Small Church Leaders Advised to Know Yourself, Know Your Church, Take Part in God’s Mission

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Leaders of small churches gathered at the Strengthening Your Small Congregation event on April 13. The one-day event offered professional growth and training, as well as opportunities for mutual support and encouragement.

Throughout the Strengthening Your Small Congregation event, leaders of small churches received essentially the same guidance from various speakers and workshop leaders: know yourself, know your congregation, seek out God’s purpose for you and your church.

A brainchild of the pastors of two small congregations in Indiana–Kay Gaier of Wabash Church of the Brethren and Brenda Hostetler Meyer of Benton Mennonite Church–the one-day conference April 13 included worship, a keynote speech by Margaret Marcuson, a panel discussion with pastors and lay leaders of small churches, and several afternoon workshops.

The conference was organized in large part by the Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren, with leadership from executive director Jonathan Shively and staff. Other contributing or endorsing partners included the Church of the Brethren’s Northern Indiana District and South/Central Indiana District, Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Bethany Theological Seminary, and the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership The day was hosted at Camp Alexander Mack near Milford, Ind.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
The conference was the brainchild of two Indiana pastors–one Church of the Brethren and one Mennonite: Kay Gaier (left) of Wabash Church of the Brethren, and Brenda Hostetler Meyer of Benton Mennonite Church (right). Congregational Life Ministries staff provided much of the organization for the event, which was held at Camp Mack near Milford, Ind.

Professional growth and mutual support

Designed for pastors and lay leaders of churches numbering under 100, the event offered professional growth and training. It also was an opportunity for mutual support and encouragement–and even cheer leading–for small church leaders who often feel alone and isolated, and may become discouraged in a society that equates success with size.

Gaier and Meyer focused worship on biblical texts that speak of God’s mission and call to faith communities both large and small. A series of Bible readings opened with Deuteronomy 7:7-8a: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you–for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you….”

Self, purpose, and people

There are three things a small church leader has to do, said keynote speaker Margaret Marcuson, a consultant and coach to small congregations and author of several books about ministry and leadership. “Know yourself, your purpose, and your people,” she said. She proceeded to focus on these three concepts, taking time for small group discussion and direct feedback from participants as she talked about the challenges and opportunities for ministry in small congregations. Often she spoke out of personal experience, having herself served as pastor of a small church.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Keynote speaker Margaret Marcuson

“This is a spiritual process that requires prayer,” she told the group as she posed a number of questions aimed at helping participants reflect on their own lives and how they relate to their congregations and the people in their churches. Questions about self and purpose or calling, such as “What was your role in your family?” and “What did God create you for?” led into questions about leadership in the church, such as “Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?” and “What are the things in your church’s history you really like to celebrate?”

Marcuson also led a workshop on money and ministry, and offered an open coaching session. Delegations from two churches volunteered to be coached by Marcuson, with others invited to sit in and learn how such coaching works and how the outcomes of such coaching may be helpful for small churches.


Congregational Life Ministries did much of the organization of Strengthening Your Small Congregation, and CLM staff offered leadership including workshops. Executive director Jonathan Shively led a workshop on “Worship in Your Own Voice.” Deacon Ministry director Donna Kline offered a workshop on the pastoral care team.




Engage in discernment

Workshops gave more targeted training and guidance in a variety of areas of ministry for small churches. Congregational Life Ministries staff offered a workshop on “The Pastoral Care Team” led by Deacon Ministry director Donna Kline, and a workshop on “Worship in Your Own Voice” led by executive director Jonathan Shively.

Several workshops repeated guidance similar to the keynote address. David B. Miller, on the faculty of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the area of missional leadership development, led a workshop on “Discerning Our Congregation’s Future.” He opened by advising church leaders to analyze habits congregations have learned in the past and seem to be in danger of carrying into the future even if those behaviors are no longer applicable to the social environment.

Marcuson’s workshop on how finances relate to small church ministry challenged leaders to work at discerning long-term goals for their churches–even setting decades-long budgets to meet dreams that may not come to fruition for many years. Ask yourself what you want for your church, then ask what others want, as you do your planning, she told her workshop.

Charlene J. Smith, a minister of Evangelism and Vitality in the national office of the United Church of Christ (UCC), advised attendees at her workshop to understand their own mindsets in order to help their churches adapt to a rapidly changing world. Focusing on what evangelism looks like in a small church, she equated it with “a mindset for mission” and emphasized that success of evangelism has nothing to do with the size of a congregation. Her PowerPoint presentation proclaimed: “The greatness of your church is determined by the success and strength of your mission ministries NOT by the numbers of your members.”

Smith added another aspect of knowledge to the list that participants had already heard from others: know the specifics of the issues of the day in your community, she advised. Out of that, congregations must be empowered to discern and develop actions for themselves, in order to become “in tune with today” rather than the past. A pastor cannot tell people what to do, Smith said bluntly. Instead, leaders of small churches should “be positive police” and emphasize the congregation’s gifts. “We have got to have a mindset of abundance and blessings,” she said. “Celebrate who you are and what you are about to do.

“And then, after you have celebrated, set a start date” to pray about the ministry to which God is calling your church, Smith said. “We are going to pray that God will tell us and lead us on the journey…in the faith that Christ will go before us.”

For more about Congregational Life Ministries go to . Find a link to a photo album from Strengthening Your Small Congregation at .

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