News Articles

Many small churches feel ‘disenfranchised,’ pastors say

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Pastors of many churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are “disenfranchised” by the prevalence of megachurch-pastor speakers at church growth conferences, according to two small-church pastors.
Because of the prevalence of smaller churches and bivocational pastors in the SBC, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Scarborough Institute for Church Growth and the Baptist General Convention of Texas are sponsoring a church growth conference designed specifically for smaller churches. Daniel Sanchez, director of the Scarborough Institute, says a conference geared to small-church pastors is needed.
“This emphasis on bivocational pastors is very important,” Sanchez says. Unlike most other church growth conferences, “this conference will feature speakers who are successful small-church, bivocational pastors. Attendees will hear from pastors who have been effectively doing what small-church pastors are doing.”
Speakers will address topics such as spiritual vitality, family needs, growth principles, pastoral care and church staff.
Bob Ray, bivocational pastor of Fairy Baptist Church in Hamilton County, Texas, for 33 years, and one of the featured speakers at the upcoming “Hope for the Small Church Leader” conference, says he is “excited that Southwestern is looking to strengthen small churches, who, when they aren’t seen or heard, become disenfranchised. This conference is a needed outreach to prevent the loss of small churches and to keep them healthy.”
Ray and four other small-church pastors will speak at the conference Oct. 2-3 on Southwestern’s campus in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kenneth S. Hemphill, president of Southwestern, says bivocational training is one of the serious challenges facing Southwestern and other seminaries in the 21st century.
“Some rural associations in Texas report that 80 percent of their pastors are bivocational,” Hemphill says. “This area is going to keep growing as the North American Mission Board emphasizes church planting.” Church planting and evangelism are the two primary emphases of NAMB.
Hemphill, himself a noted author and speaker on church growth, calls the small church conference a significant event because “86 percent of our churches are single-staff small churches. These men are on the firing line, and they often serve in a context where they have little support. Yet they will make the difference in our convention.”
Dale Holloway, NAMB national missionary for bivocational ministries, says smaller churches tend to be ignored.
“Presenters (at Southern Baptist conferences) lead large churches and discuss challenges of large churches,” Holloway says. “We get the idea that small churches are insignificant.”
While megachurches (those churches with average Sunday school attendance of at least 2,000 people) comprise one tenth of one percent of all Southern Baptist churches, they remain in the limelight, Holloway observes. Smaller churches (those having under 300 members) make up 63 percent of all Southern Baptist churches, and about 30 percent are pastored by bivocational pastors, he adds, “and the numbers are growing.”
Holloway says research by the North American Mission Board showed churches with bivocational pastors have higher baptism ratios, higher percentages of Sunday school enrollment and higher average attendance ratios than large churches. And small churches give a larger percentage of undesignated gifts to the Cooperative Program.
These figures, taken from annual church profiles compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources, answer the question: “Is bivocational ministry effective?” Holloway says.
Rex Pilcher, pastor of First Baptist, Carmi, Ill., which averages 215 in Sunday morning worship, agrees most conferences he has attended are geared exclusively to large churches with multi-person staffs.
“It would be much more helpful,” Pilcher says, “for someone in a smaller church to hear from a man who has had success in a smaller church in a similar setting because there is such a difference in dynamics between large and small churches. Smaller churches need to have more attention paid to them. If you have pastors from smaller churches speak, naturally it will help.”
Southwestern’s Sanchez says more students are starting to realize that many seminary graduates will go into the NAMB and International Mission Board’s church planting programs rather than into larger, established churches. As proof that they are getting excited about the idea, Sanchez says 40 Southwestern students attended a meeting Sept. 1 to explore Southwestern’s master of divinity in church planting. This summer, 15 Southwestern students attended classes in South Korea and then spent two weeks in China working with leaders of house churches.
“We are already having many students come to Southwestern because of the mentorship program in the Scarborough Institute and the master of divinity in church planting,” Sanchez says.
In addition, Sanchez expects more students to be drawn to the Nehemiah Project, a strategic partnership between NAMB and the six SBC seminaries. The new project calls for NAMB to establish church planting centers on each SBC seminary’s campus to mentor students in church planting.
David Putman, recruitment development associate-Nehemiah Project in the church planting group of NAMB, says the project will bring together the best of the seminaries, the states and NAMB’s resources.
NAMB will provide resources for each seminary to hire a professor of church planting who will also act as director of each seminary’s church planting center. The teachers will serve as appointed NAMB missionaries.
Putman says the purpose of the project is threefold: “to discover students with a calling, giftedness, ability and temperament necessary for church planting; to equip students by bringing together the best in academic preparation, mentoring/coaching and hands-on church planting; and to send out prepared church planters to new mission settings through internships.”
“We hope to see a level of empowerment and synergy coming from the project through leadership development,” Putman adds. “If we develop prepared leaders, we’ll have healthy churches.”
Meanwhile, Ray says his church outside of Burleson, Texas, — the only church in a 10-mile radius — is typical of what seminary graduates will face. Many rural areas have no churches for miles and miles, he says. Seventy-one percent of all Texas churches have fewer than 100 members and 28 percent are led by bivocational pastors, he adds.
“We are a convention of smaller churches though we are caught up in a society that says, ‘Bigger is better,’” he says. “Bigger is not bad. There is a place for churches of all sizes. Yet in mission outreach we target different people groups by starting small in house churches. Also, some areas don’t have many people, but somebody still needs to tell them about the Lord.”

    About the Author

  • Cindy Kerr & David Porter