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Encouraging Large, Wealthy Congregations to Share Resources with Small, Poor Congregations


Second Research Report, PART B
Adair T. Lummis

Download this report as a MS Word file


1. Advantages and Disadvantages of Large, Wealthy Congregations to the Judicatory

Regional executives of many judicatories, other than the mainly rural ones, can point to several large, wealthy churches in their jurisdictions, which have substantially more professional staff and financial resources than the other congregations in their charge. A few such big churches may actually have more staff and funds than their judicatory offices.

There are two clear advantages to the middle judicatory in having big, rich churches among its congregations. First, these more affluent churches send more money to support the judicatory office than other congregations. Second, these large churches with substantial staff and resources do not need as much judicatory staff assistance. In contrast, most regional leaders would confirm that the bulk of their staff time and other resources go to maintaining their small, struggling congregations.

There are also disadvantages regional leaders experience in dealings with their biggest and richest congregations. The major one, as mentioned in the first research report, is that large churches are more autonomous from regional leaders’ control or influence; these churches do not need nor do they ask their denomination or judicatory for assistance or advice. Their autonomy is accompanied often by little interest in covenanting or connecting in joint missions or programs with other congregations of the judicatory.

2. Extent to Which Big Churches Share Their Resources with Small Churches of the Judicatory

Many regional leaders interviewed had hoped to get these larger, wealthier churches to adopt smaller, needier churches, sort of mentoring them in lending staff, and giving money and materials. However, in the mailed survey, two-fifths of the total sample among the 1077 regional leaders surveyed, said that it is mainly false that in their jurisdictions "Large, wealthy churches share resources with small churches." Though three-fifths of these leaders did indicate that at least to "some" extent their big churches did share with their smaller churches, less than 15% in each of the seven denominations said this has "usually" been the case. One executive interviewed, expressed his frustration with the extent of such "sharing," as follows:

  • One of the problems I have found is that our largest churches that have the resources to do fine programming take a paternalistic attitude toward some of the smaller churches. However, I do not see a lot of sharing of these resources. One of the wealthiest churches gave a small church a copier they could not use any more that needed lots of work done on it. So would you call that sharing resources?

Although regional leaders interviewed did complain of how arrogant and generally standoffish they often found their sovereign churches, high steeple congregations, or cardinal parishes, many also mentioned some reality factors making it difficult for big churches to share with small churches. A major theme mentioned by some regional leaders in all seven denominations is that very big churches are more like other big churches regardless of denomination. This structural factor combined with their greater resources makes it more probable that their pastors will go outside of their denominations for assistance, as well as communicate more with pastors of other big churches than with pastors of the smaller churches in their denomination. As judicatory leaders of two different denominations explained:

  • A lot of those megachurches, which have 1,000 or more members, almost become an entity unto themselves...I think our large congregations say that the district really does not meet my needs. ..I think it has most to do how you operate as one of these large beings in terms of structure and how the churches are run. Our big churches find they get more by going outside the denomination, talking to pastors of other big churches, and they are going to Willow Creek for resources, where they offer those leadership things.
  • One of the things I have found is that large churches have more in common with each other than with other churches...In this city, there is a large Methodist church of 3000, a large Baptist church of 2000 and another large black church of 4000, and my church. As pastors, we all relate together because we have similar problems, similar ideas, and we know how to help each other...we have more in common with each other than with pastors of our same denominations.

This "structural" factor also can result in leaders of the very large, wealthy churches being either unaware of what the smaller churches in their judicatory need, or what would be an effective way of helping them grow stronger. In illustration, regional leaders in three different denominations speak of the kinds of communication and program feasibility gaps between large and small churches they have seen:

  • Programmatic resources of larger churches just do not work. Because they are large church models they do not work in smaller churches.
  • I think our larger churches intend to share -- but the practically no, they do not. I think the problem is that they just plain do not understand small churches. They just cannot relate to a pastor that might be bi-vocational. They do not understand the solo pastor’s need for fellowship because they have a staff of five or six of their own.
  • Larger, wealthier churches are operating in areas other churches cannot even think about. The other part of it is that smaller churches have some sense of resentment: "They are the big church and they are lording it over us" kind of thing. Not what I call a whole lot of cooperation there.

Neither judicatory executives, nor pastors of big, wealthy churches nor even those in charge of the small, poor churches want to create the situation in which the small church becomes more and more dependent on the large church for handouts. Members of the small church may fear being absorbed by the large church, if they accept too much from it. Similarly leaders of the wealthy church may feel exploited if more and more is asked of them by the more impoverished church over a substantial period of time. Two judicatory executives warned too much "helping" and "sharing" can stagnate growth in struggling congregations, as well as maintain the existence of some churches where this might not be the best solution:

  • Once a congregation becomes dependent on you, you can never do enough for them.
  • Schaller is right. What you subsidize you get more of. So I think you have to work to try to find a balance there that is appropriate sharing of resources and assistance, not just a way of subsidizing.

