By Dr. Glenn Daman
What began as a Sunday evening Bible study, evolved into a second church ministry. While we had several families traveling to our church from the Cascade Locks, the presence of the Columbia river formed a geographic barrier that made any outreach into the community difficult. We determined that the only potentially successful way to reach the community would be to establish a ministry in the area. Since we were not having a Sunday evening service in our church we could establish an evening service in Cascade Locks. While this discussion was going on a former mainline church that had existed within the community for over 100 years was on the verge of closure. Because of problems in the past and the decline of membership, the church could no longer afford to attract a pastor to come to the congregation. When they heard that we were considering starting a new church service they approached us with the proposal to join their congregation. After much discussion it was decided that we would if they reorganized the structure of the church, rewrote the constitution and changed the doctrinal statement, and broke their ties with the denomination they with whom they were affiliated. When they agreed to do so we entered the world of the multiple-church ministry, a world with significant blessings as well as unique and difficult challenges.
Enjoying the Benefits
Sharing a pastor between two congregations has both its negatives and positives. Before joining two ministries, it is important for the leadership of both churches to carefully understand the positive and negative impact it can have upon the individual churches. One of the benefits of having one pastor serve two congregations is that it provides an answer to the problem of staffing in the small church. Some are predicting that in the future there will be a shortage of pastors. If this holds true, the hardest hit will be the smaller church. As an alterative to closing is sharing a pastor with another church.
Even more problematic for staffing the small church is the shortage of funds. Newly graduated seminary and Bible College students, who once were the small churches' main supply to fill pastoral positions, can no longer afford to go to the smaller church because of the heavy debt load they carry from school and the meager salary the church can afford to pay. The smaller church is finding it more and more difficult to keep up with the continual cost of living increase and the amount it takes to adequately provide for a pastor and his family. Having two churches share a pastor can enable the congregations to have a pastor who is available to minister to their spiritual needs. It also enables the pastor to provide an adequate income for his family. Having this duel income can ease the financial pressure that causes such a stress upon the family of those in ministry.
Having two congregations in different locations can be an effective means of outreach in rural areas. When great distances or natural geographic boundaries separate communities, it will be difficult to encourage unchurched people to attend the services. Families are often reluctant to travel great distances to attend church. They may not be interested in attending a church in a different community, especially if the church is in a different school system where they children will not be friends with any of the other children in the congregation. They are, however, likely to be open to an invitation from a church in close proximity to them. One of the primary reasons we were willing to enter the venture was because we saw the importance that it had for outreach into the community. When two churches are in partnership with one another by sharing a pastor, it also expands their limited resources. Guest speakers or special groups can more easily come to the church because they are able to perform at two services for the cost of traveling to one church. With the two congregations, they receive greater compensation than they would in one of the churches individually. When special projects and needs arise, the churches can join forces and minister to these. When we first started the second church, this smaller congregation could not staff or fund a children's ministry which was critical to its development. Instead of neglecting this ministry, they were able to send their children to the other church's mid-week youth ministry. By utilizing the ministry of the other church, they were able to establish the foundation that eventually became the basis for splintering off and forming their own ministry. When this opportunity arose, not only did they have the base of children already in place, but the people were already trained and experienced because of their involvement in the other ministry, thus making the transition smoother.
Being Aware of the Pitfalls
While there are benefits, having a multiple parish ministry is not without its costs and dangers. One of the first costs is the fact that I cannot be present in both churches during the whole Sunday ministry. Because our churches are approximately 5 miles apart, we have both Worship services in the morning. From 9:00-!0:00 I preach in one church. I arrive at the church at approximately 8:30 a.m. and leave at 10:15 a.m. to travel back to the other church for the 10:45 a.m. service. Because of this schedule I am not able to be involved in the Sunday School program and miss the opportunity to be involved in the adult Sunday School class. While I do not normally teach a Sunday school class even if I am present, there are times when I do miss opportunities to teach informally as I sit in the class. It also impacts the mid-week ministries of the church as well. While I am involved in one of the children's ministries that meets Wednesday evening, I am not able to participate in the other church's mid-week ministry which meets at the same time.
