Small is Strong

St. Paul’s is in the midst of a series of “cottage meetings” (see schedule to the right). You can think of these gatherings as extracurricular opportunities to spend time with folks you might only see on Sunday morning. 

Beyond the chance to connect socially — to be in communion, as it were — these meetings are also critical to charting a course for the future of our church. This is a much bigger challenge than a part-time priest, however gifted and a small vestry (there are only four of us) can possibly accomplish on our own — especially if we want the future of St. Paul’s to reflect the spiritual aspirations of its congregation. 

Besides engaging in a conversation about St. Paul’s and its role in our lives and community, an inspiration for the cottage meetings is a concept that the vestry discussed during our retreat back in January. The concept is small, strong congregations — based on a book by Kennon L. Callahan called “Small, Strong Congregations”. During a recent vestry meeting, vestry member Clark Todd shared some notes he had made based on his readings. In the interests of seeding productive conversations, here are Clark’s notes. Read them. Meditate on them. Pray on them…and be thinking about how they apply to St. Paul’s.

Small is strong (Chapter One)

In small, strong congregations, people discover the steadfast love of God. In our time, people are looking for a congregation that delivers steadfast love, a congregation where they can discover and share steadfast love in their lives. People discover the steadfast love of God in a variety of places and groups. The small, strong congregation is one of the most significant groups. People want to participate in a steadfast love – both giving and receiving. They do not want just to receive. They are not just consumers. They look toward giving of themselves with love, sharing, and caring. 

The God we know is steadfast in love with us and for us… Love lasts. The love of God is steadfast. We therefore live with confidence and assurance… People are looking for a congregation that helps them live whole, healthy lives. In a small, strong congregation, they discover a group that, with confidence and assurance, focuses on its strengths. This helps people focus on their own strengths. They look for a congregation that focuses on a spirit of progress – that expands one existing strength and adds one new strength. 

People are not looking for a congregation that is trying to do too much too soon. They intuitively know that such a congregation only contributes to their trying to do too much too soon in their own lives. They look for a healthier future than that. People are not looking for a congregation that is going to promise something for everyone. Most of us have tried to be something for everyone and have discovered that it does not work. People have the wisdom to know that it does not work for congregations either. 

Small, strong congregations focus distinctively on certain qualities of being a congregation together. You can grow and develop some of these qualities as you help your congregations. These qualities are present in many small, strong congregations across the planet:

     - Mission and service

     - Compassion and shepherding

     - Community and belonging

     - Self-reliance and self-sufficiency

     - Worship and hope

     - Leaders and teams

     - Just enough space and facilities

     - Giving and generosity

Wherever some of these are present, with excellence and strength, you are likely to find a small, strong congregation. Small, strong congregations live with this confidence and assurance: they know small is strong.      

Team, leaders, and congregation (Chapter 7)

Team, leaders, and congregation: these three are a seamless unity. They are virtually inseparable qualities present in the life of a small, strong congregation. The ability to live and share as a team is one of the important competencies of small, strong congregations.  These factors contribute to their being a team: 

Their capacity to see the whole not the parts…  The spirit of a small, strong congregation is that Everybody participates in the whole. There is no effort to divide people into parts. There may be specific activities for different needs, but the genius of a small, strong congregation – the genius of its leadership team – is its capacity to nurture the whole, not the parts… In a small, strong congregation, the whole family participates in the whole congregation. Small, strong congregations do not think in parts that fragment, separate, or compartmentalize persons. They seek to view life as a whole, not as a collection of separate parts. Their understanding of the diversity of gifts…  Any hierarchy of gifts creates division and separation. It creates an upper and lower class division in the congregation – mostly between the pastor and everyone else. It causes people to not discover their own gifts and strengths. People do not feel valued. They do not discover their best true selves. 

(An effective leader of a small, strong congregation) is interested in all persons and in their lives. He or she listens well, fully attentive to variety of persons. Somehow, with the leader, people discover their gifts. (There is an inner confidence) that God gives each person gifts, strengths, and competencies to live well in the grave and mission of God.   

Their appreciation of the gifts of a pastoral leader… Small, strong congregations are looking for a wise, caring leader, a person who is part of a leadership team, who with wisdom and caring helps the congregation advance its mission, compassion, community, hope, and generosity. They are not looking for an administrator with formal, institutional, organizational competencies.   

In small, strong congregations, the spirit, the custom, the way of life is primarily informal. It is more a matter of spirit than of size – we simply choose a way to live with one another in this congregation. We choose to life together as a family, not an organization. We choose to be a community, not a collection of committees. We choose to be a congregation, not an institution. One of our advantages, as a small, strong congregation, is our simple, grassroots, natural manner of leadership. Informally, we discuss many of our decisions with one another as a large, extended family. We may visit after church, we discuss emerging decisions, we touch base with each other at a fellowship supper, we have lunches together. We arrive at our decisions informally.

A developing sense of direction emerges. We have the feeling that the decision we are approaching is the helpful way forward. In small, strong congregations, many decisions are delegated to one, two, or three people in the family, people who have the wisdom and experience o make decisions. We also have gathering of the whole family for major decisions. Every person’s ideas and suggestions are considered. There is laughter and disagreement – but a decision is made that does not violate anyone or disdain any perspective. The congregation is strong and healthy. It discovers the gift of a grassroots way of living and being together.  

Living with the Spirit of Promise (Chapter 10)

As a small, strong congregation, we live for who we are. We are at peace. We have no pretensions. We put on no airs. We are who we are. We do not try to be something we are not. .. Further, we live richly and fully for our present, and we look with anticipation to our future. In doing so, we live out the promise of our life together. We do not live for our past – we learn from our past. We live in the present. We anticipate the future. When we live well in the present, we will live well in the future. As we anticipate the future, we live richly and fully in the present. Because we have discovered the richness of the present, we can now move forward on the possibilities God gives us for our present. In doing so, we can head to the future God gives us. We share a richness of life together. We live with a spirit of promise.