While regional leaders may perceive some or all of the difficulties described in getting their large wealthy churches sharing resources in some way with small poor churches, they are continuing to devise ways that this may occur effectively to the benefit of all involved.

3. Ways that Large, Rich Churches to Share Resources with Small, Poor Churches

The most usual way that big, wealthy churches contribute to other churches in the judicatory is through their paying substantially more money into the judicatory coffers. Based on obligatory or suggested levels of annual assessments, apportionments or tithes, the larger churches with the bigger annual budgets give more money to the judicatory, which the judicatory then redistributes to help the poorer churches, as depicted in the comments of judicatory officials in three denominations:

  • The ways the apportionments are set up, the rich churches are underwriting lots and lots of small churches.
  • Through their regular contributions, essentially the larger churches are supporting the work of the conference and the denominations as we help smaller churches.
  • Large churches are very generous to the regional synod, and in some ways what we do is redistribute the wealth.. but ...in terms of taking small churches under their wings and providing financial resources, not at all!

The large churches do not typically have the choice of how the judicatory allocates their annual dues or contributions. However, some judicatories have been successful in establishing a special mission fund to which voluntary contributions are sought specifically to help needy small churches get on their feet. Two illustrations from different denominations follow:

  • In our eastern part, the larger churches have all gotten together and come up with some extra funds over and about what they give us annually. They want to help us fund what we are calling a multicultural Hispanic missioner who is going to be a half-time person doing that ministry, while she is also half-time at a small church.
  • We have had two sizable capital campaigns in the last ten years, with components to help smaller churches. In the first, we established an endowment out of which we can supplement salaries in smaller churches. In the second, which is nearing its end, we will be offering up to $10,000 of educational debt repayment for anyone who will serve five years in a small church. Big churches obviously have provided the lion’s share of the funds for these drives.

In both reallocation of church annual payments and voluntary contributions to a special fund, it is the judicatory senior staff or committees which actually decide how much and to which poorer churches (or their pastors) to allocate the funds, rather than the large churches which make the donations. This arrangement does obviate some of the difficulties described that may occur between a large church donor and a small church recipient, although then the judicatory office may be the "big church" in the relationship. One regional leader described a tactic that they used in giving funds to churches:

  • We encourage churches that we help to also send work parties to help other churches - those kinds of things - so that people do not get this feeling of: "We are the successful folk and you are the unsuccessful ones that need help." We try very much to avoid that.

Judicatory executives interviewed generally would like more direct contact between clergy and lay leaders of large churches with those in smaller congregations. Greater such communication, they hope, will increase not only the amount given by these wealthy, self-sufficient congregations, but also lead these churches to become integrated and connected with the life and mission of the judicatory. A number of regional leaders did point to some good examples of direct sharing between large and small congregations in their jurisdictions.

The most prevalent example of this sharing mentioned by regional leaders is where a large, wealthy church begins a new church. As second kind of sharing and a better one for strengthening congregational covenant relationships in a judicatory, is where several big churches work in partnership to establish a mission church, especially one in area populated by ethnic minorities and immigrants. "Mothering" another church involves not only the larger church sending money to its offspring, but also sending people and staff to volunteer time in nurturing the new church as it grows in numbers and stability. In illustration, two judicatory leaders from different denominations comment:

  • I am fortunate here that we are a church that has "mothered" 6 other churches - so we are kind of their Moma. Even though some of them have long-term become independent, there is still definitely a relationship there. ..There has been a big push over the last years for larger churches to mother or to adopt a new church plant, to lend not only resources but maybe some administrative oversight as well. In fact, the churches which have been planted under that kind of format have shown a much, much greater success rate.
  • We do have a church that when I got here five years ago was an Hispanic new church start. I think there are seven or eight churches in the association who stills support them annually. They agreed to do that for five years, and since the church clearly is not able to make it financially on its own yet, that has continued.

About fifteen percent of the regional leaders interviewed described examples where large churches directly helped struggling churches that they did not start. Some of the big wealthy churches do make donations to the poorer congregations of needed equipment (particularly computers) and sending lay teams to help rebuild or refurbish church buildings. Some senior pastors who have been pivotal in establishing affluent, growing congregations have initiated educational events for other clergy and lay leaders (acting as "teaching churches" as one put it) or have led workshops at judicatory-wide meetings to assist others interested in learning from their experiences. The most prevalent kind of direct sharing other than financial donations or goods, is where the larger church takes upon itself to provide or pay staff for the smaller church on an ongoing basis. Regional leaders gave illustrations of how some of the large congregations do this in their jurisdictions, often adding phrases such as: "But there is not a whole lot going on like that." In illustration, the following leaders comment:

