HEARTLAND | Meredith Flynn
In two out of three Southern Baptist congregations, fewer than 100 people gather for worship on Sunday morning. Megachurches may get more attention, but small churches are the backbone of the SBC, Frank Page has said.
Still, small church pastors often feel overlooked and marginalized, left out and under-resourced. A new advisory council assembled by Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, exists to communicate the unique needs of these categories of churches with denominational leaders.
“I will not allow the Southern Baptist Convention to forget who we are,” said Page during the first meeting of the Bivocational and Small Church Advisory Council. “Part of my goal in this is to elevate the role of the small church pastor and the bivocational pastor, period. And that’s going to happen.”
Illinois pastor Cliff Woodman is part of the 21-member council, which will work over the next three years to develop a report on the statistics that define Southern Baptist churches. The group, one of several Page has brought together in his first four years as Executive Committee president, represents a large majority of Southern Baptist churches.
“Some would say 35,000 of our 46,000 churches, maybe more than that, are in the two categories of small church or bivocational,” Page said at the Sept. 11-12 meeting in Atlanta. For the council’s purposes, he defined a small church as one with 125 people or fewer in Sunday school attendance. The group also looked at research on the percentages of SBC churches by worship attendance. According to 2013 data, 68% of Southern Baptist churches have 100 or fewer people in worship, compared to 78% of IBSA churches and missions.
Woodman, now pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Carlinville, spent more than 25 years as a bivocational pastor at Harmony Baptist Church in
Medora. He told the Illinois Baptist small church and bivocational pastors (most who also work a second job) often feel out-of-the-loop. Sunday school curriculum may feel tailored to larger churches with more people and more classroom space, for example, and large church pastors often are the ones invited to speak at meetings or conferences.
But non-megachurches can be effective churches. Woodman, whose Carlinville church reported an average worship attendance of 145 in their 2013 Annual Church Profile, is leading Emmanuel to look closely at what makes a congregation healthy. He referenced LifeWay President Thom Rainer’s 2013 book “I Am A Church Member,” which outlines members’ responsibilities to their congregation.
“If a church member’s not supposed to look at ‘what’s in it for me,’ then maybe churches ought to stop looking at ‘what’s in it for me,’” Woodman said. The better question is, “What can I do for the bigger body?”
Major shift toward bivocational
Page has used a “fault lines” analogy to describes areas of SBC life where there are rifts between different groups. One of those fault lines, he said in the Atlanta meeting, is related to church methodology, or how churches do church. The discussion centered on bivocational ministry, a strategy Page called “the wave of the future.” It’s also the wave of the past.
Southern Baptist churches have long relied on bivocational pastors to lead churches. Decades ago, many pastors were farmers; today, they also drive school buses, deliver the mail, and run small businesses.
“I’m convinced that in the 21st Century, the best stewardship model is bivocational,” Page said. “We’ve got a lot of students coming out of seminary now who have no intention of being full support.” In other words, they’re prepared to work more than one job to make ends meet.
That news was encouraging to Woodman. There was a day, he said, when “the underlying current was that the bivocational guy wasn’t good enough to have a full-time church.” Page shared with the group that some Christian universities are now training students to be pastors along with learning another vocation.
While there will always be churches that want their pastor to be full-time, Woodman said, bivocational ministry is imperative if Southern Baptists want to extend the reach of churches into more communities. “And we’re going to have to do a better job at it,” he said, and at preparing future leaders for it. Because bivocational pastoring is “a different game.”
Quit the comparison game
Small church pastor Job Dalomba posed a pointed question in an April blog post: “We have to ask ourselves an honest question: Do we want to see the glory of God shining from larger churches or do we just want their numbers, resources and notoriety to be our numbers, resources and notoriety?”
The SBC Voices post by Dalomba, pastor of a new, small church in Southaven, Mississippi, called for small church pastors to stop comparing themselves to men who lead larger congregations, and to pray for those big churches too.
It’s a strategy the congregation at Emmanuel has utilized this year. A church’s prayer requests are a good measure of its health, Pastor Woodman said. “Throw them up on the wall, and see what your prayer requests do. And when you get done, you begin to think about what does that tell you your view of God is.
“And in essence, you’ll find in most churches that he’s healer, a physician; he’s an employment agency; he’s Triple A. But what’s lacking is that he’s a savior.”
Woodman’s congregation was already praying by name for people who don’t know Christ when he arrived as pastor last year. To that focus, they’ve added regular prayer for sister churches in Macoupin Baptist Association. The prayers are scripted, with a focus on reaching people who don’t know Christ. Woodman is hopeful the strategy will help build a spirit of teamwork between his church and others in the community, he told SBC Life earlier this year.
“When we started praying for our sister churches, that helped us be healthier. If we as pastors and churches would take the same attitude, then we’d stop looking at what others were doing for us, and we’d start doing for others.”