Mini churches, Maximum challenges

A pastor perceptively tells the stories of his ministry in four small churches

Hal Gates, L.L.D., is pastor of the Oak Harbor/Friday Harbor districts in Oak Harbor, Washington.

The small church congregation has become the experimental laboratory and proving ground for new, usually inexperienced interns. Pastoring one or more small churches often develops the gristle a new minister needs before moving on to bigger and broader fields of pastoral endeavor. However, having enjoyed 14 years pastoring in a number of small churches, I might aptly be described as having a small church mind set. Here are some of my reflections on the essentials of four small church situations in which I have pastored.

The little lost church

As a 44-year-old task force lay pastor, I was called to take over a small church in an economically distressed logging and lumbering community. The congregation was made up of survivors from a neighboring small church, closed as a result of the dwindling membership's inability to meet church obligations. The original membership had been decimated by "churchbashers" who, from inside the church had succeeded in completing the shattering that outside forces had started.

The church officers--consisting of two older deacons, one active woman elder, and six or eight other members--were commit ted to making the church survive. Half of this membership commuted some 25 miles to the church on narrow, crooked roads. Outreach to the 15 or so inactive members was nearly nil.

The little lost church suffered from a lack of identity and low congregational esteem. It was striving to survive a severe collective depression. It was wounded, abused, rejected, suspicious, and grieving. Its condition was, without question, critical, and life-threatening. Barring a miracle, any positive survival prognosis for the church was doubtful.

This church needed a purpose and establishment of goals that were simple, attainable, and measurable. Only with a lot of JOY (Jesus, others, yourselves) mingled with love, affirmation, acceptance, and forgiveness could it hope to survive.

The first order of business was to apply the principles of the serenity prayer: we needed the courage to change the things we could, accept the things we could not change, and insight to know the difference. As a church we prayed openly and honestly to accept the fact that without divine intervention, we were dead! We sought diligently to apply the principles of Philippians 4:4-8.

The courage to change the things we could started with our facility. We were at tempting to "look alive." After much yard work, cosmetic and structural repair, and disposal of years of accumulated stuff, we had a fairly modern-looking facility.

Then came the work of "fixing the folks"! My experience as an Air Force medic taught me three principles of triage: (1) start with the least wounded, (2) get them up and going, and (3) make them ministers to the more seriously injured.

The healing that took place dovetailed with the new identity the church took on as a congregation of "hugs and healing." All of this coincided with God's divine intervention in response to our determined requests. With these changes came a foundation upon which to build a strong small church. Soon a visitor or two showed up on Sabbath. We welcomed and loved them; accepted, affirmed, and forgave them. We hugged them, helped them, and invited them to our weekly healthful fellowship dinner. Our Sabbaths became celebrations of God's Lordship and leadership through Christ Jesus.

We held a small but enthusiastic Christ-centered evangelistic series, as much for the congregation as for the community. We saw that we could do "all things through Christ who strengthens [us]!" (Phil. 4:13, NKJV).

Soon we had two baptisms in the re stored baptistry, which had, through lack of use, become a storage area. It was a joy to repeat this more times in two years than in the previous two decades. Our spirits soared on the wings of an eagle. We were restored and transfused with the blood of Jesus our Lord! We were becoming a functional member church in the family of God!

We did all we could to hold high before us the fact that it was the restorative, regenerating power of God, through Jesus Christ, who had brought about these changes, and not our own efforts. We thanked God humbly for all He had done. He had "supplied all [our] needs according to riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (verse 19, NKJV).

After two years I was called into full-time internship and hesitantly left the little lost church, which had found its way.

The super-achiever small church

Our next small church had altogether different challenges. It was the new babe on the big city block.

With high expectations and enthusiasm, this humble congregation also suffered with identity problems as it struggled to become a church in the Seattle, Washington, megalopolis. My wife and I were the second pastoral family to serve this new 2-year-old congregation, birthed by volunteers from other surrounding churches who saw the need for an Adventist church in this older, densely populated area of the city.

These brave saints came together and started a church in the living room of the first pastor's house. From this humble genesis came the growing need for a bigger church home. A rented church facility provided a place for a dynamic series of meetings, conducted by a visiting evangelist. As a result of this and other activities, many came into the new congregation, including the pastor from whom the church had been rented. However, as a result, the church we were renting canceled the lease, leaving our growing congregation homeless. Attempts to rent other facilities brought an array of problems as we searched for a permanent home.

Our congregation was like a beautiful crown adorned with an array of diverse jewels. A Caucasian pastor; an Egyptian head elder married to a Lebanese head deaconess; a Samoan elder. Then there were African-American, Chinese, Tongan, and Spanish teachers and other leaders all working together in one accord!

Our outreach and evangelism programs included: public meetings; Revelation and felt needs seminars; group Bible studies; Regeneration, a Christ-centered, 12-step support group network dealing with addictive-compulsive family dysfunctions; the Go Ye prison and street ministry; and the COSA (Christ Overcoming Sexual Addiction), COPE (Christ Overcoming Problem Eating), and SOA (Survivors of Abuse) outreaches.

We tried to touch people where they hurt, ministering to their needs by becoming a place where they could deal with and find healing for their dysfunctions. We strove to make our church a place of recovery and regeneration, where brand-new creatures in Christ could each become ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for God (see 2 Cor. 5:17-21).