  • Our largest church, which has a zillion clergy, is sharing clergy leadership with a very small church, while it sorts out its future. Clergy from the large church clergy will go over and cover services and do a Lenten program.
  • We have one rich parish that is paying the whole salary for the secretary in a poor parish. Another rich parish sends its staff to maintain the grounds and property of a poor parish.
  • There is a small church in a growing area that had gotten some national moneys for a year to fund their minister full time. That money was not renewed. I just found out that one of the large churches is going to substantially support this small church for a year. The minister of the large church is also interested in providing resources to the small church and helps them develop programs.
  • In several of our Hispanic congregations some staff people are being paid for by larger, Anglo churches.
  • We have an African American church in one of our small communities with a part-time pastor and having trouble making ends meet. The First Church near that town sends them a gift of money to help out, and also provides lay speakers to fill the pulpit on the weeks they cannot have their own pastor.
  • We got 26 churches to partnership with four churches at risk, and gave these churches on a down slope a year to discern God’s will for their congregation. During that year the partnership churches would agree to provide financial resources, support and people, including financial aide for help of a part-time pastor. The churches are very excited by that; it gives them an opportunity to be of assistance to a sister church, and it connects them in ways that we have not been connected before. It is working well!

4. Getting Leaders of Large Churches to Feel "connected" to the Denomination

Some senior pastors who began their megachurch church may take the initiative to look for ways to help pastors of new or struggling churches, as illustrated in the comments of one such pastor:

  • When we were a small church of fifty people in pain, I told the Lord that if we ever survived, that I would help as many struggling pastors as possible whatever the denomination. So we have helped any way we can. We have answered questions, sent resources; given away stuff.

For the pastor above, who also gives time to being a regional leader for a cluster of other churches, feeling connected to his denomination is not one of his motivations for such sharing. However, most regional leaders interviewed would affirm that for the reasons described earlier, senior pastors of large, wealthy congregations do not see they have much in common with clergy of the general run of congregations of their judicatory and so seldom initiate contact. Nor, not needing resources, do these senior pastor typically seek out contact with judicatory executives or professional staff. The challenge for these regional leaders then is how to enhance senior pastors of their large, rich churches feeling connected to the denomination and to the judicatory.

Regional leaders realize that in many cases they must be the communicators, the instigators, the middle men and women for 1) getting leaders of the wealthy churches to feel connected to and appreciated by the judicatory; 2) then getting these leaders to understand what some of the needs are of poorer congregations, 3) and how best to meet these needs. The following are some of the ways regional leaders have used to accomplish the first objective of better connecting the pastors of the wealthy, growing churches to the denomination:

a. The judicatory connecting the clergy of other large churches with one another through special gatherings is a way that regional executives in several denominations have endeavored to accomplish the first objective. Typically, this is done by the judicatory arranging a special conference just for the clergy of its largest churches, e.g.:

  • We are reaching out to senior pastors of large churches across this conference. We do things around what we call common tables. For instance, in the next two or three months, we will bring together all the senior pastors of churches 400 or more for a common gathering, to ask: What is it like for you guys? What is going on? That is one way in which the connection between those churches and the conference is linked.

b. The judicatory executives and senior staff making special efforts to be present at events, and participate as invited by pastors of the largest churches is another way they show these large church senior pastors that the judicatory values them and can be valuable to them. Regional leaders give a great deal of time to the needier churches who demand the most, as well as make efforts to visit all churches on some regular basis. Since pastors of wealthy congregations are less likely to seek out the judicatory executives or staff for support, however, it is more incumbent on the latter to take the initiative. A few regional leaders volunteered the information they did take efforts to find out when the big churches are having special celebrations and then attending, or offering to teach or preach at these churches when needed, purposively to show their return appreciation of contributions of these large congregations. They also took such opportunities to establish rapport with clergy and lay leaders in the affluent congregations to till the ground for later communication about needs of small churches and other judicatory mission imperatives.

c. The regional executive’s appointing leaders of growing churches to major boards, commissions and committees of the judicatory can be an effective way of both acknowledging their expertise and increasing their commitment to their denomination and judicatory. As one regional leader put it:

  • To get our larger churches to feel they might yet be a part of the connection, we are putting some of their pastors on our Church Growth Committee so they can be heard.

Regional leaders interviewed were not directly asked if they took care to appoint clergy and/or lay leaders of large, affluent churches to judicatory committees, in part to increase these individuals’ identity with and connection to the denomination. Therefore, it is unclear how extensive this practice is, or if used, how well it works in particular judicatory situations.

Question for regional learning community: Can any of you answer this from your own experience?

  1. Assigning judicatory staff particular responsibilities for consulting with/serving the big churches is another way of both linking these churches to the judicatory and to each other.

Some judicatories have staff portfolios for congregations of different sizes, recognizing and showing this in their staffing that big churches have different operational and programmatic issues than small congregations.

5. Have regional leaders ASK the large, wealthy churches to help the small, poor churches and give them an idea how to best help is advice provided by several interviewed. Given that leaders of big churches are not likely to know what the latter needs, if this sharing is to happen, it will most likely be through the work of regional leaders in consulting with these congregations and their clergy.




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