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Nowhere to hide

How smaller churches can open a door to leadership opportunities (even in partnership with larger ones). By Michael Shaw

Opening a door

I had a friend who regularly led worship at university, both at the Christian Union and at church. However, when he returned to his home church he was not needed. Despite being gifted in that area, it took a few years before he eventually led regularly.

For many years now we have professionalised many activities in the church, whether that be preaching and teaching or pastoral care. Many churches even now have a fully paid worship pastor. While that's all well and good, it means we are not really allowing people in the congregation to get involved in these areas. We are becoming more and more a service offered to people than a body who serves. We turn up expecting everything done for us.

But if you go to a smaller church, that may not be the experience you get. If the church has a paid pastor, his or her role will include not just preaching and pastoral care, but youth and children’s work, PA, worship, caretaking, fabric etc etc. As a pastor of small church, I know how much my role expands way beyond what college could possibly prepare me for. But I also know what an opportunity this is.

At a recent ministers' conference, Roger Sutton who heads up Gather with his wife Lesley, said this: “If you want to get discipled go to a small church”. He went on to argue that we can hide in a bigger church. The flipside to that is we cannot hide in a small church.

In a small context, discipleship happens very naturally, because there are less cliques and there is greater access to more experienced leaders. You don’t need a discipleship “programme” in a small church, as you will be naturally discipled through shared meals, activities together and exposure to leaders and leadership.

But there is also another issue. If you are a young preacher, worship leader, or just want to serve the church as a deacon or elder, you may find that path blocked, either because those roles have been professionalised, or because you are fighting with an established team/rota.

Experience is often cited as the reason, but often it comes down to not wanting to take a risk. We want the service to run smoothly and we maybe don’t want to expose someone who may not have the experience. However, the only way people are really going to exercise gifting is if we are prepared to take a risk and give people that experience.

This is not intended to be a big church bash, and I know several larger church leaders who are committed to raising up the next generation of leaders. However, there are often more opportunities in smaller churches.

Often when people talk of partnerships between large and smaller churches, one of this issues is what the larger church “gets” from the partnership. Often the smaller church is the receiver, but that is not partnership. However, if the smaller church can offer pulpit time, or gives a week to a young worship team, or an opportunity for a trainee treasurer, then that helps both churches and both churches benefit. It moves from partnership into a true relationship.

At present we have three of our church leadership under 40, including a 23 year old church secretary (I am trying to work out if he is the youngest in the country.) I wonder, would a larger church be able to create those opportunities? Or is this just one of the wonderful quirks of small churches?

Maybe the best way to develop leadership skills is not to encourage young people into the safety of a larger church, where everything is done for them, but the riskier, but beneficial waters of a smaller church?

Picture | Michael Ramey | Unsplash

The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth

Related: Leadership in smaller churches

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