“The work of the Holy Spirit is often found in unexpected places”
At this year’s diocesan convention, one of the breakout sessions held highlighted small congregations with no permanently assigned clergy. The roundtable discussion was called “Small Church, No Priest… No Problem” and three congregations presented approaches to ministry and congregational life that have evolved in their communities. All three have an average Sunday attendance of thirty or less and no financial resources other than contributions from members and the occasional grant. All three congregations use supply clergy, and have no other paid staff. They all rely completely on volunteers.
What people heard and witnessed at this discussion was an incredibly high level of ingenuity, flexibility, and commitment at these tiny congregations, as well as an ongoing determination to be a visible sign of Christ’s presence in their respective communities. Here is just a little of what they had to offer.
Grace Church, College Hill
Grace Church, College Hill, is in an urban neighborhood near downtown Cincinnati. While their membership is small, they are responsible for one of the largest physical plants in the diocese. But they consider their building as an asset.
They open their doors to the neighborhood literally every day of the week. They serve a weekly community meal to around 200 people each week where they also give away free clothing. They host a weekly healing service that draws people citywide, have a “buddy system” for pastoral care, and house a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Their presence and visibility in the neighborhood is so extensive, and so many “outside” groups make use of the space, that repairs to the building are often completed without charge.
St. Mary Magdalene, Maineville
After selling their startup property, St. Mary Magdalene, Maineville , has since 2011 rented space from a Methodist congregation in a booming suburban neighborhood. They take great pride in their music program, which is a weekly blend of contemporary and traditional music and encourages participation. They have developed a pastoral care team made up of members of the community, and they use supply clergy for pastoral emergencies only when absolutely necessary.
Not only do they have a one of the more innovative approaches to worship and music, they are also able to host homeless families one week a month through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and provide school supplies every fall for needy children in the community. They work side by side with the Methodist congregation where they rent space, and every week participate in an interfaith coffee hour. One of the keys to their success – “We are small but we genuinely like one another.”
St. Mary’s, Waynesville
In a tiny rural community, St. Mary’s, Waynesville, has used supply clergy for over ten years. They house the Waynesville food pantry and Waynesville Township Community Services. They also provide clothing to teachers at the local school for needy children. St. Mary’s is one of the best-maintained physical plants in Waynesville.
The Senior Warden is a licensed lay worship leader and frequently leads Morning Prayer. For the sermons, he makes use of Sermons That Work and although he always gives proper credit, he is considered one of the best preachers in the rotation. He claims that the key to vitality at St. Mary’s is that they genuinely like each other, they agree to disagree, and that the Book of Common Prayer is at the center of their common life. He describes pastoral care as a community effort. “We are small, so we take care of each other. We have no other choice.”
All three congregations are vulnerable in terms of their numbers and finances, but at the same time are vibrant and active. All three are reminders that the size of a community or their budget can often blind us to the work of the Holy Spirit, and that the work of the Holy Spirit is often found in unexpected places.
After the breakout session, I asked a member of a significantly larger congregation who had attended what he thought of the presentations. He said, “Those people are heroes.”
The Rev. Jason Leo serves as Missioner for Congregational Vitality for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.