New study highlights unique gifts in small church cultures
Listen to our podcast
The lightbulb turned on for Elmira, Ont., pastor Ron Johnston about 30 years ago at a conference in Boston, Mass. "All the speakers on stage pastored churches with thousands of members, but I’d guess at least 90 per cent of us who were attending were pastors of small churches."
Johnston, who has 30 years’ experience pastoring small Ontario churches, saw clearly at that moment that small churches are not only different in size and capacity from bigger ones, they’re different in culture. The way they function is not simply a downsized version of bigger churches. They function in very different ways.
Small churches have a different culture than big churches.
Today Johnston is thrilled by a new Canadian study called Significant Church which directly tackles the misunderstandings many Christians have about small churches. He and other small church advocates hope it will pave the way for better ministry across all parts of the Body of Christ in Canada.
Most common type of church
Congregations led by one full-time pastor with part-time assistance are actually the most common type in Canada, usually with less than 150 people meeting for a worship service. Even in the United States it’s actually much the same – a study there just before the pandemic found 69 per cent of U.S. congregations have fewer than a hundred attendees.
That same Harvard Institute for Religion Research study reported 70 per cent of the churchgoing population attend congregations with 251 or more attendance.
Amazingly, the 10 per cent minority of congregations that are large have 70 per cent of churchgoers.
The imbalance in Canada is not quite as extreme since we have fewer megachurches, but it still holds true. Thus it’s only natural most of us have a lot to learn about small church life – including what gifts small churches have to share that big ones can benefit from.
Small churches shine especially brightly when it comes to intergenerational relationships, says Johnston. Since that lightbulb moment years ago, he has gone on to found and head a ministry called Small Church Connections (SmallChurchConnections.com), one of the partners in the new Significant Church study.
They shine especially brightly when it comes to intergenerational relationships.
"When I talk to small church leaders, I hear [about intergenerational relationships] every time," he says. "Someone will say, ‘I was invited to preach my first sermon at age 17 in a small church.’ That’s not likely to happen in a large church."
A small church is like a family where everyone knows each other. "In a large church you measure attendance by standing at the back and counting heads," says Johnston.
"In a small church you count by noticing who’s not there. If you miss a week, it gets noticed."
Mentorship is another aspect of older and younger members relating. "People tell me how the elders in their small church knew the youth by name and talked with them. Just recently I heard a beautiful story from a group of young people struggling with a challenge – their idea for solving it was to go talk to Carl, who is an elder the youth know loves them."
Larger churches, in contrast, have to be very intentional and "put in a lot more effort" to develop that kind of intergenerational culture, Johnston observes.
Often big churches have "separate programs for every age bracket until people reach their mid-20s," he says, which prevents deep intergenerational relations. That leaves people short on the intergenerational experience and relationships they need for effective ministry participation and leadership.
Small church pastors
The Significant Church study shows pastoring is often a second career for small church pastors. Two-fifths of those surveyed (one-third of males and two-thirds of females) reported pastoring as their second career.
Most work six days per week, and 68 per cent also have a non-pastoral income in their household, whether that is spousal income or the pastor holding down a second non-pastoral job.
"In many cases," says the report, "pastors and their family would not be able to afford to stay in their pastoral position and provide for their family if the spouse was not able to supplement their income."
Dispelling wrong assumptions
Most small church pastors interviewed for the study expressed frustration about wrong assumptions others have about small church ministry. Examples in the report include:
- Denominations try to watch over congregational health using statistics, but what they measure (for example baptisms, growth or outreach) is more relevant to larger churches and inevitably marks out small churches as unsuccessful.
- Small churches feel unnoticed for the success of continuing ministry despite changing populations (swings in a local resource-driven economy, the seasonal presence of seniors, or here-for-a-few-years student populations) and increases in the cost of living and housing.
- Small church pastors get plenty of information, resources and requests about administrative tasks and financial dues from their denomination, but don’t feel the greater need is understood for two-way relational support focused on shared mission (a confidential listening ear who understands small church life).
