The One Percent Church

I recently retired from fulltime vocational ministry. During my forty years of church work, I served churches of all sizes, from student pastorates with a few dozen members to the senior pastorate of a megachurch. However, the majority of my ministerial career was spent pastoring large membership congregations. As a result, I often felt more like the CEO of a large religious organization than the pastor of a congregation. I devoted most of my energy into institutional issues like buildings, budgets, fundraising, strategic planning, marketing, conflict management, denominational commitments, and staff supervision. I enjoyed much of the work, and am mostly grateful for my time in large churches.

However, along the way, I slowly grew weary of institutional management. In my first fulltime pastorate, I knew the name of every member and most of their stories. But as the decades passed, I only knew the names of a small percentage of the membership, and very few of their stories. I missed being a pastor. Near the end of my career, I realized that my work had evolved from a joyful vocation into a job. I still did the job with competence, but wasn’t having much fun. I’m not blaming this dynamic on large congregations. I’m sure many large church pastors manage to maintain their pastoral joy and identity in spite of all the administrative tasks. I just know that I grew tired of institutional church work. So, when our financial advisor told my wife and I that we could go ahead and retire with confidence, I took early retirement at age 62.

I planned on using retirement to spend more time with family and friends, enjoy non-work interests, and continue my long avocation of writing. I even have a novel I’m working on and am excited about. Retirement bliss lasted all of seven weeks. Then I received a phone call from my District Superintendent. A small rural church about twenty-five miles from my home needed an interim pastor. Their minister fell ill, and the Conference needed someone to fill in for a while. I had preached there on multiple occasions over the years and liked the feel of the place, so agreed to the interim. About a month later, my DS informed me the pastor would not return, and asked if I would consider taking the church on a permanent part-time basis. After several weeks of thought, prayer, and dialogue with key people, I said yes.

My part-time rural church is 1% the size of my largest pastorate. That church, if you count children, had 10,000 members. My little church has less than 100 members. Worship attendance at my previous megachurch ran about 2,500. Last year, my little church averaged about 25 on Sunday, although we’ve seen a solid increase since then. If you include the preschool, my largest pastorate employed over 150 staff members. I had my own fulltime administrative assistant whose only responsibility was to support the senior pastor. The significant compensation package even included a company car. My current church employs a part time pastor and a part time pianist, and nobody gets a car! I used to pastor the largest church of my denomination in my home state. My new church is among the smallest. So, I now pastor a 1% church in comparison with the megachurch I served in the past. But I’m enjoying the work a whole lot more.

These days, instead of focusing on institutional matters, I spend virtually all my time preparing and leading worship, loving the congregation, and caring about its tiny community of less than three hundred people. I know everyone’s name who attends worship, and I’m rapidly learning their stories. I type up, run off, and fold the weekly bulletins, which has become an enjoyable labor of love. I recently wrote a hand written pastoral card to every person in the church. Instead of having a secretary write their names and addresses on the envelopes, or running them through mail merge, I hand printed each one. I also went to the post office to purchase stamps, and placed a stamp on each envelope, because my church doesn’t have a postage machine. We do have a website. However, we lost the password a long time ago and haven’t updated it for over a year, including information about the new pastor. Nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve already made several home visits, with more to come. I enjoy hanging out at the local general store and talking to folks, many of whom are connected to my congregation. Several of my parishioners call me “Brother Martin.” I’ve never liked that designation, even during my Baptist years. But in this rural setting, I realize it’s a term of endearment, so I’m fine with the title. Music at my church is limited, with some Sundays better than others, depending on how many choir members show up. Sometimes children are present, sometimes not, so I keep a children’s message in my Bible, just in case. We don’t have any programs to speak of. On the back wall of the sanctuary hangs a big picture of Jesus. Art critics, historians and theologians would correctly point out that he looks too much like a modern white westerner and not enough like a first century Jew. But I can think of far worse things to hang on the wall of a church than a picture of Jesus. The picture vividly reminds us what we are about, and who we follow.

I haven’t completely abandoned my previous methods of doing large church ministry. For example, I couldn’t help but play around with a “branding” for the congregation. So, I came up with the motto, “Building Relationships that Last: with God, one another, and our community.” We put the new motto on our stationary, newsletter and worship bulletins, although I doubt it has much of an impact. However, the reality behind the motto is palpable. These rural folks are experts at building relationships that last. And those connections, more than anything else, are the driving force behind the church. Thankfully, the congregation openly welcomes newcomers into their connectional web, and I get to be a part of it. I even get paid a little bit to do so.

Last week I ate lunch with my clergy support group. We’ve been together for over twenty years. Only one of us is still standing as a fulltime pastor. The rest of us have either quit pastoral ministry or taken early retirement. Like me, most members of my group grew weary of institutional religion. But as I told them stories about my little church, I felt deep vocational joy, something I haven’t felt in a long time. I don’t mean to over-romanticize small rural churches. I’m sure plenty of them are dysfunctional, just like medium and large churches. But oh my, it feels good to be a pastor again instead of a CEO. As I told my good friends, “I’m having more fun in church work than I’ve had in decades.” Even at a 1% church.