Do we exploit small churches?

Wendell Berry probably does not consider himself a mentor of pastors. He has been one for me, though. His writing about farming and marriage and poetry constantly brings me to reflect on the practice of pastoral ministry.

So, it is no surprise that his essay “God and Country” would do so. The essay, found in his book What Are People For?, is largely concerned with the ways in which the organized church is co-opted by the economy. Much in the essay is of interest, but for the moment, I want to raise up something Berry has to say about rural churches and the practice of using them as training grounds for student pastors.

No church official, apparently, see any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places. The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are though more deserving of educated ministers.

Berry goes on to note that in 50 years he has seen many young pastors called to serve as student pastors in rural churches, but he has never seen one called to stay in such a setting.

Of course — and playing right into Berry’s point — this is about economics. Small, rural churches cannot pay the salary of a full-time pastor. Because we pay pastoral salaries out of the offering plate of local congregations, only the larger and wealthier churches are ministered to by those whose pastoral vocation is their only vocation.

As a bi-vocational local pastor these last 7 years, I feel this. The churches I have served are used to seeing pastors come and go. They have come to accept the fact that I live in another county and have a full-time job that means I won’t be around much Monday to Saturday. They expect at some point, I’ll be moved away.

That is the way the system works.

Wendell Berry has me wondering — not for the first time — if this system reflects the kingdom or the economy.

Of course, that dichotomy is simplistic and probably, therefore, intellectually and spiritually lazy. We reflect both the kingdom and the economy. We live the already and not yet life of every Christian. But Wendell Berry does call me to look at the balance we have struck and ask if there are other ways — more faithful ways — to be the church in rural places and small towns.

It certainly calls me to examine my own heart and mind.

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7 thoughts on “Do we exploit small churches?

  1. This may not be speaking directly to your point, but I was pleased to be introduced to a concept birthed in the Texas (Houston area) Conference. There they had the same problem with people early in their careers(?) appointed to county seat churches having to choose between staying or moving with immediate large raises. They connected some or all of the smaller churches in an area in an official way with the county seat church. This enables shared central administration (saving money) and more cooperation on things like mission and youth. The smaller churches maintain their local pastors, but also pay a portion each of a salary supplement. This supplement goes to the pastor at the county seat church so that a raise is possible locally. They preach at the local churches a few times each per year and I think it’s designed so the Elder can provide leadership and potential continuing education to those local pastors. This enables longer appointments and more consistent leadership in more rural areas. I like the potential in this effort and in the ideas it may generate for further cooperative ministry for reaching entire communities. (One caution: I could be getting some details wrong as I came across this in casual conversation with Texas conference folks.)

  2. I don’t think there is obvious exploitation in our denomination. Smaller churches, for example, have greater representation at Annual Conference, are often subsidized directly (through equitable compensation, etc.) and indirectly (through using much more of DS’ time and attention than their apportionment percentages) by the AC, and benefit from programs and curriculum held at or produced by larger churches. I say this from the only church in a largely rural district with two appointed clergy. Maybe my opinion will change by next year after I move into an appointment serving a small church as their solo pastor. // I do think the problem (and brain/experience drain is real!) is probably more pronounced in “called” denominations rather than “sent” ones where any aid to smaller churches is voluntary, rather than directed by “the Connection.”

  3. Yes. Small churches are exploited, but this exploitation is not only in the arena of pastoral leadership. Through the years as a small church pastor, I saw my talented and gifted lay leadership recruited for leadership by larger, wealthier churches. In particular, I recall a wonderful young woman in her 20’s who grew up in my little church. She taught in our Sunday School, worked in VBS, and delivered our children’s sermon each week. It broke my heart when she took a paying job at big First UMC downtown. I certainly understood her move, but I was distressed by it. I have seen the same thing happen with talented musicians and youth leaders. Large churches suck the life out of small churches. Only rarely does a large church reach out to help a small church.

  4. My favorite Wendell Berry essay either. The other issues he raises in it about church in relationship to ones community and economy has been often in my mind.

  5. The small church gets the benefit of a highly educated, talented, up and coming leader at little or no cost. Kind of like having Phil Mickelson as your local golf pro before he went on the PGA tour.

  6. There is no refuting that what you say is happening. I have seen it myself many times. I like the attitude of more than one church who have told me they consider it to be a part of their ministry to train young inexperienced pastors and send them on to other places. And btw I am a rural pastor who was trained up, received education, and.felt called of God to remain on the small community.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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