Rural churches can thrive beyond numbers

Small churches learn to evaluate their growth by impact rather than attendance.


The young pastor said he felt like a failure.

He wasn’t the first rural pastor I’ve heard say this. The center that I direct, located at a small United Methodist college, is focused on working with rural congregations to support community and economic development. Before this, I pastored a small rural congregation. I’ve been in his shoes, and I know other pastors who have been in his shoes, too.

“I always believed that if I did all the right things, if I got all the parts of ministry right, then my church would grow,” he said. “But it’s not happening. I feel like a failure.”

He described his community: a rural county with a high level of opiate use, significant poverty and inadequate health care. He spoke with pride about the ministries of his church — in particular, their community meals, where judges eat with the criminals they have sentenced. He knew the ins and outs of his community, both the stories and the data. And yet, he told us, his church continued to shrink.

This story is not uncommon. Pastors are often led to believe that success in their congregations is contingent upon increasing worship attendance. Missions and evangelism become tools by which to reach this growth rather than efforts by which to recognize and participate in the restless change that God is creating.

In many small-church contexts, numerical growth is next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that the pastors or the congregations are failures. I’ve heard many stories of small ministries that are succeeding — measured not by the numbers but by the impact of their work.

The Rev. Meghan Killingsworth and the Rev. Glenn Stallsmith, for example, reject the notion that thriving churches are exclusively those that are rapidly attracting members — and that small churches are simply places to serve as chaplains for idle, unproductive congregations.

Instead, these pastors remind us of the hard work required of leaders in our small-membership congregations. Small congregations are not doomed to irrelevancy, but neither are they likely to greatly increase their average worship attendance.

Meghan is co-pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sanford, Florida, a small city outside Orlando. Over the last few years, the city has grown rapidly, boosted by its increasingly busy airport and its proximity to Disney World. The church sits on a brick-paved street across from a park, a few blocks from a popular lake. One of several churches on the street, First United Methodist has worshipped in its current structure since 1915, in a sanctuary that features nearly 40 stained-glass windows.

The congregation is small, averaging about 80 on a typical Sunday, and it seems destined to remain so. For the members to match the type of worship that popular mega-churches in the area offer, they would have to change their DNA as a congregation. Expanding or building a new campus is not a possibility without abandoning the church’s physical place in the community.

Instead, Meghan has begun a conversation, both within her church and with fellow pastors in the area, about what she calls “missional metrics.” Her questions are about assets that her church can offer to the changing community: What are the needs we can meet? How might we be incarnational within our community? What does it mean to be a leader in this particular community? Where do we fit in the current ecosystem?

For Sanford First United Methodist Church, that means better utilization of their building. Using the fellowship halls and classrooms that otherwise sit empty, the congregation is launching a co-working and incubator space for nonprofits in the community.

When the co-working space is fully operational, it will bring together complementary nonprofits. Already, food-based programs, support groups and entrepreneurial initiatives focused on justice have signed on. Groups that share this space will share a commitment to partnering with each other through quarterly learning opportunities and an annual volunteer fair for the wider community.

“All of these groups were trying to find ways to work together,” Meghan said. “We want to find ways for our church to help in that.”

Glenn, too, had to come up with a creative way to help his congregation reach its community. Glenn is a part-time pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in rural Oxford, North Carolina, which averages about 20 in weekly worship. Located outside of the small town, the church is mostly surrounded by fields and trees.

Over the last few years, the rural congregation has worked to create a small community garden. While the people in the pews are not farmers, many of them came from farming families, and small farms still dominate the landscape. A community garden was, as Glenn told me, “in the DNA of the congregation.” And it was a way to connect with the students at the school a few miles away, who were looking for opportunities to fulfill their community service hours.

For Glenn, the garden is a way for the church to enter into a new aspect of ministry. “I can preach every Sunday about how we need to be more evangelistic or outward-facing or missional, and it can be overwhelming. This is something we can do in that direction.”

The garden will likely never yield much in the way of new members, because the population around the church is not growing. Instead, Glenn sees the garden as a way to change the perception of the role of the church in the community, both for its members and for those outside the church.

“I hope that this helps to change the texture of the community,” he said.

