February 2, 2012

Little Church, Big Mission

I used to think I belonged to a small Episcopal Church. Both the parish where I grew up, in Lake Geneva, WI, as well as my congregation in New York City probably have about 60 people in worship on Sundays. I’ve known the rectors and their families well. It’s easy to identify the key lay leaders and know almost everyone by name, whether they serve on vestry, choir, Sunday school or outreach ministries. It’s a size I like, manageable in its relationships yet dynamic enough when engaged in the wider community. 

But compared to the swelling Catholic and Nondenominational congregations of my hometown, or the tall steeple churches of NYC, they seem small. 

In fact, they’re average. Statistical reports show that the median congregation in The Episcopal Church had an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of 65 persons in 2010. 

Beyond statistics, new experiences are reminding me that “small” is relative. A few weeks ago I attended the annual meeting of a little rural parish in Western Massachusetts. 17 people sat around two folding tables for a potluck lunch, listening to reports and engaging in a conversation about hospitality. A few things about this little church caught my attention:

  • Average Sunday Attendance 24
  • Budget $69,000
  • Amount spent on mission $11,539

That’s almost 17% of the budget directed locally, nationally and globally toward outreach. Pretty impressive. Members gave updates on their involvement with many ministries including the community food pantry and a companion relationship with a village in Ghana (even telling me which parishioners had latrines named after them!) Written reports detailed other activities and ministries led by parish members: a weekly centering prayer group, a parish nurse, producing the town phone directory, the Fall Festival, a monthly column in the local newspaper, hosting public events about art and politics, etc.

The treasurer explained the “Assessment for Common Ministry” saying “it’s amazing how the diocese can leverage our contribution with others to do wonderful mission.” He mentioned campus ministry and other projects by name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a lay leader (or clergy for that matter) speak so positively and confidently about a diocesan assessment. Rather than wringing hands about their budget for 2012, this little church was proud of its past year and cautiously optimistic about the next. Going forward they are adding $3,000 to the expense budget for preventative care of the church building and parish hall, knowing they’d rather spend a little money now than a lot more money in a crisis later.

While it might take a while to get used to the culture of a little Episcopal Church, I’m learning that size is relative. Clear mission and meaningful ministry, not size alone, are the drivers of congregational vitality.