- Ministry conferences assume multi-staff ministry, showcasing polished examples that can be out of reach for smaller churches, leaving them feeling invisible or inadequate.
- Denominational priorities around national social issues (for example euthanasia laws, Indigenous reconciliation or LGBTQ+ issues) can feel less urgent in small churches at capacity dealing with basic spiritual community health.
- Small churches can feel like a training ground for new pastors who move on to bigger churches at the first opportunity.
The survey found 35 per cent of small church pastors had switched denominations during their pastoral careers, usually for relational reasons, not theological ones.
The report uses the concept of a congregational covenant to refer to a congregation’s traditional vision for ministry – for example, mutual care for everyone in the building or among a new immigrant group, or perhaps a missional focus on serving the neighbourhood.
Members may not easily articulate their congregational covenant, yet still have feelings about the appropriateness of any new initiative based on it. Any proposed change implies a negative judgment of the founding vision. Small churches usually react instinctively to preserve their legacy.
A SNAPSHOT OF THE NEW STUDY
The 238-page report Significant Church: Understanding the Value of the Small Evangelical Church in Canada is written by Rick Hiemstra and Lindsay Callaway, researchers at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
It includes six chapters that discuss small churches, their pastors, community engagement, ministry networks, denominational relations and the effects of Covid-19.
Eleven partner organizations that helped design and implement the study are:
The study kicked off in May 2019. The project had four research phases – a review of existing books and articles on the topic, interviews with 24 ministry experts and 31 small church pastors, and a national survey that included 490 male and 79 female small church pastors. The final report was released in January 2023 and is available along with some online extras (such as a hyperlinked bibliography) at TheEFC.ca/SignificantChurch. –BF
"Change in a small church requires building a lot of trust," says Johnston. "I call it a trust fund. Every time a pastor does something for someone, you deposit into the fund of trust. Every time you make a change, you withdraw from it."
In a larger church, a leadership team is often freer to bring change or even create a simple strategic ministry plan because the need to delegate decision making is immediately obvious. Leadership has a pretty free hand as long as administration, programs and preaching seem competent.
In a smaller church, decisions arrive through community consensus when everyone feels ready, and a pastor is one voice among many, unless perhaps they have earned trust by integrating into the community (for example, by having purchased a home and raised children there).
Small churches primarily expect their pastors to be trustworthy (preserve the covenant) and accessible (prioritizing relationships), according to a ranking in the report.
Rick Hiemstra of Ottawa, who cowrote the report and conducted many of the interviews, paints a vivid picture of what being accessible means in a small rural church. "It’s being out there in the fields or on the tractor with congregants," he says. "A pastor who spends much of their time in an office writing sermons is not going to fit well in that context."
How to make it better
Recognizing the gifts of small churches requires more Christians in larger churches to intentionally learn and reflect on assumptions. Asking small church attenders to describe what they love about their church is a good place to start.
It’s being out there in the fields or on the tractor with congregants.
Johnston hopes Small Church Connections will be able to organize listening sessions for leaders of seminaries and denominations.
"I really feel for denominational leaders who have an impossible assignment to relate to so many churches," says Johnston. "I want to encourage them to focus less on what they can do for their churches, and focus more on listening to understand what their small churches are dealing with. The goal is to work with small churches as they are, not as we want them to be or imagine them to be."
While Johnston has been trying to catch the ear of such leaders for more than a decade, he is encouraged by increasing openness. He hopes the Significant Church study will only accelerate that.
Of course small church pastors benefit from continuing education as well. In this study the areas of ministry they identified as being weak in were technology (45 per cent), administration (40 per cent) and working with children (41 per cent) and youth (35 per cent). The areas they felt were already strong are preaching (92 per cent) and teaching (78 per cent).
What’s clear from this study is the desire for practical training designed explicitly for small church contexts. "We need our own small church conferences," is a common refrain. Generic ministry conferences too often lack small church relevance.
