Perils in the Small Church

One of the first goals I had when I began my work with Old South Church, about ten years ago, was to lead the church through an Open and Affirming process. This was particularly significant for Old South, as it exists in a small city just south of the state capital that is, and was at the time, a conscientiously open and welcoming sort of place. One way or the other, whether it wanted to or not, Old South needed to be clear about where it stood on the welcome of the LBGT community. Visitors asked such questions on a regular basis.

With only a few objections, the congregation agreed to go through the Open and Affirming process. In the course of the year and a half journey, quite a few people became very supportive and encouraging of becoming Open and Affirming. A few, though, were decidedly not in favor. One of the especially vocal opponents was clearly not going to be moved. At some point, the church’s financial secretary came to me to say that, though he really didn’t want to sway me one way or the other, he thought I should know that that one particular strong voice of opposition just happened to be attached to a large pledge unit.

Even if I wanted to—I didn’t—the process was too well along to change course, or to grind it to a halt. When the church voted unanimously to adopt their open and affirming statement, we had already lost that one person, along with a few others (who, I guess, were not large pledge units, since the financial secretary said nothing to me about them).

Over the years of my relationship with Old South, I’ve had no other situations that have risen to the level of the Open and Affirming process, although there have been plenty of “brush fires”—occasional minor suggestions of withdrawing financial support if certain things are done, or even proposed. My clergy training has guided me to be careful of these sorts of situations, and not to allow people to use money to gain influence and power.

I have indeed been very careful about dealing with those who threaten, or suggest a threat, to withdraw financial support to influence my pastoral leadership. But, I must also admit that it can be awfully daunting to face such threats (or to anticipate them) when one is serving a small church. At Old South, we have single pledge units that can make or break our lean, fragile budget.

As Old South continues to try to figure out what its mission is in these days, as well as its connection to Christ, change is sure to happen—even if we actually try to keep it at bay. Change is part of the life and rhythm of life, and church life as well. It is challenging enough to keep up with the financial losses connected to people who have moved away or died. It’s quite another, especially in a small church, when the loss, or decrease, of a pledge is connected to an all too real unhappy person, with whom one has a significant relationship.

In a small church, each active person often has a role, fitting into the whole almost like a puzzle piece. When one of those pieces is so unhappy as to threaten financial contributions (and/or other contributions of time and talent), it’s not always done so in a spiteful way. It is sometimes a reflection of an aspect of church life that is deeply meaningful.

The way forward, then, for the small congregational church can feel perilous. We face changes and challenges—some welcome, some not; some ushered in by circumstance, others by design—as well as the shifting nature of our own relationships. When most—but not all— of the group feels drawn in a particular direction, “majority rule” is not always enough to keep the group, as a whole, content.

Finding a way to manage the variety of voices is challenging. Finding a way of making sure that we are not so attentive to our own voices as to snuff out the voice of the Holy Spirit is even more challenging. But, that is our way. It’s not easy, but the life of the faithful has never been so.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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