Small Churches in the Big Picture

William Imes

Professionally and vocationally, my focus has long been on the small towns that have served for generations as home to the majority of mainline Protestant churches.

But as our travels suggested, many of those towns are simply drying up and blowing away. From Upper Michigan to Eastern Washington we encountered small town after small town where the business district has virtually disappeared, schools have consolidated over larger and larger areas, and churches have dwindled.

At one point, we stopped to visit friends in Pomeroy and Fonda, Iowa, where I served as pastor at two United Church of Christ churches from 1969 to 1978. Forty years ago, the Fonda-Pomeroy UCC parish was a new “yoke.” In previous decades, each church had been strong enough to support a full-time, seminary-educated pastor on its own. The yoke meant that neither church was able to do so any longer.

A Church Razed

Today, a great deal has changed. The First United Church of Christ of Pomeroy closed in June 2007. When we visited this summer, we saw that the lovely brick building had been razed, and a vacant grass lot was all that was left. The last members have dispersed to congregations elsewhere. Gathering at a local restaurant to visit with these old friends was a bittersweet moment. They were a faithful group of Christians. Their life together had been marked by loyalty to the traditions of the Evangelical Synod

of North America (one of the precursor bodies of the UCC), great generosity (at one time their giving to benevolences actually reached 40 percent of the local church budget), and a strong understanding of the catholicity of the Christian church.

It is sad that their 128-year history has come to an end, yet their story illustrates three factors that have contributed to the rise and decline of U.S. mainline Protestantism over the last century.

First, theirs was an ethnic history. German by heritage, many of these persons had come from Ostfriesland in northern Germany, and some actually spoke Frisian rather than a German dialect. The members of First UCC-Pomeroy were the Germans who supported their German-speaking pastor’s de- sire to continue to worship in German during World War I, an act that resulted in his imprisonment. They helped him escape a mob eager to tar and feather him. After local self-styled “true Americans” shot at him in the pulpit during an Old Year’s Eve Service and then burned the church to the ground, many families joined an English-speaking Lutheran congregation while a remnant rebuilt the church and carried on as the First Evangelical Church.

By now, though, such dramatic ethnic history and identity are a dim memory, with little power to move new generations.

Second, there is the question of internal dynamics of local churches and how they limit growth. In 1969 this Pomeroy congregation of 119 adult members came basically from six families – more than 50 of them from just two families that were closely intermarried. And so, you joined First Church by marrying into it. When we returned for a visit in 1999, we were given a pictorial directory where the fate of the congregation was graphically portrayed. There was not one person pictured who had not been a part of the congregation when we left in 1978. Such congregations, where a church is literally a family affair, have been common in small-town America for decades.

Third, the single greatest factor facing American churches is that we have become an urban/ suburban nation. Within that movement from farm to town to city, another complex set of shifts has played out: American cities started as Protestant enclaves, became Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish centers, and are now yielding to non-denominational megachurches, alternative spiritualities, and secularism.

In Pomeroy in 1970 there were 1,800 people served by seven churches. One could argue that a community that size did not need seven churches. Indeed, Glenn Miller, in his 2007 book Piety and Profession, the magisterial second volume of his history of theological education in the United States, argues that a constant feature of U.S. Protestant life has been its over-churched nature. When those 1,800 people start to move away, the prospect of supporting seven churches becomes even less plausible.

In a country that is constantly growing, we lose sight of the fact that much of the country is failing to grow – in some cases, failing dramatically and traumatically. If you ever live in Maine, you learn to speak of “the County.” Aroostook County is the northernmost county in Maine; it accounts for 20 percent of the state’s area and is larger than the State of Connecticut. It currently has about 70,000 residents. Forty years ago it had more than 100,000. The loss of a major Air Force base was a factor in this decline, but the County is also the heart of Maine’s agriculture. Everywhere there, farms are getting larger, but the number of farmers is in steep decline. Foresting and mining communities have faced the same experience.

The story is similar elsewhere. Many of our relatives live in Koochiching County, MN., located on the Canadian border. Its population of 13,000 has dropped almost 25 percent from 1980. The globalization of the forest-products market and the mechanization of lumbering have combined to empty an already sparsely settled part of the world. In 1900, 28 percent of Minnesotans lived in the Twin Cities area. Today the figure is closer to 70 percent. For churches in the emptying parts of the state, the challenges are very large. The pastor of the Rainy River Parish in Koochiching County drives 84 miles round trip each Sunday to lead services at three small congregations in three separate communities. This is a common story; the travel distances only increase the further west one goes.

