With few exceptions, Christian churches in America are in trouble. Membership has been trending slowly downward for decades with the most pronounced declines occurring in churches in the mainline Protestant tradition.
I am not writing, however, to sound the alarm about the shrinking numbers of the faithful. I would guess that none of it is new to you. Nor am I writing about how to grow a congregation, as important as that is. I am not even here to testify that there is joy and spiritual depth in accepting and inhabiting the reality of being a faithful, creative, and dwindling church, and pouring one’s self out for the sake of the world, although I think that there is (or can be).
Rather, I want to address the particular reality in which so many congregations find themselves right now, and I’d like to offer some specific ideas about the way forward for very small congregations.
So, let’s talk about getting smaller. While a substantial reduction in active membership is tremendously significant and necessitates painful alterations no matter the size of the church, a congregation with one-hundred active members is generally still large enough to support the traditional neighborhood church model. This usually includes property ownership and a professionally trained, ordained, full-time pastor, as well as sufficient lay members to populate the church’s committees and carry out its tasks and ministries. However, a drop in membership from one-hundred to, say, fifty or fewer, means it is unlikely that the congregation can still support its traditional way of being a church.
Very Small Churches
Here is another hard truth: when a congregation becomes what I’ll simply call “very small” with less than fifty active members, but easily as few as twenty-five or even fifteen, it is very unlikely to grow larger again. Very small congregations continue to dream and plan and work for growth, but the drop below a certain palpable threshold is nearly impossible to overcome. Openness and a warm welcome, ministry in the neighborhood, and concerted efforts at outreach are indeed likely to yield new members but typically only enough for stasis or to slow the decline.
Becoming a “very small congregation” is a new kind of crisis. It is at this point that the congregation wonders if it can go on, or if it must close. However, despite their size and (frequently) weariness, very small congregations are resilient. Deeply committed to the bonds of fellowship they share, as well as their history, and yes, the building, they vigorously resist closing.
In the past, a congregation at this point in its life might have been urged to consider a merger. But experience as well as statistics shows that mergers usually don’t work. There are certainly exceptions, but typically the smaller congregation in a merger simply disappears into the larger one, and a year or two later after the merger the new congregation is about the size of the larger church.
In the days of settlers moving west, congregations were often served by circuit riders. Today congregations might form a two-point parish, in which two (or even three) congregations call one pastor to serve all of them. This is a not uncommon arrangement in rural areas with small, fixed populations. The two-point parish has some major limitations. The pastor is stretched, attempting to be all things, not just to one very small congregation, but two, while each congregation tends to think the other is getting more of the pastor’s time. Because the two congregations continue to operate independently, every board and volunteer position is replicated in each location, and both continue to struggle to fill positions.
The Collaborative Parish
Today another option is emerging, one that I believe offers a way forward that honors the commitment of and ministry carried out by very small congregations, and also provides for the pastoral leadership that is instrumental for meaningful worship, teaching, pastoral care, administration, and the impetus to look outward. This model incorporates many of the strengths of the previous options and has the potential to circumnavigate their weaknesses. That model is the collaborative parish.
A collaborative parish is when two or more congregations in geographical proximity to one another enter into an arrangement in which anything from committees and ministries to offices and copier contracts, staff and pastors, are shared. A collaborative parish is not a merger because individual properties and legacies are retained. It is also not a two-point parish because congregations form a new, single entity, sharing rather than replicating volunteer positions and ministries, as well as pastoral staff.
In Oakland, California, in 2003, five ELCA congregations formed the East Bay Lutheran Parish to jointly call and financially support two new pastors. They called a youth minister who, for 15 years, has led a vibrant, combined youth program for all the congregations, and they called a chaplain who ministers in four of the poorest and neediest nursing homes in the city. This collaborative parish arrangement has been highly successful and durable.
However, a collaborative parish can also be formed in order to carry out the everyday tasks of a congregation. For example, the very small congregation I served entered into a fledgling relationship with two other very small, nearby congregations to form a joint stewardship committee. Whereas none of us had enough volunteers to plan and carry out a program on our own, with approximately two volunteers from each congregation, together we did.
Our shared stewardship committee created positive learning and spiritual growth around the issue of money, and a small bump in pledging to boot. The success of our joint committee did not, however, fundamentally alter the financial realities, and so the hope was and is that continued collaboration on a limited scale will open hearts and minds to greater connection.
Recently, representatives from four Lutheran congregations in the city of Fremont, California, met together to discuss the possibility of a common future. The congregations vary in age, demographics, and size. The largest of the four averages one hundred people and the smallest, about fifteen.
What three of the congregations have in common, and the specific reason for their gathering, is that they cannot, or soon will not be able to, financially sustain a traditional model of being a neighborhood church which includes building and property ownership and having a full-time, professional pastor. The largest of the four isn’t in that position, but sees the long-term trends, the proverbial handwriting on the wall, and wants to be proactive in creating a different outcome.
The representatives from the four ELCA congregations in Fremont who will gather next month for continued discussion are looking beyond sharing everyday ministry. For them, all options are on the table. They are exploring the possibility of a formal, shared structure. The collaborative parish they form could look like this: four congregations sharing one lead pastor and youth minister, a single church office, two worship locations, a food pantry and homeless shelter in a third location and the fourth rented out for income or housing a non-profit business. Or the results might be quite different. The model is flexible, and the truth is that, by and large, congregations are creating the path as they go.
Ultimately, the collaborative parish model means that very small congregations can have new life, but retain continuity with a treasured past. It means that their physical presence, along with witness and ministry, does not disappear from neighborhoods. A collaborative parish provides an ecclesial economy of scale—instead of each tiny entity replicating production, one larger entity produces what is needed for all. This model can offer robust pastoral leadership for all of the new parish’s life, not just Sundays, and if the collaboration includes worshipping together in the same physical location, the resulting numbers might rise above the “almost impossible to grow” threshold. Another strength of this model is that, unlike the typical outcome of a merger, the particular charisms of each congregation, whether it be the worship style of a particular ethnic group, welcome of LGBTQ folk, a preschool, or a theater program for teens, can continue.
Forming a collaborative parish could mean that, in exchange for giving up some individual independence, each small church’s anxiety about the future might decrease, hope for the future might increase, and the energies previously devoted to basic survival might be released for doing Christ’s work in the world.