Ministering with What We Have
I’ve been reading a flurry of clergy posts on the tribulations of ministering with dwindling resources and rising expenses.
That’s a defining trait of most small congregations today.
As a long-time lay leader of small churches, I find the emphasis on assets—or the lack of them—to be self-defeating.
Perhaps this approach is meant to build camaraderie among clergy. When laity aren’t part of the dialog, it just makes lay people feel bad. We fall short no matter what we do. Why bother?
All the griping may bean attempt toidentify the challenge. But we KNOW the challenge!
Congregations that hope for a future must build on what we have. Morale should be number one.
So how does a congregation move forward to face an uncertain future?
Concentrate on what we have.
We may not have many people, but there is no point fretting about who isn’t there. Build up the people who come several times a month.
Set modern expectations. Weekly Sunday attendance may be impossible for today’s families. Sunday is no longer untouchable to employers, sports, or school. So don’t make weekly attendance a must. (The Sabbath day can be remembered in many ways—and even on days that are not Sundays. We have already recognized this by moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday—the Day of Resurrection.)
When people feel good they can proudly witness. Concentrate on helping your congregation improve their witnessing skills.
Property is important. Property provides ministry options. Yes, it is expensive. So deal with the expenses. Many churches are tempted to sell educational wings for a one-time windfall—which can be spent in fewer than ten years. Those unused buildings may be of more value if put to long-term use.
The days of supporting ministry with offerings alone is over. If you are expecting bequests from older members, wait in line with your fingers crossed. Every regional body, seminary, charitable group of your denomination and many others are paying professional fundraisers to make sure they get to your members first.
Start a stewardship program to help members understand the expenses of being “church.” But that will take years to develop.
Meanwhile, turn to your property.
Property is a ministry asset that needs to be spent in a renewable way.
Stop viewing your property as a once a week shrine. Put it to work. Make it a visible part of community life. Rent rooms that are not being used. If you have space, create rentable areas. Find partners that are doing the charitable work you wish you had the resources to do yourself. Don’t cheat yourself. Church groups are tempted to make rental agreements that benefit the tenants. We once raised the rent on a long-time tenant from $10 a week for one afternoon a week to $20. The tenant argued, “But we only use the church once a week.” We replied, “So do we.”
Secular groups have access to funding that churches don’t. Negotiate with them to do some of the needed improvements. You may be surprised at the connections you build in the community if you work with your tenants.
If you don’t cover the expenses, you won’t be there to help your community in the future. In urban areas, church buildings typically are bought at far below market price by developers who squeeze as many apartments or offices into them as they can. You can be sure they are charging market rate. Land donated for spiritual use is lost—forever.
When mainline denominations were thriving, partnering was rarely considered. We started our own charitable agencies, competing with other denominations. If we hoped to tap public funding streams we had to pretend we had no Christian affiliation.
Partnering is not part of our genetic makeup but it the best way for small congregations to continue ministry. More churches are supporting popular charities such as Habitats for Humanity or public food pantries. Make sure your contributions are known and extend beyond funding. If you support a prison ministry create your own visitation team. If you support a hospital, start support groups for difficult diseases or life challenges.
Those in academic professions have a mantra: Publish or Perish. This applies to today’s churches, too. There was a time when publishing was done by the greater church with pooled resources. The technology of the day made this practical. It also limited the church’s voice to those who controlled the press—and it was very expensive!
We live in a different world where publishing is possible for everyone. It costs practically nothing and almost everyone has the skills — except most pastors who continue to be slow in adopting modern communication methods.
Create a web site—an active website. Use the power of social media.
Are you still doing a monthly newsletter? Monthly publications belong to the day when monthly was all a congregation could handle with printing, collating, addressing and postage. This belongs to the past. You should be in touch with your congregants and with others in your neighborhood several times a day. This form of communication is far more powerful than a weekly 20-minute sermon that few hear and fewer remember. The website is your front door. It is also the modern pulpit.
The challenge is creating content and managing a site. (See below)
Take time to praise God. That’s what it is all about.
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How does one part-time pastor do all this? He or she doesn’t. Parishioners are likely to have untapped skills. Let the people who have the skills lead the way. If you need short-term help to kick-start a modern ministry, hire the people who have the skills you need. They may not have theological degrees.
So get started. There is no time to lose.
In November, 2x2virtualchurch will launch a companion site that will provide resources to congregations to help them develop an internet ministry. Watch for the launching of SmallChurchToolbox.com.