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Born of Water

New book plots the future for small congregations

By Harry Oussoren

Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations
By Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett
(The Alban Institute) $21.50

There is hope for small congregations. This provocative resource is yet another gem from the U.S.-based Alban Institute. The authors — leaders of the Lilly Endowment-funded pastoral excellence program at the Episcopal Divinity School in Boston — have at heart small congregations, especially those with 50 worshippers or less.

Their conviction, based on growing evidence, is that small congregations are dying because they operate on a minister-centred model: too much congregational energy goes toward raising the salary for the “paid clergy at the top,” who in turn provides religious services to the people.

This model is flawed both on theological and practical grounds. Theologically, it means far too many people are seen as consumers of religion, rather than as participants in Christ’s ministry. Worse, the people’s ministry is reduced to fundraising and institutional maintenance — a losing game with decline outnumbering growth.

By and large, our United Church is committed to this minister-centred model both by Manual provision — every pastoral charge is to have an effective minister (Basis 9.2) — and
by General Council policy-makers busily repairing the current ministry-personnel system for the 20th century. It’s not working. Too many faith communities are just giving up, exhausted.

Kujawa-Holbrook and Harris Thompsett believe that small congregations need to re-root themselves in baptism, by which every Christian is “ordained” to be part of Christ’s ministry within the church and in the world. Several Episcopal dioceses in places like Vermont, Michigan and Scotland have learned over decades that even small congregations have within them all the gifts needed for ministry and mission in God’s world. But, the authors argue, congregations need support from diocese (or Presbytery or Conference) development staff who serve as mentors, resource people and partners in visioning, so small congregations can live out Christ’s presence in their setting.

One diocese invites congregations to divest themselves of paid ministry staff and instead put 50 percent of their income toward a diocese ministry developer. Within the congregation, individuals with gifts are identified and trained for various leadership roles, including a locally ordered volunteer person to celebrate the sacraments.

This book is full of creative ideas and resources for the future of small churches. Read it as Good News for all, and especially for congregations, Presbyteries, Conferences and a General Council longing to enliven local faith communities for God’s mission. Across the United Church, the desire for a different ministry model is growing.

Rev. A.H. Harry Oussoren recently retired from ministry in the General Council's unit for congregations. He lives in Toronto.
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