A second problem is that my limited time schedule does not permit me to do the amount of visitation and pastoral care for the second church that I would like to perform. When the agreement was established, it was determined that I would only spend one-half a day on Thursdays at the second church. Because of this limited schedule, I am not able to follow-up visitors and people who are missing in the way that I would like. Instead the church is much more reliant upon the lay-leadership to provide some of the pastoral care.
Closely related to this is the fact that since I do not live in the second community. This makes it more difficult to become involved within the community. Since my children do not attend the school, I am not as involved in the school system as I am in the community in which I live. I am not as aware of the community activities, which prevents me from addressing community issues. This lack of involvement makes outreach more difficult since people are not able to get to know me outside the church setting.
Having multiple ministries brings further strain upon my family. Pastoring two church churches means more evenings tied up with meetings and activities. This requires me to guard my time with my family even more closely and not being afraid to say no.
Making it Work
Serving two congregations has been richly rewarding, but in order for it to work we recognized that careful planning must be a part of the agreement. The reason it has worked well is because of the following steps that were taken by the congregations.
First, from the outset there were clearly defined roles and guidelines. When the proposal was first made it was clearly established how much time I would spend in the second church and how much I would be available. Because of this neither church feels "cheated" when I am not there. By clearly setting the parameters of my time and ministry, there are no misunderstandings and people's expectations are established by these guidelines. This helps protect me from unjust criticism from people.
Second, the primary church I was serving saw the agreement as an outreach ministry rather than an organization function. For them it was not a matter of losing their pastor's time, rather it constituted a further extension of their ministry into the community. This was easily realized because reaching this community was a burden of our congregation even before we proposed the association. When the opportunity arose, it was a fulfillment of our church's vision, not contradictory to it. When the primary (i.e. the larger congregation) sees the value of the agreement for the cause of Christ then they are less likely to be jealous of the pastor's time. When the other church grows, they can rejoice with the other congregation at what God is doing in their midst. One of the reasons we do joint baptisms is so that both churches can rejoice together in what God is doing.
Third, we discovered that active lay involvement is critical. Because I had a limited amount of time I could spend in the smaller congregation, it was crucial for the lay leadership to take the initiative to oversee the day-to-day operation of the church. While I could provide spiritual counsel and oversight, they are responsible for program development and the operation of the ministries. This means that they need to be more directly involved in the establishment of goals and direction for the church. One of the reasons it has worked well for us is the people within the congregation are self-motivated and do not require a great deal of supervision.
Fourth, clear communication was necessary so that people understood what was expected and what the results would be. Since communication is always a challenge it is even more important that the pastor clearly communicate what is happening in the two churches to the respective boards so that misunderstanding do not arise. When issues do arise, it is important that there be communication between the boards to resolve the problems. One of the issues requiring careful communication from the outset was what would happen should either church decide the venture was not working out. From the beginning it was clear that my primary responsibility belonged to the first church so that if problems arose, my first obligation was to the first church. By having this clearly understood by both churches I am not caught in the middle when possible tensions over my time might arise.
Fifth, the time must be right. What made the transition successful was the timing for both churches. Because the ministry of our first church was running smoothly, the new responsibility did not have any detrimental effect upon the congregation. In the smaller congregation, the timing was critical for they were willing to make the sacrifices needed. Since the church was on the verge of closure they were willing to make the changes necessary to make the agreement work.
Sixth, after the venture is implemented, there should be a period of evaluation. When we first proposed the joint venture, we made it clear that the agreement would be evaluated by both congregations after one month, and that it would be revisited after one year. This helped to alleviate people's fears and provided both congregations an acceptable method of disassociation should the agreement not be working out. It is also understood that if either church feels it the arrangement is hindering its ministry, they can break the association.
Last, it is important that the churches have a clearly defined purpose and reason for why they are entering into the agreement. They need to identify and understand the rational for joining together. If they do not have a clear reason, but they are merely doing it because "it sounds good", minor problems will become major issues and threaten the cooperation between the two congregations.
Having a multiple church ministry is rewarding and challenging. By careful planning it can be an effective way for the kingdom of Christ to be advanced and can be an effective way for the small church to thrive and adequately provide for the pastor. While it is not the answer for every situation, it can be an excellent answer for some.