Plainfield, VT, sits along a stretch of road called Route 2. While small and typical for a Vermont village, it boasts of great influence for this specific area. Goddard College, the alma mater for William H. Macy and the fruition of Unitarian/Transcendentalist educational ideals has its main campus on the edge of Plainfield. Tuesday evenings in the summertime becomes a vibrant nightlife for Plainfield. You can walk through the downtown streets, crisscrossing the Winooski River to the sounds of rushing water, a guitarist playing along the rock walls that line the street and yoga participants crossing the street to enjoy the Tuesday pizza special at Positive Pie.
I grew up in a church that did not believe in denominations. We were our own independent church separate from any other group. Though I appreciate the great spiritual training I got in that church, I regret the fact that we did not fellowship with a network of other churches in our area. I believe my spiritual growth was stunted because we were all alone as a church.
The young, exciting, big churches get a lot of good press and are often highlighted for their success. Perhaps rightly so. They have a lot of energy and resources to have an impact in their communities. But what about the small churches like mine -- God's little churches? Many smaller churches are not growing. Some are shrinking. No new members are coming in, and the existing members are slowing down and passing on into heaven. What about churches like mine that don't see 100 or 50 or 25 baptisms a year? Sometimes we may not see even one baptism a year. What about the church that can't boast about numbers? What about the church that doesn't have a "praise team" so they sing hymns out of a hymnal, sometimes being moved to tears? What about the church that has to put off repairs and scrape the budget for funds to plow the parking lot for those 20 faithful people to get safely in the door on a wintry Sunday? What about the church like mine where people serve faithfully in volunteer positions for years or perhaps decades with no break, just because they love the Lord and they love their little church? Very often, the members of these small churches have a deep, abiding faith and are fiercely loyal to the church family and the mission of the church.
Recent surveys on the spiritual landscape in North America reveal both good and bad news. The good news is that the situation for churches is not as bleak as some people thought it would be. The bad news is that there are a lot churches out there that are struggling.
When I became pastor of First Church in Charlestown -- one of the oldest churches in Boston -- in July 2015, a large portion of our community thought that the church was closed, and the building was abandoned. The congregation consisted of about eight older people who had been attending the church for decades. We have grown slowly over the last three years, and we have been blessed to see people begin to grow stronger in their faith in that time. One of the challenges of pastoring a small church is that the church is unable to provide a full-time salary for me, and I am currently bi-vocational.
I often lead workshops for pastors of small churches. I typically start by asking the question: “What keeps small churches and churches led by bi-vocational pastors from being as Kingdom-minded as they would like to be?” Great discussions follow about the challenges small congregations face. Inevitably, the issue of pastoral burnout becomes a key part of the discussion. Pastors of small churches are already doing so much, and they just can’t add anything else to their agenda without burning out. So therefore, they never get to do all the Kingdom ministry they want to.