Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The perfectly sized parish. . .

We hear all sorts of things from folks who indicate that too many Protestant congregations are too small to support full-time clergy and are, in essence, dying a slow death.  We hear it from our own Lutheran sources that too many of our LCMS parishes fit that bill and that is the whole point of the deacon program -- to supply with Word and Sacrament ministry those too small for regular ordained clergy.  Our district, like the Synod, has had mega church conferences to bring together the leaders of these mega congregations (though, in reality, ours are a bit smaller than the size usually termed a mega church by evangelical standards).  It is assumed by many in our church body that these folks are the most creative, effective, skilled, and visionary folk in the entire Synod.  If truth would be told, many leaders in our church body seem to think that all the small churches should grow up and be like these big boys.  It is no different than the argument for big box retailers and against the mom and pop stores that once supplied American homes and businesses.  Unless you are of a certain size and offer a certain array of programs, you cannot compete in the religious marketplace of America.  Or so they say...

At the same time, many Roman Catholic parishes have no choice but to become mega congregations.  In my own city of 140K there is ONE Roman Catholic congregation that serves something like 4-4500k families!!!  A priest, a couple of assistants, a couple of deacons, and some lay folks administer a parish that would dwarf many of those we Lutherans call mega congregations.  From them I hear no glory talk about how great it is to be big.  Just the opposite.  Because of the clergy shortage in Rome, they have few options but to build big buildings that seat thousands and run them a couple of times a Sunday just to keep up.  They long for the days when priests knew their people well and parishes were small and stable enough to be more than peripherally involved in the daily lives of their people.

One Roman Catholic blogger put it this way:

I do not know what the perfect size for a parish is. And even if I say a number, vocations to the priesthood are simply going to be a factor. As for me, I have 900 registered families and about 550 on a Sunday morning. For me, this is a perfect number. It is large enough for us to be financially viable, indeed we do very well, money wise. It is also large enough that I can have a fairly diverse cadre of volunteers to accomplish needed tasks. Yet is small enough for one priest to handle and even can get to know many people well. It is small enough too that people know each other well and people are missed when the drift away. But this model cannot be sustained diocesan-wide. We just don’t have enough priests to staff enough parishes at this scale.

I find myself resonating with many of his thoughts.  A parish of 500 on a Sunday morning is about as big as a parish should get and the Pastor know his people and the people know each other.  We have invented all sorts of things to try and compensate for the anonymity that largeness allows.  Small group strategies are merely attempts to turn a mega congregation into a group of small congregations that occupy the same facility at the same address and share the same clergy.

Let me make a few things perfectly clear.  The only reason some of our parishes cannot afford clergy is that they are not tithing, not offering first fruits, and not returning cheerfully from the abundance God has given them.  We are a church of unholy keepers more than holy givers.  Yes, some of our folks are mighty faithful and generous -- God bless them!  But many of them, the majority of them, give token gifts occasionally rather the tithes and offerings joyfully and regularly given proportionately to what God has supplied them.  Yes the cost of clergy is higher than it used to be but the incomes of our folks are also higher (even those who live on "fixed" incomes -- like who doesn't!).  Some honest growth in stewardship would take a number of these congregations off the list.

Second, I am not glorifying bigness.  It is a truth, however, that to be good financial supporters of District and Synod and to be able to support faithful missions and missionaries directly requires resources more than enough to cover the parish operation.  I see it in my own parish.  We are able and delight in supporting missions directly to the tune of about 8% of our total income in addition to about 8% of our total income going to Synod and District (these include a school in Africa, Siberian Lutheran Mission, the local pastoral counseling center, food ministries, Lutheran World Relief, a local mission congregation of our District, etc...).
Some small congregations are also incredibly generous to causes beyond the local need but others are so strapped for funds they think charity begins at home.

Third, as I make my way mid-way through my 21st year here, I see the benefits of pastoral longevity in a parish.  Despite the fact that we have about 300 families, I just about know them all by name, call them by name at the rail, and know them as part of the extended parish family.  At one recent funeral of a not very active member I was able to recount the first time I met this woman, 20 years ago, and describe her life within the parish over that time.  Financial stability and generosity are great; so is pastoral stability and generosity of spirit.

Fourth, at our current size and with the mobility of people in the community where we are, we are at the limits of what one Pastor can do.  If I had not been here since the parish was barely a hundred in worship, it would be harder than heck for me to come in at this point and not be overwhelmed by the constant moving in and out of people.  As a result, we are working on an assistant Pastor position to provide some continuity for the day when I either leave or retire and to make sure that the needs of the parish are well met both now and in the future.  We have a small staff of a part-time visitation Pastor, part-time DCE, full-time Cantor, 1 full-time and 2 part-time office staff, and those who work in the preschool.  Even though this is a small staff, the needs and attentive a staff require can almost distract and consume the resources of a Pastor from the work He is called to do with His people.  Large parishes with large staffs mean that the Senior Pastor spends more of his time with the people on the payroll than the folks in the pew.  This may be necessary but it is not optimal for either this man or his congregation.

Big is not beautiful.  What is beautiful in the parish is the ability of a Pastor to know and serve His people, a congregation large enough to prevent finances from consuming too much attention, and small enough to be effective in caring for each other as well as welcoming the stranger.  What is that number?  I cannot give you a figure but bigger than 500 in worship and I think we might be too big...  Time to daughter another parish.

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

The small churches of the Evangelicals are dying because the people are migrating to the mega churches. Mobility, the death of small communities (no Wal-Mart), and the fact many young people leave their home church for employment elsewhere all factor in..

As for wanting small congregations to "grow up": Even the big churches (all but the biggest with the big budgets) are aping the culture (not exactly preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins). And I do mean aping in the sense that some chimpanzees could do better. Most of what passes for a rock band should have stayed in the garage. Pagans can go to concerts elsewhere; the churched people who migrate from one place to another don't get it, I guess.

Entertainment is not Word and Sacrament; it isn't even Evangelicalism.