Our membership grew, became stable, and achieved church status. A term lease was finally secured, and later a building was purchased. We had come together in the beginning with Jesus Christ at the center of our life together. We stayed together, made progress, worked beside one another, and achieved a measure of success that the Lord had blessed!

I believe that in all of this it is important to make sure that we as leaders are processing our issues and not falling into some of the control, codependent, chaotic traps that are often so much a part of any recovery ministry. If these personal issues are not dealt with, we may end up a "dependent" pastor leading a "codependent" congregation.

The small church seeking to adapt

After four years of exciting city ministry in Seattle, another call came to another small church several miles and a ferry ride across Puget Sound, in a quaint and quiet fishing town with a Norwegian heritage. The church had been established many years before by seriously committed, salt-of-the-earth, fiercely independent Seventh-day Adventists.

The church found itself beset by culture shock, reeling in its nonacceptance of the reality that "change happens." A growing boat industry, tourism, the U.S. Navy sub marine base, commuters, and shopping centers created a demographic revolution in the area.

The congregation needed to ask, "How do we respond to the expansive changes brought about by growth and development all around us?" But fear of an unknown future and fear of change was paralyzing them. Again, the lesson to learn was to accept the things that cannot be changed and have the courage and creativity to change what can be changed!

Visioning became a foundational concept. To paraphrase a well-known biblical text: "Where vision is lacking, the churches fail" (see Prov. 29:18). We saw the mere possibility of embracing a viable vision as some thing to get excited about. It was inspiring simply to think of the possibilities opened to us for outreach, growth, evangelism, sup port groups, community service even the church school had the potential of developing into an outreach program.

With elders in charge of "visit teams" and lay pastors in training, our vision became our mission. We claimed the promise that with the faith of a grain of mustard seed we could move the mountains of doubt, fear, frustration, and resistance to change. God built mountains of hope, one fulfilled promise at a time. John said: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18, NKJV).

One important aspect of small church ministry is the discipleship of lay and assistant pastors. A retired Marine officer came to help with the work in the church and became a literature evangelist. As my head elder he was ready, willing, and able to take on the task of pastoring the church when I was called to my next district. He has since become a full-time intern pastor of two small churches.

The mother church and the mascot

Nearly three years ago I was overjoyed at a call that came to me to pastor a two-church district that stretched 105 miles, with 45 islands in the upper northwest corner of the state of Washington. What a homecoming! Seventeen years before, my wife and I had been baptized together in the Friday Harbor church, now the second church in this district. The challenges to minister and meet the needs in this most unique and pristine place are, to say the least, awesome.

Oak Harbor, the first church, is on Whidbey Island. Fifty-five miles long and less than two miles wide, Whidbey is accessible by ferry at the south and west, and by bridge to the north. The Oak Harbor church, located in the northern part of Whidbey Island, is also the home of the naval air station and the sea plane base. The church congregation has a foundation of island pioneers, retirees, civilian support persons, and an ever-changing body of military personnel.

Severe weather conditions in winter and the presence of many tourists during the summer tend to impede the three forms of travel available: road, water, and air. Thus a ready and willing laity is a necessity, not only to brave these elements, but to be minute-persons in the services of the church, filling in wherever needed, and from time to time assuming actual pastoral duties.

The Oak Harbor congregation gladly shares its pastor once a month with Friday Harbor. The time, distance, and geographic and demographic conditions make this two-church district nearly impossible for one pastor to conduct any kind of consistent ministry in both churches.

The Friday Harbor church provides worship services and nurture to four primary islands, each with sparsely populated rural areas, plus 20 tiny, mostly summer-populated islands. Given these constraints, the only possible solution has been to find a qualified layperson who, as a task force pas tor, can carry out the day-to-day ministerial and pastoral services of the church.

Chris, baptized in Friday Harbor, under stood the island temperament. He had worked in youth evangelism with me in Russia and had spent two years in the Washing ton Conference. As the task force pastor, Chris has been instrumental in establishing lay training in all the islands. He has now stepped into the role of full-time intern pas tor in Friday Harbor.

In less than three years, all church growth statistics have doubled, proving again that the discipling of lay pastors in small church training grounds is a win-win plan.

The bottom line

I believe God calls us to minister to folks in out-of-the-way places, to teach them to be the ministers of reconciliation. As pastors we are to disciple, enable, and empower our people to do ministry. When specially called persons come along, we need to train, assist, and allow them to take on the work to the degree they are led, and are willing to be led.

Our ministry needs to be from a Jesus-filled heart spilling over into every life we meet. Being Acts I:8-type people, we need to empower others wherever we are sent to serve. There is a desperate need among us and our people to know God. Introducing people to God in a small-church setting is often easier, friendlier, and more fulfilling than it is in larger, more stress-filled church situations.

Increasingly I find this prayer rising in me: "Just give me a little church or two, with a few disciples, 0 Lord. Open the door for us and give us the strength of Your Holy Spirit to be ambassadors for You. In the name and power of Jesus Christ. Amen."


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Hal Gates, L.L.D., is pastor of the Oak Harbor/Friday Harbor districts in Oak Harbor, Washington.

September 1997

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