Beyond the Boundaries

Sometime ago I meditated on the plight of our congregations, particularly our small churches, particularly those who limited their mission and ministry to care of those in that congregation. In every case decline is the result.

Let me tell you another story. Johnson Chapel is a small congregation. In October of 2002 Tom Salter, a retired pastor, was appointed there, sure that he would be the last pastor. For a couple of years, Johnson Chapel continued to decline (attendance under 20) then in 2005, in Tom’s words, “the stone was rolled away . . . and a near-death revival began.” Attendance doubled, offerings increased 80%, 28 new members were received in the next two years.

Because dozens of our congregations currently suffer the same plight as the old Johnson Chapel, I asked Tom to cite the major things he has learned about small churches:

“Our priorities (of focus and of financial support) are #1, outreach ministries and missions: #2, congregational ministries; #3, facilities and properties; #4, pastor’s compensation.

Factors contributing to our amazing growth are:

First: A giving spirit. A dying organism tends to preserve itself by conserving its resources. If you want to live – give!

Second: A seeker-friendly atmosphere. I have not made a single ‘cold-call’; the people reach out first. We use monthly ‘Friendship Suppers’ to attract community people. We now have an early worship service, and an inter-service ‘coffee time’ for mingling.

Third: Strong care ministries, both lay and pastoral. We now have an effective card ministry for sick, confined, and needy persons in the community. A ‘Compassionate Hand’ ministry is a community benevolence fund for the needy. We are asked by the school to ‘adopt’ 4 needy children. Instead, we adopted 11. Many of our new congregants came to Johnson Chapel as a result of our pastoral care outreach.

Fourth: Stable pastoral leadership. I have stayed there. The growth spurt did not begin until my third year.”

Our small congregations can grow! Thanks to this able “retired” pastor for his leadership. We are all learning what God can do when we join Jesus “beyond the boundaries.”

William H. Willimon

7 thoughts on “Beyond the Boundaries

  1. Thanks for this post. It is truly helpful. I will pass it on to the leadership of the small churches in my circuit (yes, we have circuits in the Wisconsin Conference).I wish, however, that you would join the discussion going on online about the larger plight of mainline denominations. You might look at the links I provide to reflections by Mark Roberts and Drew Tatusko in a post of mine, and the ensuing comment thread thereto: regards,John Hobbins


  2. Bishop,As pastor of a small church, thanks for this. This is just the kind of story I need to remind our people of the great cloud of witnesses blazing the trail forward in mission!A question about the order of priorities. Pastor’s compensation was last. For most churches, it’s first. If this was a retired pastor, I assume his main source of income was pension, not church paycheck. How does that change in situation affect other small churches that don’t have a retired pastor?


  3. I met Rev. Salter when I was employed by Cokesbury Birmingham while going to school at Beeson. It does not surprise me that he has been a blessing to this congregation.


  4. Bishop,I thank you for this post. I, too, like Casey my friend and colleague, am a pastor of a small, rural church in Fuquay-Varina, NC. It is at this church that I daily see the spirit at work in the form of an intergenerational, interracial, and inter-socioeconomic ministry to the youth and children of an area mobile home neighborhood. Our children are the invisible people of this community, but instead of allowing that injustice to continue, the LAITY of this rural congregation began to reach out, transport, feed (both physically and spiritually), and eventual come to love as their own, each of these beautiful children. Very simply, the church explains the reversal of their long and steady decline to 20 at worship as their finally listening to the Holy Spirit say, ‘Go!’ I see each of the characteristics you have mentioned in your post within this congregation. But I wish to emphasize something else I have seen. The people of this congregation truly love one another. They truly love those whom they invite. No, these children cannot tithe, as they have no income, but they give in all so many more ways. It has caused the congregation to love again, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ has returned, and the church membership is growing, even with this inexperienced student pastor behind the pulpit. What a joy there is to see resurrection at work! Again, thank you for this post. I truly believe the small membership congregation is the heart of the UMC.In Him,Joseph B. DeWitte


  5. Thanks, Joe. Wonderful insights. I gather, from what Bishop Carder has told me, that you seem to have a real gift for small, rural churches and their people. These are some of our best congregations IF they will work not to be some sort of club for old folks and reach out! Your story is moving. And quite encouraging.Lovette Weems has noted in our first 100 years Methodists builtinstitutions for other people’s children, colleges, schools, orphanages. In our second 100 years we built up institutions mostly for ourselves. Sad commentary.Thanks for your thoughtful, encouraging response.Will


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