September 2009
Small Church Ministry

Ups and downs of small church ministry

In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses says to the Israelites, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse.” He holds up the entire life of faith and offers his people a choice — to love and serve the Lord their God or to revolt and ignore the commandments of God. Reflecting upon small church ministry it seems that here, too, there is such a dichotomy. Though I would term it differently: there are blessings and challenges that are unique to the small church experience.

Would it be more beneficial if the rector of a small church was a certified electrician or had a PhD in church history? I’m not sure. But having served parishes both large and small I offer the following observations. I’m sure you could add your own blessings and challenges to the list and I encourage you to do so.

Blessings of small church ministry

  • The personality of the rector can be larger than life.
  • Like Cheers, it’s a place where everybody knows your name.
  • There’s a wonderful sense of intimacy; you can know people in ways that transcend the superficial coffee hour chatter.
  • No one is more loyal to their church than parishioners at small churches.
  • Near instant access to the priest during a pastoral crisis.
  • No long waits at the communion rail.
  • No long waits at the communion rail.
  • Many opportunities for children to participate in the liturgy
  • Ability to have a focused sense of mission.
  • Coffee hour is one big party
  • Intergenerational relationships are lifegiving.
  • Healthy sense that the people, rather than the priest, are the most permanent element of the congregation.
  • Newcomers are easy to identify, welcome, and stalk.
  • It’s like a family in all its familiarity.
Challenges of small church ministry
  • The personality of the rector can be larger than life.
  • The 80/20 rule (where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work) still applies. In a small church that 20 percent is quite a small group which can lead to ministry burnout.
  • Make it to church during a snow storm and you may be out shoveling the walk.
  • Newcomers may find themselves on the fast track to the vestry, altar guild, etc.
  • There’s never enough money. 
  • It’s harder to sneak in unnoticed when you’re running late on Sunday morning.
  • Constantly fighting against the “bigger is better” mentality can lead to a parish-wide inferiority complex.
  • Susceptible to the “Father Knows Best” mentality which subverts collaborative approaches to ministry.
  • There tend to be gaps in the ages of Sunday School kids (i.e. lots of middle schoolers but no 4th and 5th graders).
  • You may have to resort to trickery to get enough people to serve on the vestry.
  • If you like traditional Anglican chant, forget it.
  • Danger of focusing exclusively on maintenance (of building, programs, liturgy) rather than mission.
  • It’s like a family in all its dysfunction.
The Rev. Tim Schenck is rector of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts and the author of What Size are God’s Shoes? Visit him on the web at
This article is part of the September 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Small Church Ministry