The great privilege of an 'ordinary pastor'
Ed Moll, minister of St George's Church in Wembdon, Somerset has served alongside an assistant minister for the last few years but for many years at Wembdon he was the sole staff member, and here he addresses the question of how to develop a training culture in a sole-pastor church context.
"Are you busy today?" asked the hairdresser as she cut my hair.
"No, it's my day off."
"I had no idea vicars got a day off" she offered.
Come to think of it, she probably had no idea what we do on a day ‘on' either. As it happens we went on to talk about other things, but the conversation made me think about what I might have said to her, and to you, about being the minister of a parish church in a small town.
Small church, small town, big heart
Wembdon is a large village in the process of being gobbled up by Bridgwater, a town in the middle of Somerset, half way between Exeter and Bristol on the M5 motorway. Somerset is famous for pork, cider and some cricketers. Bridgwater is famous for its carnival and for the cellophane factory which used to smell until it closed a few years ago. In all, it is an ordinary town, and there are about thirty thousand people within reach of St George's Church.
Bridgwater may not be the centre of the universe, but it is the centre of where God has placed us. And he has given the church family here a big heart for the area. There has been a church in Wembdon for hundreds of years, and an evangelical ministry for about the last forty years. When I came two years ago to be the vicar it was to help the church family continue to bring the gospel to bear on the region. I am joined by a pastoral assistant two days a week, and a handful of marvellous volunteers who do various things. To be sure, there have been different emphases over the past few years, and we needed to recover our focus and our mission. We are working to "Reach Wembdon and Bridgwater with the Gospel, to Build up mature believers in Christ, and to Send God's workers into God's world". In other words it is ordinary gospel ministry in an ordinary place. And it is a great privilege to be the ordinary pastor there. But by God's grace, extraordinary things happen so that we see changed lives.
What does ministry in a single-pastor church look like? I hope what follows may help outline some of the challenges and benefits of being in a smaller church, and shed some light on what a training culture looks like in a set-up like ours in Wembdon.
Most of my church life since conversion has been in middle-sized and larger churches: two or more full-time staff and 180 or more regulars. Much of our time was spent trying to ‘make big church feel small' (to borrow a phrase). We had to work hard at recreating the dynamics of small churches through small groups, so that fellowship could flourish and members could grow in doing the ‘one anothers' commanded in Scripture. We also had to work hard at helping newcomers genuinely to become part of the church family. In a smaller church, the ‘family' feel is so much closer at hand. It is by no means automatic, and true Christian warmth is a work of the Spirit. But in a church of our size, it is feasible to put faces to all the names in the church prayer diary as we pray for them.
Just as we get to know the church family, so they can get to know us as a family. We have been really fortunate not to have inherited roles for the minister's wife and children; we are able to be ourselves and to be known for who we are. I feel less pressure to be on a pedestal, and more able to be myself - while keeping hold of my responsibilities to be a leader and a servant of the flock. In each church there are also usually a handful of encouragers: what a gift they are! I think they can really get a feel for how things are affecting me personally as well as how they affect the gospel work.
As far as being the minister is concerned, I have really enjoyed being in a position to have a rough idea of what is going on in most areas of church life (certainly not my experience of being on a larger staff team): I do not run every area, nor would I ever want to. Indeed as the church grows beyond the one-hundred mark, it is essential that I keep delegating, and keep building a team. At the moment, the team working most closely with me have a reasonable idea of how their work affects other areas of church life.
One of the joys of ministry is that no two days are the same. And that is true in spades for the sole minister! I get to wear a lot of different hats in the course of a week: in addition to being pastor and teacher, I am also an administrator, a schools worker, the custodian of some buildings, and in all these areas I have to be a leader and overseer. These are all aspects of the church's life. The frustration is that as all these things compete for my time, it takes iron discipline to carve out ‘quality' time for preparation and prayer. (Were I the pastor of a larger church, I imagine that the tasks competing for my time may be different: but the discipline required to keep the main thing the main thing would be if anything greater).
The joy is that the variety is interesting, and they are all part of working to ensure that the gospel has a platform in the present, and for the foreseeable future. I am learning new skills and new roles all the time: much of this may be related to being new as incumbent (ie. senior pastor), but even as I get to grips with some aspects, there are plenty of other issues waiting for time and attention. As ours is a church in constant need of reformation, I do not anticipate ever reaching a point of being able to say we have ‘arrived' as a church.
There are a number of challenges in being in a smaller church, and to being the only full-time worker at the church. The first is the danger of isolation. I have members of the church to pray with, but not yet many whose training and understanding can genuinely sharpen mine. So I try to make time to meet with other ministers, recognising that with travel time it will take the best part of a whole day to meet someone. I have to remind myself that this is time well spent when I return to a desk full of ‘things to be done'.
A second danger is one of fragmentation: I have to wear so many hats that I find it hard to get concentrated time to study, pray and think and instead I spend more time thinking about church than about God. The calls on my time are greater than they ever were in my previous posts as assistant minister. Even with some rearrangement of the diary, and some time away from home to study, the pressure remains. In time it would be a bonus to have a colleague who can take some of these tasks off me or at least share the load.
One surprise is that we may find it harder to grow as a church. The step up in staffing from one to two full-timers is a much bigger leap than from five to six on a larger team. Adding staff, or planting a new congregation, seems such an outrageously costly thing to do that we will not bother even to contemplate it unless our love for the lost compels us. Even incremental growth will mean all-round inconvenience, and losing the benefits of being small. So the danger is that if we are currently functioning well enough to pay our way and mainly fill the building (which we are), we will leave real growth to others.
Finally, smaller churches feel much more vulnerable. It is as if we think we are running so much closer to the ground that if the wheels fall off, the bump will come very quickly. We would love to have more strength-in-depth and that will come as over time more of our members become trained and confident in their Christian understanding.
Training has always been an integral part of caring for the church, equipping the members to play their part. We do not have a steady stream of students and young professionals to train and send on: nor do we have a staff member with the time and experience to do mainly training. But we do have many opportunities to train members up so that they may be mature in Christ and competent to serve where they already are. Here are just some of the ways we are able to create a training culture (none are original): in business meetings, every discussion and decision is an opportunity to remind ourselves what we are trying to achieve and why; in meetings with my colleague and with my churchwardens, I try to have a book on the go that we are reading together. At the moment we manage about two books a year! In church I always try to teach the Bible in a way that shows what the text says and why. Similarly in small group Bible studies. With Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored I should be thinking about inviting folk to come as co-leaders to watch and learn. I meet with those who preach and might preach, about once a term. Our youth and children's leaders meet to plan and pray, and we also arrange training for them, sometimes all together, sometimes for them to do in their teams. And I keep reminding the current crop of ‘young' adults (which in our church means those in their forties!) that they will need to step up because those doing most of the jobs are in their sixties and will not go on for ever. This actually focuses the mind: we have about ten years to train new people to take on the current range of jobs being done in church - let alone if our growth means there are new things to do.
Churches large and small need each other in different ways. Our friends and neighbours who live without Christ need a faithful church, however big or small it is. And the opportunities and needs remain immense. Do not be afraid of launching into a smaller church.
[This article first appeared on the 9:38 blog in 2009.]