Small Church Initiative survey says
small membership churches feel 'left out'

Small membership churches across the Virginia Conference are feeling a disconnect between their district, the conference and the general church, according to results of a survey by the Small Church Initiative.

Many respondents to the survey felt that because of their small size their concerns are not heard, help they need is not available and appropriate resources are not in place. And there was a feeling that the local church exists to support the districts and conference, not the other way around.

When asked what strategies their small church would be willing to try to become a “more vital congregation,” 75% said a “strong plan for ministry,” and 64% mentioned cooperative parish ministries, partnerships with nearby congregations. But respondents were very much opposed to sharing a pastor with another congregation (only 16% in favor), merger with another similar-sized church (11% approved), merging with a larger church (2% approved), and closing so a new ministry could be born (1% in favor).

In May 2011, the survey was sent by e-mail to clergy and lay leaders serving Virginia Conference churches with average worship attendance between 50 and 150.

The survey was developed by the Small Church Leadership Initiative Task Force. The purpose of the survey was to assist the task force in developing a strategic plan designed to address opportunities for expanded networking, support and leadership development for churches in the target group.

The clergy survey was sent from the Office of Ministerial Services; a total of 209 responses were received.

The survey to the Lay Leaders was sent from the Office of Leadership and Inclusivity; 91 responses were received.

Three quarters of respondents said their church demonstrates radical hospitality, passionate worship and generous giving, and two thirds of respondents said their churches practice mission and service and extravagant generosity.

Leadership development was cited by two-thirds of those taking the survey as the most important area for the conference and district to support the laity. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they had been to a district training sessions in the past year. Half said they had been to a conference-sponsored training event and just under half had participated in the Lay Servant Academy (formerly the Lay Speaking Academy).

Other notable findings:

· Terms like “tax,” “burden,” and “obligation” were often used to describe apportionments by clergy respondents, but these terms were not mentioned at all by the lay leaders who responded.

· Accordingly, there is frustration with pastors over financial demands on the local church. There is a clear call for more education and interpretation from all levels of the church as to the importance of connectional giving.

· Two-thirds named “financial issues” as the biggest source of stress for their church. Other issues mentioned included generational conflict (including worship styles), attracting young people, economic situation in the community, dealing with change, and lack of understanding of United Methodist polity and beliefs.

· It was clear that all must change language which gives the impression that there is something wrong with the small church. Efforts toward empowering the small church and putting its pastors and laity into leadership on district and conference levels are needed, as well as “rebranding” resources to lift up the value of the small church. All churches must be seen as being equally valued.

· Three-quarters of respondents said their church provides a parsonage, but 27% of those said their parsonage did not meet minimum standards set by the conference.

Results of the survey were compiled and discussed by the Task Force at its meeting on Aug. 16. You can see survey results by clicking here (Word). Or click here for a pdf copy.

Following the Aug. 16 meeting, the Task Force developed recommendations for a strategic plan. The recommendations will be presented to the Cabinet and Common Table at their September meetings. More information about the details of the strategic plan will be shared once the document has been adopted by these two groups.



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