechburg shrank, the church membership followed suit.

The church sold its manse. Then Washburn went from full- to part-time. The changes had an impact on the psyche of the congregation.

“I took the job knowing that at some point I would not be working full time,” she says. “And there is a lot of grief that is involved with that. There is a loss of identity and a feeling of failure.”

“You can still do ministry with a part-time pastor. This is not failure. This is just the new thing that God is doing, and you need to figure out how you’re going to participate in it.” — Sue Washburn

Having served small churches with part-time pastors previously helped Washburn guide the congregation to understand “you can still do ministry with a part-time pastor. This is not failure. This is just the new thing that God is doing, and you need to figure out how you’re going to participate in it.”

To that end, church members have taken on responsibilities for financial oversight, building maintenance and other leadership tasks. The church is finalizing details of partnering with a nearby Lutheran church in a similar financial circumstance to share their pastor — providing full-time pay across their duties at both congregations.

“It’s a great way to keep their unique ministries in Leechburg,” says Washburn, noting the existing community meal and clothing closet of the two congregations and the alternative of partnering with a far-away Presbyterian church. “It’s also been a great opportunity for them to learn about each other and to think about how they can partner in ministry.”

Washburn recently accepted the role of interim director of field education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and once the partnership is complete, as early as February this year, will focus more attention on that role. As she prepares to leave, she’s hopeful the Leechburg churches will continue their ministries with new energy.

“[Each congregation] is already having an impact in the community,” she says. “And so we’re now looking at, having one pastor for both congregations, we can serve the community better for Christ.”