Dave Miller’s insightful article about his and his church’s recent travails was excellent. It was also paradigmatic of thousands of SBC churches. Dave’s church was not a small or average-sized church and I’m thinking here of the average-sized SBC church, somewhere around 125, and the median sized SBC churches, somewhere around 70. Generally, these are churches that can support a full-time pastor and most of the opportunities for being THE pastor (senior pastor, lead pastor, etc.) are in churches of this size. There are tens of thousands of SBC churches in this range and below.
Many of them are in difficulty. Here are a couple I’m familiar with and their difficulty.
First Baptist Church of Smalltown
This church is well into its second century of existence, has nice facilities that include sanctuary, educational space, and office space. It has room to expand, nice children and preschool facilities and playground. It’s smack in the middle of a growing small town.
It’s also having a tough go of it.
The church was reasonably stable, growing in spurts, for many years. The last 40 years saw two solid, long-term pastors (around 7 years and 14 years). Those two ended their ministry without drama, firing, or forced termination. Add in five pastors who were effectively forced to resign and two long term interims. That’s a lot of leadership.
The math says about a five-year average tenure but remove the two long-serving pastors and the math says 19 years, 7 different pastors – not a recipe for success.
The last ten years includes: (1) Long term supply who was solid, gave good advice but was Sunday-only, without substantial involvement in the church or addressing any systemic church problems. He was replaced by (2) Younger, enthusiastic, mostly inexperienced second career pastor who had issues. He was forced to leave. (3) Second long term interim who was solid, gave good advice when asked. He did some good work but his accomplishment was in part getting the state convention a larger share of the church budget. Replaced by (4) Experienced, solid pastor who did well. Leadership issues led to his voluntary resignation after 3 years.
Each of these transitions cost the church. People left. People got mad and left. People got mad and stayed. The COVID mess cost the church. The institutional history of the church is generally negative in the community although the church does a lot of good work. Untold numbers of people have come to and through this church. The strongest lay leaders have moved on to other churches.
There will be some kind of church at this location. It’s not clear now what kind of church it would be.
Our itinerant ministry system makes this church attractive. Nice church plant. Money in the bank. The church could find an energetic pastor who would make the church prosper. Then, that guy would probably move to a bigger church after a few years. Or, the church could find a solid if not spectacular middle-aged or older pastor who would bring stability and consistency for some years. Or, the church could partner with a nearby megachurch. There are two within a few miles. “Partner” in this context essentially means that the current church would cease to exist, save for the familiar buildings. Or, the church could arrange a relaunch on the site. Or, the church could be taken over by a local who sees an opportunity for an independent church.
All of these are reasonable alternatives but things cannot keep going as they have.
Rancorous First Baptist Church of Smalltown Exurbia
Pastors in this medium sized church seem to stay beyond the average tenure, they pay is good, but either they die or are destroyed in the process. Average tenure of about ten years going back a few decades. Two pastors died or had terminal illnesses and resigned. Two endured for years but were ground down in time. The core lay leadership stays the same. Having lost half the membership, no one is alarmed because, “We just gotta get the right guy this time” has always been the mantra.
This church would be called a “problem church” by many but will not have difficulty finding a pastor because they have some financial firepower.
Seems there are a couple of new, growing churches establishing themselves nearby. The comment, “We got tired of the drama in FBC and think something new would be a healthier environment for our family” is often heard.
There probably isn’t a survival crisis on this church’s near horizon. And they can probably get “the right guy”…again. And then ruin him.
Maybe change their name to Ichabod Baptist Church is a reasonable alternative but that’s just me. The Lord may have different plans but who listens to the Lord in this church, anyway?
We are all experts, aren’t we?
There are some clear trends: (1) church attendance in America is declining across the board, independent of local church specifics, (2) people are moving from small churches to larger churches, (3) it is generally more difficult to pastor now than it was when SBC churches began to go “fulltime” in the 1950s, than in the glory years of the Boomers (1950s-1960s). Social media, thought to be a boon to the ministry, may end up being one of our biggest problems, and (5) pastors aren’t willing to endure the stuff our predecessors endured for the sake of pastoring a church.
All of which means….I don’t know what. Some PhD can inform me. I just know what I see and read.
But I do know that I’m glad I’m retired.
And maybe we could all create our own boutique independent ministry enterprises, consult with each other, coach each other for big bucks, buy each other’s books, and pay each other for church growth conference speaking.
Our seminaries still educate and train thousands of pastors. I hope they all have a place to go in 20 years.
And we’re spending a lot of time on “woke” are we?