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OpEd: Small congregation, big heart

A pastor in Staten Island laments that little churches like his own are looked down upon.

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Graffiti in north Staten Island. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


A pastor in Staten Island laments that little churches like his own are looked down upon. Yet, they form a significant portion of congregations in the city.

We talked with this pastor during our Journey through north Staten Island religions. Hitting the streets in the island, we found many jewels like this pastor and his church. It is such a joy to meet them!

What did we observe about this pastor? He has a heart as big as our city. He is extremely creative in trying things to reach people. He hasn’t been successful in numbers yet, but he has been very, very successful in creativity, boldness, compassion, steadfastness, honesty and taking on the humiliations of leadership. How much more can you ask for? His failures are creative and his steadfastness is a lively jump for joy in his community. His big compassion lays down a soft carpet on the hard streets.

Asaph, the songwriter of Psalm 73, conveyed the pain of seeing the wicked prosper while the good people suffer. He said (verse 16), “It was too painful for me.” When a pastor of a smaller congregation sees the prosperity of organizations that do little good for the community and maybe a lot of bad, he is tempted to feel a pain and suffering of not being able to outdo the bad guys. He may be tempted to dwell on his own insecurities rather than cherishing the people that he has.

Asaph wrote the song for such a religious leader. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders all quote this passage. In verse 25 the songwriter laid down the perspective of eternity: without God we are indescribably poor. “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside You.”

The perspective of eternity is that small congregations are honored by God even though they have strengths and weaknesses like all congregations. They invest a lot of value into people’s lives and character. However, they often face the stresses of not having enough people to help with key tasks and not enough money to invest into the work of the congregation.

A 2007 survey of New York City churches done by the Values Research Institute found found that churches of all sizes see growth in the character of their members and attenders.

If we set aside the spiritualizing of numbers and look at tangible character practices, large, medium and small churches all report that their church is strong in the growth of the character of their members and attenders. A minority—about the same proportion in churches of all sizes—report that their church has problems in the character growth of their members and attenders.

My church is weak in character growth of its members and participants

                             Most or Very                        Some or Little

Leaders of:

Small churches (<101 attenders)                                                 29%                                            71%

Medium churches (101-200 attenders)                                       19%                                             71%

Medium large churches (201-300 attenders)                              32%                                             68%

Large churches (300+ attenders)                                                 33%                                             67%

However, with the financial pressures of fewer donors and volunteers, one would think that small congregational leaders are in more danger of burnout than those leaders of medium and big churches. Judging by the data from New York City city churches, this doesn't seem to be the case!

Burnout is a disease that affects leaders of congregations of all sizes. It is a common problem that all the congregations, small and large, need to address together.

in the same survey, about 36% of all church leaders said that their church has a weakness in burning out their leaders.

My church is weak in the burnout of our leaders

Most or Very

Leaders of:

Small churches (<101 attenders)                                       37%

Medium churches (101-200 attenders)                             41%

Medium large churches (201-300 attenders)                    34%

Large churches (300+ attenders)                                      34%

Some time ago, a gifted leader of a small church in New York City killed himself. But he didn’t commit this terrible act because his church was small. He committed this self-destruction because he didn’t love his small church enough to forgo his own insecurities. What he did could just as easily have happened to a pastor of a large church.

He was the son of a very successful pastor in Brooklyn, but for some reason he wasn’t able to succeed in the pulpit after his father retired. He left and joined a tiny church with aging members. But he was anxious to succeed, perhaps anxious to show that he could be as successful as his Dad. But the old people were cautious about changing. But not too cautious: they wanted to pass on their church to the next generation. They had built up good finances and owned their own building, which they kept immaculate.

The young pastor was impatient to move things along. He and his friends said, “We are tired of waiting!” They also said, “Life is moving on.” This was after only about a year and half at this church. Notice how the appeal was to “Life” not to God.

The young pastor pushed the church to a crisis and got fired. He soon killed himself.

Before that tragedy, I heard him preach on Psalm 73.  In retrospect, I can see that he was talking very personally about impatience, the pain of living in a world of “successful” people and living with secret doubts.

I wonder if the young pastor was so impatient because he wanted to resolve his own inner doubts through bold action that left no time to really live with and enjoy the people he was with.

After he was fired, he was alone while facing his resentments against God. He had to face his inner doubts about whether he could follow a God who honors both the small church and the big church. It seemed as if only a big church was good enough for him. He solved his predicament by punching his ticket to heaven through suicide. How did he respond to God’s rebuke for his low esteem of his little congregation when he got to heaven? What did he think when he saw his small church people in heaven? What would he now tell us if he could come back?

Psalm 73 gives advice to all leaders. It tells us that a proper perspective begins with God---not how many numbers someone puts on the scoreboard. Shall we be resentfully restless in this short life in this world? Or happy on the long road from here to heaven in well-doing whatever the results?


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  • Looks great! Thanks for all your doing to bring churches in the city together.

    Pentecost Blessings,
    English Ministry
    Overseas Chinese Ministry

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