Coping with Change in Small-Membership Churches

Last Updated Friday, June 5, 2015
By Rev. Mickie McCorkle

In some ways, change is change, and change can be difficult no matter what size of congregation we are in. Church growth people tell us all the time that we need to do things like the following to bring creative change:

  • Prayer for all and at all times – before, during and after
  • Know your context – who is really in the community and what are their needs? Don’t do stuff for yourselves, do things for the community – outreach
  • Have a vision/mission and stick with it.  Focus and work it
  • Keep God through the Holy Spirit as the main leader and guide throughout the process

All of these are important for us to do whatever the size of our congregation. Still, there are a few more things that can help bring positive change when we are in a small congregation – some things we may not always think about as tied into successful change.

Remember small congregations are families.
So think to yourself as you move along as one of the congregational leaders in the change process, “How would my nuclear family best receive and adopt change?”

  1. Build relationships. Building relationships build trust, and trust enables us to open the door for prayerful conversations which can lead us to change. Relationships need to be built with:
    • Folks inside the congregation
    • Members who no longer attend
    • Folks not part of any congregation in the community

Relationships in small communities means:

  • buying local whenever possible
  • attending the events of children and youth (games, track meets, concerts, plays, etc.)
  • attending events that mark important events (ex: 50th wedding anniversary celebrations, 80th birthday parties)
  • visiting new babies when they are born and blessing them
  • visiting the nursing home
  • having coffee at the local hangout
  • eating at the local diner/café/food truck if there is one in the neighborhood/community
  • in rural communities: going to the post office to get mail when a lot of others go so you can check in with people (the post office can be a key place for pastoral care)
  • don’t take a stand on local politics – be pastoral for all sides
  1. Traditions are important – whether it’s hiding Easter eggs for all the children in town or in the neighborhood, or using the same silk flowers that were purchased by the UMW president in 1972, traditions are important. Tread lightly, ask questions, and honor all involved.
  2. Matriarch/Patriarch/1-3 key families need to be on board. Family churches often have one person or family that is seen as the “leader,” or as the person in power. The person may or may not be in an official leadership position in the church, but she/he is the one to whom all listen.
    • Seek their wisdom and ask their help.
    • How should we approach this?
    • What will be some key battle areas?
    • What language will be most helpful to move us forward?

Understand the deep connection of past, present and future in small congregations.
The past is not merely history; it is part of us today. There is a proverb in Burkina Faso (country on the continent of Africa), “Remembered by one; never gone”. This means that as long as a deceased loved one is remembered by just one person, the loved one never dies. This proverb has some truth for small communities in the U.S. as well. So, when we ask people to leave behind or get rid of the programs, buildings or traditions that currently exist in the church, we are asking people, in some sense, to denounce the foremothers and forefathers who made many sacrifices to build and grow the church.
Help people see that change is not failure
Because of the deep connections of past, present and future, it is difficult for people in small congregations to see change as good. It’s not always because they don’t want to change; it can sometimes be because they think if they need to change, it is because we failed earlier in our congregation life. 

Name early in the process what is good about the past and present and be very intentional about taking part of these with the church into the new future.

Get as many people involved in this naming as possible. “God has done great things here and God will continue to do so!”

Build bridges from the congregation’s perceived reality to the actual current reality.  And then,

Build bridges from the current reality to where we want to be.
These bridges should contain a couple of key elements:

  • Scripture that grounds us in, and leads us to, the new reality we want to create. This scripture will come in handy when people are weary and want to “go back to Egypt.” It should be a scripture that both encourages and challenges.
  • Some good stuff from the past and from where we are that we get to take with us.
    This is where you get to utilize the good stuff that has been previously named (see #4). It may not always be obvious or blatant. For example, one congregation had a faction that was adamant they would not change their worship time from 9:30 to 10:30. They said people were used to it and “we’ve always had worship at 9:30.” The congregation was at a stalemate. Finally, a young adult asked, “Why did worship first get done at 9:30 instead of 10:30 or 11? We are not part of a 2-point charge, so why so early?  Do we know?”

An older gentleman responded, “Sure, we know. Gertrude Mitchell, the first organist after the organ was installed, always said “God meets us in the morning!” She thought the organ sounded best first thing in the morning too and wanted to move worship to 8 a.m. 9:30 was a compromise.  If we move the worship time to later, we are dishonoring our first organist and denying her musical leadership in our community.”

After a bit of silence, the young person who asked the question said, “Wow, that’s very helpful to know. Could someone teach us more about Mrs. Mitchell and the wisdom she brought to our church? It would be fun to have a weekly learning in the church bulletin or during announcements.

The church historian, who was a choir member for decades with Mrs. Mitchell, said she would be glad to get something ready each week. The weekly additions went well. After a few months it was suggested that a picture of Mrs. Mitchell be put in the entryway with a quote by her, giving her a place of honor in the church.

It wasn’t more than a month after this that one of the naysayers said at church council, “I think Mrs. Mitchell would possibly be open to a worship time change if she thought it would provide an opportunity for more people to hear about God.”

Ask questions and take notes throughout the process.

  • What is your dream for the church?
  • What are the one or two things this congregation could not live without? Why?
  • What are the one or two things this church cannot live without? Why?
  • If money were no worry, what could this congregation do to bring and to take Christ into the community?
  • What worries you about the change on which we are working?

Change can be painful no matter what the environment or the number of people being asked to change. We cannot totally get rid of the pain; yet, we can manage the pain by remembering the ideas above so that transformation happens in us and in our communities.

The Rev. Micki McCorkle is coordinator of Small Church Membership Church Ministry for the Great Plains Conference. Contact her at

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