“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32 (NRSV)
Congregations in the United Church of Christ are getting smaller. According to the UCC 2014 Statistical Profile, “The number of smaller membership UCC congregations increased over the last eleven years. Four in ten congregations (41.3%) reported a membership of 100 or less, compared with 35.0% in 2002. Congregations with 101-200 members also increased since 2002, from 25.8% to 27.5%.” In the past 21 years, I have been the pastor of two churches, one under 200 members and the other under 250 members. When new folks come to seekers’ classes to learn more about our congregation, I sometimes say that we are more like the corner hardware store than the Home Depot. We have all the basics and a strong sense of community. For our size, there’s a lot of mission and ministry going on, but we don’t have the programming or the staff that larger membership churches might offer. The corner hardware store is not an image Jesus used. He did talk about mustard seed churches. I hope that as those seekers grow, they will learn to think of us as a mustard seed church.
As Jesus pointed out, small seeds can have great results when God is involved. When St. John’s (membership under 175) started a youth program, it revolved around an annual mission trip to do home repair. I’ll never forget Kristen. When asked by a friend what her youth group did, she replied, “We fix houses.” “What else do you do?” “We fix houses.” Last I heard of Kristen, she was an architect, designing low-income housing in Mississippi. That’s the mustard seed church at work!
It isn’t only aging, existing churches driving the small church trend. New churches start small and take time to grow, usually eight years to reach an attendance over 80. This is going to mean some real challenges for the church leaders of the future. A quick look at opportunities for ministry in the UCC shows many churches looking for part-time pastors. Part-time ministry has some obvious downsides for salary, health insurance and pensions for pastors. Then there’s the added factor of student debt. The United Church of Christ has a long, proud tradition of an educated ministry. That education is increasingly expensive. From 1991 to 2011, the average student loan debt of seminary graduates tripled, from $11,043 in 1991 to $38,704 in 2011. There is an obvious disconnect between more expensive education, bigger loans, and smaller, part time salaries. How do we make this work?
As I look around my own Conference, some part-time pastors are of retirement age and have the additional support of a pension. Since 83.2% of active UCC clergy are over 50, semi-retired pastors will likely be a major source of pastoral leadership for a decade or more. Yet, younger pastors are best at attracting young adults. There are other paths. As I consider my colleagues, I see a great deal of creativity in life and ministry. In one new church start, the pastor is also the director of a church-based child care center which serves their inner city neighborhood. In another new church, the pastor also works as a community organizer. Several pastors combine their parish ministry with chaplaincy or pastoral counseling. It’s hard to know what the future will bring, but it will certainly require creativity and flexibility on the part of churches and church leaders. And yes, it will no doubt include multiple paths to ministry.
The mustard seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs, Jesus tells us. Small churches can have a big impact. Clearly, God can work with small. We can too.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.