Help For Small Missions And Churches

By Fr. Joseph Scheller

Many churches and missions of the Orthodox Church in America must be considered small by whatever criteria we use to determine the relative size of our local communities. We have rightly discussed Church growth and evangelism in recent years on the national, diocesan, deanery, and parish levels. This has borne considerable fruit, at least in the consciousness of many of our clergy and people. Yet, we may still wonder why such a large number of parishes have not grown as much as we had envisioned. They still retain about the same membership, if not less than several years ago. Obviously, the reasons are complex, and it is beyond the scope of a short article to muse and agonize over the issue.

The Orthodox Church is not alone. Most religious groups struggle with the same concerns about growth. Several denominations have undertaken serious studies on this issue. They have produced some materials that can offer considerable insight into our own coming to grips with the phenomenon of small churches that remain small. We offer for your consideration two short books published by the Alban Institute that may help shed some light on our own Orthodox parishes and missions. Of course, the content must be evaluated and judged from an Orthodox perspective. Not everything is applicable, but much will hit home. You will find concepts and practical ideas that you can relate to easily in these short practical treatises.


by Carl S. Dudley (1977) $4.25< The author is a Presbyterian minister who has taught at McCormick Theological Seminary and has made studies of 133 small churches in several areas of the country—all Presbyterian. Dudley uses as his criterion for the small church, a membership of less than 200. He states that we tend to look at small churches as "problem children." Small, economically marginal, congregations provide more worries for clergy and church executives than any other single issue in most Protestant denominations. He stresses that we need to stop looking at them as problems and try to enter into the unique dynamics of the small church. For Dudley, small is more a state of mind or attitude, rather than actual numbers. He has some interesting observations about the characteristics of many small congregations. He states:
. . . The small church is the right size for only one function. The members can know each other personally. It is often a single-cell entity with all members somehow involved in the workings of the cell.
Single-cell means one core group, rather than many different organizations and interest groups. Parishioners feel like members of an extended family. For many people the small church can be quite comfortable and fill definite social needs. Members in such a parish tend to like things exactly the way they are. The small church often makes it difficult for new members to enter because it is frequently subconsciously afraid it will “lose” something by being too open. Most small churches will not grow because they are already as large as they can be in order to remain what they are - a single-cell primary group that offers security with a group of people that can be trusted. Often they are ethnically or culturally oriented, which can be a hindrance to growth. For the above reasons “they also offer the most resistance to those who seek to help the small church to grow, or change, or disappear.” We must keep in mind that Dudley is trying to state difficulties inherent in many small churches. He is not being simply negative about them. To grow out of the small church mentality, it rests on those in leadership positions to inaugurate change in their own thinking and understanding of the dynamics present. First of all, pastors and others must come to grips with the fact that the small church cannot be treated as a miniature version of the large church. What functions well in a large congregation will likely fail miserably when applied to a smaller group. This may seem obvious. Yet, the author points out that in many ways we frequently apply almost exactly the same operating procedures and have the same expectations for tiny missions as we do for large churches. For example, this reviewer has heard many Orthodox priests in small parishes complain about how to complete standardized forms from the national church or diocese when the material simply does not apply in their local situation. Dudley believes seminary graduates need to be better trained in the dynamics of pastoring the small church. He finds a tendency among recently ordained clergy to use large church models in all congregations because this is the only approach they are familiar with. As a result, church members tend to feel overworked by their pastor and an unhealthy tension can sometimes develop. Small churches would likely have more success doing one or two things well, rather than trying to do a little bit of everything. By understanding the nature and function of a small church, we can better guide it on the path towards healthy growth. Such growth is certainly quite possible and desirable, but for it to occur, requires a vision and program very different from the big congregation. The author states that some churches will always remain small for any number of reasons. This is a reality that we must accept whether we like it or not. He sees this as something not necessarily bad. He notes that “the small church may outlive all the other forms of faithful witness. In fact, it has.”


by Anthony G. Pappas (1988) $10.25 If Carl Dudley’s book tries to reflect on some of the dynamics that make the small church what it is, Anthony Pappas brings the day-to-day workings of such congregations to life. As a fresh young seminary graduate, Pappas was sent to pastor a small Congregational church on an island off the cost of Maine. You will chuckle as he tells of his efforts to apply his newly acquired theological education and ideas to the small community of farmers and fishermen that was not easily moved from the way it had always done things. Any recommendations made by the new pastor were registered as attempts to deviate from an ideal past. For example, he suggested to the man who had passed out the Sunday bulletins for many years that it would be more effective to distribute them at the rear door of the church rather than at a side door. The gentleman readily agreed to do so, but on the following Sunday, proceeded exactly as he had done before. If it worked in the past, there was no reason to change. Nobody was going to change what the elderly man perceived as inviolable “tradition.” Another time, some of the ladies were complaining that when they sat in the pews, they got the backs of their dark blue dresses soiled from dust. In other words, the hired cleaning lady was not doing her job well. The ladies simply could not understand that it might be a helpful thing to raise the weekly salary given to the cleaning lady who for the last ten years had been given $4.00 to clean the church. If we know the keys and folk dynamics that are at work, positive change can come about. We have to mobilize the natural strengths that are present in the very nature of the smaller church group. For Pappas “...the small church is a primarily reflexive, not a reflective organization. It senses needs in the environment and responds in ways that have proved effective and meaningful in the past.” He deals with such topics as what constitutes small church mentality, problem solving in the small church, “the good old days” mentality, and creating a climate for change. Either of these books can be recommended for Orthodox pastors and active laity to assist them in understanding better some of the inner workings of small missions and parishes. Although coming from a Protestant perspective, they contain much to help us proclaim the Gospel and serve our communities. So far, little has been written about ministering to small communities from the ranks of the Orthodox. There is such a need in our Church because so many of our parishes are not large. But it is comforting to know that others have similar experiences and problems. Books like these can surely be placed on the required reading list of our seminary pastoral care programs along with classes and discussions conducted by those who have had considerable experience in small missions and parishes. The world of the small church is different. We can only do the Church a service by preparing those that serve these communities well. The above books can be ordered from:
The Alban Institute 4125 Nebraska Ave., NW Washington, DC 20016 (800) 457-2674 (9am to 5pm EST)
Fr. Joseph Scheller is Dean of the St. Seraphim of Sarov Cathedral in Dallas, Texas, and a member of the Department of Lay Ministries.

Fr. Joseph Scheller is Dean of the St. Seraphim of Sarov Cathedral in Dallas, Texas, and a member of the Department of Lay Ministries.