A Reflection on Season 1, Episode 3: Why I Chose a Small Church
In this episode, Susie and Allison explore what Susie correctly terms ‘the most direct title’ of all our episodes. Allison chronicles her desire for smaller church ministry not only after a season in doing extra-parochial work (that is, work outside the church), but following a call to be named to a Bishop Candidate Slate in her home diocese of Alabama. As the two talk about choosing to serve a smaller parish, Allison also lifts up the role she inherited not only as the one who listened to the story of her congregation, but how the pain within them could be transformed into something else– namely a way for them to listen to the stories of one another.
Some of the themes which emerged from this particular episode are:
- Representation matters. The calls of both Susie and Allison came from those in diocesan positions who understood that smaller churches needed the profound gifts and talents of experienced clergy, and didn’t treat the parishes as a ‘way station’ for those who were either new, or in retirement. Likewise, the Diocese of Alabama recognized that depth of experience and pastoral authority wasn’t only found in staff members from larger parishes, or with longer tenures, but that experience with small church ministry as a priest was essential in caring for a community (or diocese) where smaller churches outnumbered the larger ones.
- Too small to hide in. Being in a small congregation means being known — which isn’t for everyone. But being known, according to Allison, is how gifts are shared in the community of faith and prayer. If you can’t find a place to hide, then you have the opportunity of having others recognize your gifts, receive them, and put them to use. There are challenges: how to welcome newcomers, how to invite them out of the corners. But there are also profound gifts: how can a community be changed by every person who joins it?
- Pastors as community storytellers, story-holders. Allison’s decision to have a 1 to 1 meeting and conversation with every member of the parish within a few months was a large task– and ultimately, one which allowed her to hear more closely the minor and meta-narratives her congregation saw themselves in. Her role wasn’t just to compare stories, but to listen to the grief and grace which each held, and as the stories were being held reverently, trust could form between pastor and parishioner. The trust in wanting to hear even the stories of pain and loss (especially with the splitting of the church) created an opening for a renewed way of telling stories, including in Allison’s preaching and pastoring.
- The power of ‘not yet’. Pivoting, being nimble, trying things on– Allison mentions how much she loves the phrase ‘not yet’, because it allows for things to change within a church, or program, or ministry. The low infrastructure of smaller churches can often be a catalyst for courage — knowing that if something doesn’t work for the congregation, then it’s possible to change it, or do something different, or spend energy in a different way. ‘Not yet’ allows the emergence of new and new-again to continue to evolve.
- Removing the space between people. All of the above– being known, being open, being story-holders and understanding the power of representation comes to fruition in one particular group at Allison’s church, an open group for Transgender/Nonbinary individuals and those who love them. ‘I may not understand them, but I can love them’, one parishioner says. Sharing stories, even the hard one, and perhaps *especially* the hard ones, allows for deeper trust and faith and therefore, the ability to change.
Questions for Discussion
- On so many levels, representation matters. When have you felt represented and seen by those in authority or in leadership? When have you been the sign of representation that others see as someone in authority or leadership? What assumptions have you carried about which gifts are necessary for such jobs and vocations?
- A gift and challenge of smaller churches is literally the very openness of being known. When has being known by others brought you joy? When has it brought vulnerability? In the context of the church, are you in a place where connection is prized? Or privacy? Or anonymity?
- What might be a story you hold about the church you are in? What stories have been placed in your lap, or in your memory which you hold for others? How have those stories shifted, if at all, your ministry?
- What is your and/or your congregation’s level of willingness to ‘try things on’? To throw a bunch of wet noodles against a wall and see what sticks? Does that offer you or your congregation a sense of opportunity and delight, or something else less joyful?
- What are the ways you and your congregation have practiced ‘removing the space between people’ in your own ways and through your own gifts? When has that happened within the community– and when has it happened in partnership with the community outside the parish? When have you, yourself, removed space between you and another?