Peer support wanted – especially for women
One of the clearest needs pastors articulated in this study was confidential peer support. Who does a pastor talk with about confidential matters and ministry stresses in a community where everyone knows each other?
Some can maintain the needed confidentiality with a regional overseer appointed by their denomination. That can be effective if the overseer is a former small church pastor and friend, but often these interactions don’t have the deep understanding of the small church context found between small church pastors.
Most pastors in the study reported participating in denominational, regional pastor gatherings in the past year (65 per cent of males, 68 per cent of females). Female pastors also networked using continuing education (42 per cent) and local transdenominational ministerials (37 per cent). Male pastors were more likely connected with a small church pastor network (36 per cent) and a ministerial (35 per cent), than with continuing education (25 per cent).
A significant number of female pastors reported ministerials to be sexist. Twenty-six per cent said they were "often ignored or talked over by the men." Within their own denominational networks, female pastors can be outnumbered by male peers. Thirty-seven per cent said they find it "difficult to access female ministry mentors" while 36 per cent feel "only female denominational leaders will truly understand the challenges I face as a woman in ministry."
Such issues can be specific to a denomination. For example, in Mennonite Church Eastern Canada about 40 per cent of credential holders are women, and church leadership minister Marilyn Rudy-Froese of Kitchener, Ont., has not seen much recent demand for a female pastor’s network.
"To be fair, we’re in a part of Canada where a lot of our pastors are able to assemble their own personal support networks based on affinity. We used to have more geographic-based networks of MCEC pastors, but that seems to be falling away," says Rudy-Froese.
One of the challenges with identifying the needs of female ministry leaders is the limited data available. To gain more data, and identify and meet gaps, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is currently developing a new Canadian Christian Women’s Collaborative Network (TheEFC.ca/CCWCN).
Improving seminaries and training
Education programs for people wanting to enter pastoral work are often weak on practical skills, according to pastors in the study. They reported their seminary training was often more academic than it needed to be, with specializations assuming a pastoral team setting rather than the generalist reality of small church ministry.
PHOTO: WES HICKS
They call for more practical skills training in pastoral care, community leadership, technology management, and the many challenges that come up in different kinds of funerals and weddings.
Many seminaries are now in a stage of re-evaluating these needs, says Johnston. "Ten years ago, when I tried to raise these issues, I felt like I was speaking Swahili and they were talking Greek – but now I see efforts toward meeting these needs. Let’s make sure we have no more pastors who only know big church life, who take up a post in a small rural church without realizing their move is like going to India as a missionary – it’s a cross-cultural experience they need to prepare for."
Traditional training that focuses on preaching is more suited to a role in a larger church. Those likely to serve in a small church also need non-pastoral skills such as managing a second job, managing a meeting, basic understanding of how to care for church furnaces and aging buildings.
Scheduling when to provide training is also increasingly important, says Rudy-Froese. She refers to pastors who came to Canada as refugees, found a job to pay the bills, and do pastoring on top of that job, often at nights and on weekends. "Daytime education can be great for someone already in a full-time pastoral position, but we have increasing numbers of bivocational pastors who can’t attend such events, as well as second-career pastors" who can’t afford to leave their first career entirely behind, but are trying to also squeeze in ministry training courses.
Hope for the future
What would happen if small church pastors felt respected and their ministry efforts in the culturally different small church ecosystem were recognized? Johnston argues that would strengthen every denomination and the entire Christian community.
There is a desire for practical training designed explicitly for small church contexts.
He tells the story of a small congregation where members were feeling discouraged by their shrunken attendance numbers after the pandemic. As he talked with them, he heard that five people had become believers in the congregation during Covid. "That church should not have been feeling down. If you think of the percentage of neighbours they had that they had just brought into the faith, they are accomplishing something at a rate that larger churches can only dream of."
His fear is that the Significant Church report might end up collecting dust on a shelf. His hope is for the Body of Christ across Canada to better recognize, maximize and celebrate the gifts of small churches.