Yesterday, I attended my first presbytery meeting as a member of Cimarron Presbytery. For those of you unfamiliar with Cimarron, we are a small presbytery of mostly small churches in the small towns of north-central and north-west Oklahoma. With only twelve churches, I believe we are the smallest presbytery in the PC(USA).
Being a small presbytery comes with its challenges. Yesterday, for example, we approved a budget with a significant deficit, and pray that God will continue to provide in unexpected ways. The shortfall is the result of the loss of membership (mostly one church that was dismissed), and with such a small overall pool of members, the loss of one small church creates a pretty big hit to presbytery funding.
On the other hand, being a small presbytery also comes with some advantages. First among them is familiarity with colleagues in ministry. When I was examined by the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry and Preparation, I met more than half of the pastors in the presbytery in one sitting before I ever came. After one presbytery meeting and a few monthly lunches, I know everyone by name. I know that if I have some questions about Stephen Ministry, I can call Leah in Stillwater. I know that if I have questions about General Assembly, I can call Judye in Alva. I know that if I have questions about church music, I can call Andrew in Enid.
Having a relatively small group of people in the presbytery also gives new kids on the block like me the space to express ourselves. The two most vocal commissioners at the presbytery meeting yesterday were probably myself and another pastor about my age. Rarely are younger people so readily invited to chime in on the governance of the church.
Those of you who attend churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary as I generally do have been working your way through the Gospel according to Matthew the last few months. This being my first experience of preaching every week for an extended period, I’ve been struck by the imagery that Jesus uses over and over again in Matthew. In his parables, Jesus uses agricultural metaphors over and over, but changes the focus slightly in each to make a different point. What many of these have in common, however, is the great potential of something tiny like a seed.
As a small presbytery, we are fertile ground where new people are nurtured and given the chance to grow and thrive. Consequently, we are also like a small seed that may grow into one of the “greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
The same is true of small congregations. Great challenges come with smaller numbers, but great opportunities come as well. Below is a list of a few advantages I see smaller communities of faith possessing.
Where everybody knows your name As I was serving communion yesterday, I was hesitant to use people’s names as I handed them bread because I didn’t want to forget someone’s name and leave them out. Afterward, I realized I had known everyone’s name. There is no way this happens in a larger group.
Fertile ground for development – As mentioned above, young people in small churches and presbyteries are given the opportunity to immediately take part in all aspects of ministry. There is no unofficial waiting period to serve on this committee or that task force. As soon as you show up, you are an important part of the community.
Want to be a leader? – When it takes everyone pitching in to keep things working, leadership opportunities are available for nearly everyone. The younger pastor I mentioned earlier serves on Cimarron Presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission. That sort of leadership opportunity does not happen to younger leaders in bigger settings.
Agility to try something new – This is a case of small numbers being a great advantage. Want to try a new Bible study? It is easier to get materials for six people than sixty. Want to start a new ministry to the neighborhood? It is easier to organize four people than four hundred. This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be nice to have hundreds of people doing mission together, but trying new things is much easier on a small scale.
Intergenerational everything – This is an area I think we often overlook in our church programming. Some of my fondest memories of church activities are times spent with older church members outside of my family. I remember Mr. Brown taught me how to shake hands. I remember doing Advent crafts with Mrs. Allen. Larger churches often break people up by age and gender for education and activities, but smaller churches tend to do more things together. The more we study and work with the whole Body of Christ, the better.
Realizing your priorities – When funds are limited and tough decisions must be made, we realize (sometimes with great pain) what our priorities are. Conversely, we may also realize what idols we have held sacred in the past. Is the particularity of our community of faith worth the struggle of remaining together? Is our building so important to us that we will not let it go whatever the cost? Are we able to sustain our ministry without a full-time pastor? While these decisions are painful, they invite us to think about what it means to be “church.”
What are some other advantages of being a small community of faith? What can communities teach bigger ones? Please share in the comments!