NASHVILLE (BP) — As Joe Wright Jr. and his wife Pennie worshiped with a Southern Baptist congregation of 12 members in the Tennessee Delta just a few weeks ago, the pastor’s participation was noticeable.
“We sat there and watched the pastor open his hymnbook and without a piano, he led those 12 people in about three songs,” said Wright, in his fourth month as executive director of the Bivocational & Small Church Leadership Network (BSCLN). “When he was done, he shut the hymnbook, and he said let’s pray. And he prayed, and he said, ‘It’s time for the preaching.’ And he opened the Bible, and then he preached.”‘
“I sat there during that whole time, and not only did I worship with him, but my heart was broken that he needed resources,” Wright said, describing the church as faithful. “That’s the driving vision for this, and for me, to be able to provide resources and educational opportunities for leaders and pastors, and primarily bivocational pastors.”
Utilizing a love for small churches that Wright has perceived among Southern Baptists, the BSCLN is planning an educational initiative to provide free video training and mentoring to small-church and bivocational pastors and leaders by key church leaders from across North America, Wright told Baptist Press.
A quarter of the approximately 46,125 Southern Baptist churches and missions report Sunday School attendance of one to 24 individuals, Wright said, based on current Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profile reporting. Another 26 percent have less than 50 in Sunday School. About 83 percent of churches have less than 125 in Sunday School, with only one percent of Southern Baptist congregations serving 1,000 or more.
Larger churches “are the mountains of our convention,” Wright said, “but the small hills and vales are the small churches. And the mountains are not majestic without the foothills of the small churches. And that’s my burden.
“If we lose the small churches in our convention,” Wright said, “we lose 83 percent of our churches. We lose one half of the Cooperative Program. We lose one half of the baptisms. I think we lose a great portion of the vitality, and the strengths, and just the spiritual foundation of who we are as Baptists. It all comes out of the fiber and the fabric of the small church.”
The free training will join 116 free resources currently available on the BSCLN website, including books and articles, and a complimentary thumb drive of all resources for pastors and leaders without internet access. Wright’s goal is 2,000 online resources at smallchurch.net, with hard copies of certain resources also available.
“What we’d like to be able to do at this point is walk into a local association office, meet with six or eight small-church pastors, open up a laptop, dial in, connect with one of these men or women who are great educators, and let them speak by video conference to these six or eight people from small churches,” Wright said of the initiative. “BSCLN can facilitate that.”
Gateway Seminary associate professor Warren Haynes, author of “Discipleship Uncomplicated,” has agreed to be the first video conference educator, said Wright, who is working to schedule the training through a Southern Baptist state convention. Classes would last about two hours, allowing pastors and leaders to ask questions, interact and learn.
Wright will also use the internet in an initiative to encourage pastors, wives and their children to persevere in the faith and in their calling.
“The average small-church pastor that gets up in the morning and has to go to a job,” Wright said, “and then tries to carve out time to go to the hospitals, and to do weddings and funerals and prepare sermons and work in Vacation Bible School and do all the things that small-church pastors do, and then on top of that try to maintain a healthy family, technology has to serve them, and we need to make technology a benefit to the small-church leader.”
Wright’s late father concurrently worked as a butcher, farmer and pastor in the valleys of Clinch Mountain, Tenn., during his 87 years of life, while also enjoying fatherhood and family. Bivocational pastors tend to be “time needy,” Wright said.
“They don’t have as much of an opportunity to pursue an education,” he said. ‘They can’t take time away from a secular job, a church service and the caretaking of their family to spare very much time to achieve … a traditional education.”
BSCLN was founded in 1997 as the Southern Baptist Bivocational Ministerial Association and was funded by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) until 2005, Wright said, when NAMB’s vision changed. Since then BSCLN has remained Southern Baptist, but is self-funded by gifts, grants, donations and adhoc partnerships with state conventions.
Small-church and bivocational pastors, as well as donors and supporters, can access the network at www.smallchurch.net or www.bscln.net. Giving is available online and by check.
“The BSCLN is always in need of financial support,” Wright said, “since we do not receive Cooperative Program money. … If someone wants to connect with the BSCLN and God leads them to connect financially, that would be more than greatly appreciated.”
Wright, the only paid BSCLN employee, encourages pastors and leaders to subscribe to the BSCLN newsletter on the website, where membership is also available. BSCLN works with volunteers, nine regional consultants and other denominational servants who receive stipends, Wright said.
Pastors and leaders may also connect with BSCLN through regional directors. They are Larry and Janet Orange, Central Midwest region including Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio, firstname.lastname@example.org; Ron and Susan Ward, Upper Southwest region including the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia, email@example.com; Shannon Smith, Plain States region including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, firstname.lastname@example.org; Henry Luckel, Rocky Mountains region including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state, email@example.com; Bobby Clark, Arkansas and Oklahoma, firstname.lastname@example.org; Thomas Echols, Texas, email@example.com; Gary Mitchell, Louisiana, firstname.lastname@example.org; Joe Young, Mississippi and Alabama, email@example.com; and Vernon and Jean Beachum, West Virginia, firstname.lastname@example.org.