But our visit to friends in the Fonda United Church of Christ in Fonda, Iowa, lifted up another part of the story of churches in the towns of America – a more optimistic story. The difficult demographics are identical to those of Pomeroy. One former parishioner who had worked for the local newspaper, now long closed, said that 25 years ago the town had over 50 businesses. Today there are less than ten. But the religious landscape there is different from that in Pomeroy. Fonda has been predominately Irish Catholic for more than a century. The Presbyterian church closed a few years ago. Another Protestant congregation is expected to close at anytime. That will leave the Fonda UCC, with its 50 members, as the only Protestant church in a community of about 600 people.

New Job Description: Tentmaker

They are determined to stay hopeful – and viable. Their solution has been to turn to a longtime member, an engineer who commutes some 60 miles to work each day. Greg Baskerville has taken the lay minister training of the UCC’s Iowa Conference. He is fully licensed to serve that congregation. His presence gives the church hope for its continued future.

Such programs for lay ministers have multiplied rapidly in many denominations across the country. They are a part of a trend of creating multiple paths to ordination, alternatives to a conventional seminary education. Every denomination faces the problem of churches that cannot afford full-time, seminary-trained leadership. The Presbyterian Church (USA) lists 45 percent of its congregations as being without an installed pastor. About half of those congregations have no ordained leader-ship. The other half rely on retired pastors or bi-vocational “tentmakers.”

Last October I had the opportunity to meet with the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers. What began almost 20 years ago as an informal collection of people – licensed lay leaders and clergy who felt they might not fit traditional structures – now looks like one of the most useful paths for denominations to pursue in search of fully trained leadership for small churches (see www.

But the Spirit will continue to move. And churches and theological schools will respond – perhaps slowly and painfully – to that leading in the midst of pain and decline.

Tentmaking is not easy. Both congregation and pas- tor have to learn how to do it. At Bangor Theological Seminary we have trained many persons who ended up as tentmakers. Some would say that it bifurcates one’s life in complicated and unhelpful ways. But others believe it is the perfect answer for them to God’s call to ministry. A recent United Methodist Church graduate has combined a career as a very successful local TV weather forecaster with a ministry to two congregations that has strengthened both of them. He has just been appointed to serve a larger congregation on similar working terms.

It is important to remember that American Protestantism has been in this sort of predicament before. Through the 1920s and 30s, congregations in many areas declined and closed. Federated churches, larger parishes, and the training of lay pastors were all part of the solution to the problem of finding leadership for struggling congregations. In many ways the post-war 1950s and ’60s repeated the problems of the Constantinian Settlement: A well-attended and well-financed church pays a price in terms of losing its creativity, flexibility, and ability to heed and respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit will continue to move. And churches and theological schools will respond – perhaps slowly and painfully – to that leading in the midst of pain and decline. For there are small churches of great vitality that use the gifts they have been granted in faithful service to God and neighbor.

The Rev. William Imes retired earlier this year as president of Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where he served for seven years.



SIDEBAR: Inside the Megachurches

Since emerging in the 1970s, megachurches have changed the religious scene in America and altered the Protestant conversation.

A study released this summer, “Not Who You Think They Are: A Profile of the People Who Attend America’s Megachurches,” provides an updated snapshot of who attends megachurches. The study concentrated on twelve churches that each had an average weekly attendance of 3,900. Produced by Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary and Warren Bird
of Leadership Network, the study estimates there are 1,300 U.S. megachurches, congregations with weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more.

A few of the findings:
• The average megachurch attender is somewhat more educated than overall church attenders and significantly more so than the general U.S. public.

• They are also younger. The average age of megachurch attenders is 40. The average age of an attender in a typical congregation is nearly 53. Eighteen percent of megachurchgoers are 18-24, compared to 5 percent in all churches.

• Nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single and unmarried. In a typical church generally, singles account for 10 percent.

• Worship style is the strongest factor in the initial attraction to a megachurch.

• New people almost always come to the mega- church because family, friends, or co-workers invited them.

• One of the mainstays of megachurch programming – small group participation – engages only 60 percent of attenders.

• Megachurch financial giving figures fall below those for all churches generally: 32 percent of megachurchgoers give nothing financially, or con- tribute only a small amount when they can. This compares to 15 percent at churches generally.

• 11 percent of megachurch attenders said they didn’t consider the megachurch their home church; another 12 percent claimed it as “home” but said they also attend other churches too.

• 45 percent of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church.

Source: Field Study of U.S. Megachurches, produced by Leadership Network and Hartford Seminary. See the report at hirr.hartsem. edu/megachurch/megachurch_attender_report.htm