|A DIFFERENT KIND OF BREAD:
The Pastoral Role in Small Membership Churches
Most churches of fewer than 100 active members are being served by pastors called at less than full-time service. The part-time nature of this pastoral service necessitates a different kind of relationship between pastor and congregation than that experienced in a larger membership church.
At the formation of the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers (a national organization of bi-vocational ministers), the Rev. Tom Dietrich said, “For a church being served part time by a pastor, they are not getting just half a loaf. They are getting a whole different kind of bread.”
Part of what makes that “bread” different is due to the unique nature of the pastoral role in a part-time situation. A number of factors contribute to this uniqueness.
The field of service is obviously smaller in a congregation of 75 (or fewer) than in one of 300. Fewer individuals may require pastoral care, and, because of the changing relationships within the smaller congregation, that care may be provided in different ways. Most of these churches have experienced long intervals without installed pastoral leadership and have had to learn ways to provide for one another the assurance of God’s presence, love and grace that larger communities seek and expect from their pastor. When they have a pastor, they need educational and inspirational support more than the traditional priestly relationship in which they look to the pastor to represent the Church.
In larger membership churches, the pastor provides educational and inspirational support in more formal, programmatic ways – classes, workshops, clinics, worship. In the smaller membership church, served part-time by a pastor, this support is provided almost exclusively through preaching and personal conversations. In some cases members connect with denominational and ecumenical groups which provide training in care giving.
The pastor’s role in personal crises, though still important, often changes in a part-time relationship. No longer is the pastor expected to meet members at the emergency room entrance or to appear at their hospital bedside during today’s increasingly brief hospital stays. Since the pastor may not be resident in the community, is committed to earning the remainder of necessary income or involved in family and household care, others in the congregation develop ways to learn of and respond appropriately to these situations – often informing the pastor after the fact. When the pastor does make personal contact (often by phone), it is to express support and collect information for prayer. The operative questions become: “Do you need me there?” and “What do you want shared with the congregation?”
Healthy congregations served by a part time pastor quickly learn to respect and work with the pastor’s time and availability limitations (If a pastor is serving the church half time, she/he must be expected to be earning another half of their income elsewhere). Funerals, weddings and other special events are scheduled around the pastor’s availability. Members can no longer expect the pastor to drop everything to attend to their needs. Instead, members learn to expect that the pastor has similar work and family obligations as their own.
The relationship between pastor and members becomes more of a relationship between equals rather than between a professional and their followers. Whatever authority a pastor is given grows out of that relationship rather than from credentials or office. Everyone understands that their pastor has a “real job” with time and energy demands, frustrations, rewards and expectations similar to their own. The pastor understands the energy rhythms of the people because he/she is experiencing those same rhythms related to family, career, recreational and spiritual needs. Meetings no longer routinely extend into the late night (everyone, including the pastor, may have to be at work early next morning).
The pastor is no longer necessarily viewed as the leader of the congregation, but rather as “one of us” who has some special theological and leadership skills. These skills are identified by experience, rather than by credentials (including ordination). The pastor’s continuing education becomes crucial to an effective relationship with the congregation. Thorough discussion with the church’s leadership in choosing continuing education opportunities will strengthen the pastoral relationship and the congregation’s mission. The important question is “What do I need to learn and experience in order to assist this congregation’s effectiveness in its mission?”
This “different kind of bread” is a pastor who is part of the congregation rather than in charge of it; who is a leader among leaders and a student among students; who does not represent the church so much as supports it with theologically informed compassion. It is a congregation that respects personal boundaries; that cares about each other; that is willing to grow in its understanding of God and God’s claim on their life.