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Pastors of very small churches express joy, commitment, challenges

Pastor Charlie Vaughn and his wife Kathie converted the basement office of Austin Baptist Church into an apartment and lived there the first eight years he pastored the church. (Submitted photo)

AUSTIN, Nev. (BP) — Pastor Charlie Vaughn and his wife Kathie were trying to fix a church member’s washing machine midday Aug. 4. He’s not a washer repairman, but since 2008 has pastored Austin Baptist Church of about 12 worshipers in Austin, Nev.

Yomba Baptist Church, his second pastorate about 40 miles south on a Shoshone Indian reservation, has three worshipers.

“There are many pastors here in this state who serve in a church, some smaller than Austin, but do so faithfully as that is where God has placed them to do His work,” Vaughn said. “Praise the Lord for that.”

Cornell Denson Sr., pastor of Walk By Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Gainesville, Fla., drove a group of his 17 members in the church van to Orlando to the 2022 Black Multicultural State Church Fellowship of the Florida Baptist Convention, convening through Aug. 6 at Rosen Shingle Creek.

As Denson is focused on the Great Commission, the church bought a van to help neighborhood families attend church.

“And it’s been working,” he said. “We’ve been having two extra (in attendance), three extra, something like that.”

Joshua Goepfrich in Warsaw, Ind., pastor of the 18-member Hilltop Community Church and president of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, fields a question often.

“People ask you questions like how large is your church, and sometimes as men we feel that is an attack on us,” Goepfrich told Baptist Press. “And the simple answer to that question is the church that I belong to, has millions of members. Growth is not about the local church. It’s about the walk with God.

“As we walk, we invite people onto the journey. My job is not to save people. Your job is to present the Gospel,” Goepfrich tells pastors. “God has not called you to build His church; He’s called you to be faithful to the ministry. You stay faithful. Let Him deal with the results. And that’s hard to live in.”

Vaughn, Denson and Goepfrich are among the majority of Southern Baptist pastors, the approximately 51 percent that report Sunday attendance of less than 50, according to statistics compiled by the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network. A quarter of Southern Baptist churches serve less than 24 on Sundays.

Joys and challenges await pastors of small churches. They report a sense of intimacy not common among larger congregations, enjoying the ability to visit the homes of all of their members and maintain close fellowship. Nearly 100 percent of able-bodied members are involved in church ministry and outreaches. Members give generously to missions.

Pastors of small churches often serve bi-vocationally or draw a retirement income. Vaughn, a retired law enforcement official, draws a salary that amounts to a small portion of his retirement income, he told Baptist Press. Neither Denson nor Goepfrich draw salaries.

“Many of the flock desire to take care of the pastor and his family, but realize there’s not the number of people available to make that happen,” said Goepfrich, who owns Goepfrich Financial Services, founded the American University of Martial Arts and is president of the Ambassador Martial Arts Christian Fellowship. “That doesn’t just have a burden on the pastor and his family, it burdens – at least in our church – the love of the people because one person can’t, and multiple people together in a flock of 14 to 20 people, cannot give enough to support fully the pastor and his family.”

Financial limitations also strain community outreaches, but the churches are active within the congregation within their communities. Hilltop, in an outreach supported by the North American Mission Board, distributed 140 backpacks of school supplies, 100 New Testaments and children’s Bible stories at the Kosciusko, Indiana, county fair, generating questions about the church.

Walk By Faith continues to serve a low-income housing development in Gainesville.

Austin Baptist offers free space at an RV Park it owns, and supports international missions through a project launched two years ago to collect a mile of quarters.

“That comes out to quite a bit of money when you start adding it all up,” Vaughn said. “But we’re a quarter of a mile into it, and we’ve already purchased some land, some sheep and goats, chickens and rabbits for some of the countries abroad. We’ve sent money to some children’s homes and orphanages. Our people are just looking out for those opportunities.”

Robin Stork, director of missions of the Northeast Baptist Association in Elko, Nev., praised the many pastors of small churches in the association for their commitment to fulfilling their calling.

“I think I’ve got the best association in the country,” Stork said. “The pastors we’ve got, they’re not here for money. They’re not here for prestige. They’re here because they love God and they’re going to serve God, for little or no wages, literally.

“Most of our pastors are probably making less than $2,000 a month and many of them have been here for a long time,” he said.

For months, Stork has been driving 400 miles roundtrip on weekends to offer pulpit supply to Kingston Village Baptist Church in Kingston, a mining and tourism community where 10 in attendance is a good day. He has recruited two other pastors to help, but averages about three Sundays a month at the church.

“It’s a beautiful little church,” Stork said. “It sits right at the mouth of this canyon that goes up into these big, tall, huge mountains that probably go up, 10 to 12,000 feet, something like that. This little pond and this little wood church just touched my heart; the people touched my heart.”

Pastors also see the fruit of their Gospel work.

Vaughn tells of Big Jim, an equipment operator and martial arts expert who lost his job and stayed at the church’s RV park two years at no cost. It was months into the stay before Big Jim accepted Vaughn’s invitation to church, and months longer before he would remain for the entire service.

“One Sunday he showed up for Sunday School. He stayed halfway through and then he got up and walked out. Didn’t say a thing.”

Months later Big Jim, 6 feet six inches tall and 400 pounds, accepted Christ.

“I baptized him the next week.”

That was five years ago.

“He calls me pretty much every day just to pray,” Vaughn said. “He’s since moved to North Dakota. What a transformation. His story is one that tells us to never give up.”