Both Meghan and Glenn acknowledge that their churches will never see profound membership growth from these ministries. Instead, they offer a template for a revitalized life and vision for small-membership congregations, and a new way of evaluating failure and success.

These are congregations leading substantial change by building on their assets, including their small size. Even if they don’t grow, they aren’t failures; they can still lead purposeful ministry.

Better than 20/20 in 2019

CF621973-C44B-489C-A35B-F73DCF72FF2FEvery church, whether spoken or implied, has goals to grow numerically and spiritual and get more people engaged in activities and giving. But fewer churches have any idea of how to start achieving these goals. 

Better than 20/20 visibility of ministry effectiveness is possible. However, there’s a limit to how much you can track with just your eyes. And even what you see can fool you.  

Knowing how things are really going and where new initiatives are needed is dependent on more than impressive driven or anecdotal insight. 

Evidence-based discernment provided through a congregation-wide assessment tool is the best step toward 20/20 visibility. 

Mustard Seed Consulting offers your church proven steps for growth, resolution of conflict and guess-free decision-making. Contact us today to achieve 20/20 in 2019. 

Seeking Direction in Pastoral Change


St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Medford, WI has been sharing the Good News of Jesus for over 100 years. Today they find themselves in pastoral transition and the accompanying challenges of engaging people, focusing mission and enjoying a solid financial reality.

This fall, leaders chose the endeavor of evidence-based discernment to inform the decisions ahead. 130 people took the CAT (Church Assessment Tool) and this week Mustard Seed was at St Paul’s to present the data and interpret it for leaders.

Like many small town WI churches, resources are declining and anxiety is building. But St. Paul’s now has evidence and insight to being building a realistic plan for renewal. Awareness of its culture, strengths, growth areas and priorities, leaders have become equipped in new ways thanks to evidence-based discernment.




What’s Evidence Based Discernment?

Evidence-based was a term first used in the medical field in the 1990s. It referred to the data medical professionals used as basis for treatment or intervention decisions.
Today, church leaders use evidence-based discernment to make decisions during critical times such as pastoral transition, capital campaigns, building expansions, strategic planning and more. The discernment is the work leaders do, based on the evidence gathered.
Mustard Seed Consulting provides the path to gathering evidence critical for churches to make better decisions, in less time and with more confidence. Evidence based discernment is achieved using the CAT (Church Assessment Tool – an instrument owned by Holy Cow! Consulting) administers by Mustard Seed. With the CAT all voices in the congregation are invited and gathered into data-based awareness of organizational health. The evidence includes readings on congregational culture, theological stance, flexibility, priorities, and  what drives peoples assessment of energy and satisfaction at play in the church. Additionally, specific direction is attained from the evidence, making this an endeavor that has durability and immediate and lasting value.
Consider evidence-based discernment for your church in 2019.

Pastoral Transition

Tonight we’re with the leaders of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, Hudson, WI. They’re in pastoral transition after their pastor was selected to be part of the judicatory staff. This sudden change has had a significant impact on the congregation.

The leaders of Mt. Zion chose to engage with MSC and use the CAT (Church Assessment Tool) in addition to the Transition and Critical Abilities modules to get a read on what needs to happen in this interim period. What they’re learning is that there are key goals to be defined and achieved before a new pastor is called.

Evidence-based discernment has value for churches in pastoral transition and the CAT offers the best way to give everyone a voice in equal measure.B3253F78-10F2-4812-8126-9BF29DBEBF2A

Proactive Pastoral Transition

Mustard Seed spent an evening last week with the fine leaders of Christ Lutheran Church, Somerset, WI. This congregation is a step ahead of an upcoming pastoral transition. They’ve now gained organizational intelligence by taking the Church Assessment Tool this fall. The evidence-based discernment they have in hand now will inform, guide and  expedite some important steps ahead prior to calling a new pastor.

Mustard Seed provides the highly-respected tools of Holy Cow! Consulting which are proven to work. Every member of the congregation is invited and all voices are heard in equal measure via the CAT.

Before your church makes its next big decision (capital campaign, building expansion, planning process or calling a pastor) Mustard Seed can provide the best in guidance and insight.609B212D-776E-4DD1-8EF4-F7DA2E86BC2A