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:
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?”
Relationships in small communities means:
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:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.