Some rural churches in the United States face a gloomy future when they try to rely on full-time clergy to fill their pulpit. In many cases, even yoking with other churches will not provide enough income to support full time pastoral leadership. Small membership churches wanting to move beyond survival and death, might consider part time lay ministers to be a better answer their pastoral leadership needs.
Let us consider the reality that small towns and communities face. First, their population has shrunk over the years. The number of farms has decreased and the number of farmers needed to plant, care for, and harvest is lower today than fifty years ago. Second, young people move away while those who are the financial base for the church are dying, leaving the church with a smaller budget. Third, housing in small rural areas is very inexpensive and attracts lower income people who are unable to afford housing in larger towns, suburbs and cities. Those with lower incomes will not be able to support the church financially at the same level as those who worshiped in years past. Fourth, employment opportunities continue to shrink in small communities and towns. In the years to come, employment may shrink even more because communities just do not have the workforce needed to meet industry's needs.
Small membership churches and denominational executives, such as bishops and district superintendents, have three choices. They can close the doors because full-time clergy are not available. On the other hand, they can yoke small churches together to providing a short-term fix. Yet another option would be training quality laypersons to serve small membership churches. I believe the latter is the option for many small membership churches because, even though the rural community is smaller, there are still many people needing to know God's love and grace. If we begin to close churches because of dollars and the lack of full time clergy, we are ignoring the needs of persons God has called us to serve.
With the growing number of small membership rural churches needing less than full time ministers the church will need laity ready to serve. There are a number of quality training programs for laypersons, wanting to be trained to serve the small membership church.
The Lay Academy for Rural Church Ministries has developed an online program which trains quality laypersons, while keeping expense down and can fit most laypeople's schedules. The program can work to help laypersons preparing to serve the small membership church or as support during their first year in ministry. The program also meets requirements for Certified Lay Minister training as set out by the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. I invite you to check out the program at Lay Academy for Rural Church Ministries or contact Rev. Dr. Carl K. Ellis.
Let us remember how important our small membership churches are to rural communities!