Tuesday, May 7, 2024

VIDEO: Trends in Small Church Vitality

Join our webinar discussing trends in small church vitality within The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ denominations.

This webinar is part of an ongoing webinar series. Each webinar will explore the latest church research and insights for beginning the ministry year full of optimism and direction.

Below is an edited Q&A transcript from the webinar

What do you make of some of this data? And also, how does it resonate or challenge some of your experiences and work?

The Rev. Rebekah Hatch, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church/SCBI: Thanks, Scott, Molly, and Erica. It’s interesting to see all this come into focus with the numbers, along with being the rector of St. Albans here in Simsbury, Connecticut, as Scott mentioned earlier. Myself and my colleague, Stacy Williams Duncan, are co-founders of the Small Church Big Impact Collective. One of the things we do as part of that work is host monthly calls, around 3 or 4 per month, bringing together small church clergy from across the Episcopal Church in the country. A lot of the statistics we’re hearing today, we hear in a more narrative way during those conversations.

I have a feeling that Stacy was drawn to some of the same data that I was, particularly the piece about engagement that both Molly and Erica talked about. We certainly hear that from our colleagues on these calls – that folks know where their people are from Sunday to Sunday. As I always say, if someone’s not in church, I know where they are. That statistic really resonates with us. We see a higher level of commitment, involvement, and, in a positive way, concern for the community in small churches.

This makes me wonder if it has something to do with how small churches see themselves. I wonder if there’s more of a shared burden among members of small congregations, such that they might not see themselves in such a positive way, as Erica was describing. Another curiosity around that data is that sometimes being small is in the DNA of these churches – that’s how they started and much of their history. However, many of our small congregations have a history of previously being bigger, more vital, and more involved in the community. I also wonder if that past perception as a larger congregation contributes to how they currently see themselves as smaller.

There’s lots more to respond to about vitality and how we think about that in terms of numbers. But I want to make sure my other colleagues on our webinar today get a chance to talk. So just some initial thoughts.

The Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan, Little Fork Episcopal Church: I appreciate the data. I value data, as I think narratives can become myopic without data to compare them to. As a social scientist doing educational research and as the part-time rector of a very small congregation, I want to highlight a few things from my experience.

One is the importance of discussing percentages. Two years ago, I stopped reporting raw attendance numbers to our congregation. Instead, I report the percentage of involvement – like what percentage of average Sunday attendance we had for Easter or a Bible study. I did this because people would see smaller raw numbers like 10 people and fail to recognize that was 30% of our congregation.

This has changed their perception. Instead of thinking of themselves as unvital, they talk about their high engagement percentage. When we had a concert with 112 people, including 23 of our members, they noted it was 400% of our usual Sunday attendance. It has shifted how they see themselves.

Sometimes in small churches, the bigger narrative we tell about church decline weighs heavier than in larger congregations, as Rebecca mentioned. One question I’d love to ask about the data is who is responding. In a small church, you may get a wider range – positively engaged members but also critics – due to that higher engagement percentage. Whereas at a large church, survey responders are likely more positively involved.

There may be a question about the level of involvement that could interestingly cross-reference this data. Finally, in the consulting company I founded, Learning Forte, everything we develop starts with a small church model that we then adapt if needed for larger organizations. I have yet to create an adaptive leadership or planning model for small organizations that doesn’t work when scaled up. However, models created for large organizations always need adapting to scale down.

So I’ve started publicly challenging denominations – if most of your congregations are 50 or less, there is no ethical, moral, or spiritual justification for investing in developing models that don’t begin by serving those small congregations.

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fischer, East Granby Congregational Church: Both as a part-time designated term minister at a church in rural Connecticut and as the principal consultant with Congregation Collaboration, one thing I see in smaller pastorates is a willingness by the pastor to speak with the congregation about collaborative efforts. You need to find ways to bring together the wider community, whether it’s other congregations or parts of the community you’re centered in, to meet the needs of those around you.

You need real clarity of your vision, identity, and mission for your congregation, and then go out with your high number or percentage of volunteers into the community to see how you can best utilize your assets. Many of these small congregations are still housed in large buildings and campuses, and there are community needs that could be met by opening your doors. I know there are concerns about tax status, but there are workarounds as long as you’re aware.

And if you have signature ministries, you might want to collaborate with other churches of the same or different denominations. There’s a real sense of the need for creative thinking. Our clergy on the front lines are really open to creative responses to bring the spirit into their work and community, and they can lead the congregation along that same path.

So vitality seeps out from your building into the community and other congregations. We can build on each other by being willing to collaborate, utilizing our assets and volunteers, having clarity of vision/mission, and thinking creatively to meet community needs across congregational lines.

What are your thoughts on the measure of vitality? What would you put in a listing of measures of vitality?

The Rev. Rebekah Hatch, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church/SCBI: If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times – a very qualitative measure of vitality is how equipped people feel to tell their story with God. In smaller congregations, whether because of a sense of intimacy or lack of anonymity, I’ve found it to be a real space for possible growth in hearing people shift into spaces where they can more readily talk about the presence of God in their life and respond to Scripture in a way that isn’t completely cerebral and academic, but speaks to Scripture being alive in their life and the presence of the Spirit.

Especially in the Episcopal Church, especially in New England, having folks be able to tell those stories more readily feels like a real sign of vitality to me. One person in a Bible study responding to how the Spirit is moving in their life – I just rejoice in seeing that. The more we can create spaces for that to happen and equip people to share their stories of God’s presence, the better. That’s what affects our lives as disciples outside of the church building, outside of Sunday mornings. Helping people give voice to their lived experiences of God is so important for real vitality.

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fischer, East Granby Congregational Church: I think another side of vitality is how your church membership is responding to your sense of place in the world. We all know there’s this terrible epidemic of loneliness, and as much as we sometimes dismiss churches as just glorified social clubs, that’s not something to disregard when it comes to the personal mental health of especially our aging population. It’s really important that they feel loved, cared for, seen, and heard.

Sometimes we can cast aspersions at churches that are more attentive to their own congregation as opposed to being outwardly focused on doing the work of the Spirit. But we have to love ourselves in order to love others – there is that great commandment. So for small churches, it represents a shift in perspective.

Providing that sense of belonging, community and being cared for is an important aspect of vitality, especially in addressing the loneliness epidemic. While outward community engagement is crucial, churches should not be faulted for also tending to the need for connection and support within their own membership, as self-love enables loving others. It’s about balance and perspective for small congregations.