Our favorite books related to the small church, collected over the life of the Summer Collegium project.
Helpful websites and denominational resources (some free!)
"The Smaller Congregation - Pathways in Challenging Times," copyrighted 2010 by the Alban Institute.  Used with permission.

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A Resource for Small Churches - December 2010 Issue

Small Churches - Big Ideas is an e-resources guide, hosted by Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. This monthly mailing and our web page,, are an attempt to reach the thousands of small-church clergy and lay leaders who are looking for resources to enhance the health of their congregations. They are not meant to be denominationally or theologically specific, nor are these resources only for clergy. We want them to be useful to all who work with, pray for, and love the small church.

Small Church Self Esteem

I visit small churches all over North America, and I have found that in many small congregations their biggest issue is low self-esteem.  “We're too small to make a difference.”  “We can't do that because we're only a small church.”  These are phrases the become the mantra of small-church inaction and depression.  The worst, in my opinion, is an attitude toward visitors, spoken or not, of “why would you want to come to this church?”


What are some ways to fight off low self-esteem?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Periodically, ask your board or members – a congregational meeting might be a good setting – to list everything the church does.  What are the missions in which you are engaged?  What are some ways your members are personally, spiritually touched by the ministry of the church?  Tell stories!
  • When thinking about future plans, use a positively-focused approach, like Appreciative Inquiry (see Memories, Hopes and Conversations:  Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, by Mark Lau Branson.  Alban Institute, 2004) that looks at what gives your church energy, rather than one that identifies weaknesses.  We all know the weaknesses.  Let's look at what is enriching and has worked in the past.  Leave the unpleasant and unproductive parts of the past in the past.
  • Engage in mission that has short-term, personal results.  Giving money to oversees mission is fine, but make sure you have some local projects in which people can get their hands dirty and be able to interact with the people they help.  Nothing beats seeing the face and looking in the eyes of someone who has been helped by your ministry.
  • Celebrate and have fun together every chance you get!
-Marilyn Johns
Book Review – The Gifts of the Small Church

(Jason Byassee; Nashville:  Abingdon, 2010)


Here's what I love about Jason Byassee's new book about small church life:


1.      He tells it like it is.  Byassee doesn't mince words or feelings in discussing is two-year experience with a small congregation in rural North Carolina.  He doesn't present this small church as perfect, because it is not.  No small congregation is.  He is up front about the theological, political, and cultural differences he encounters.  But he also shares that in spite of those differences, he came to deeply love the people for who they were as creatures of God, as they also came to love him.

2.      He writes through stories, which is one of the gifts of the small church.  This book is not an academic exercise – though it has much to teach - or a sociological study – though it has much to say about the culture of the small, rural church.  It is not a “how-to” book in any sense of the term.  It is the story of Jason's journey as a first-call pastor in a small congregation.

3.      Through stories important points are illustrated.  The chapters in this book are short vignettes that illustrate his particular themes.  Topics like church growth, the mega-church movement, the challenges for spouses in small-church ministry, mutual forgiveness, boundaries with parishioners, volunteer recruitment, and even the power of cemeteries are explored through Byassee's own personal life and experience. 


Here's what I don't love about The Gifts of the Small Church:

1.      Jason Byassee is no longer one of them!  Like so many gifted clergy, he has moved on to bigger things; he is now an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.


I used this book with a group of pastors whose first call to ministry was in a small congregation.  It was a great way to give them honest, humorous insight into the joys and challenges of ministry in the small church.  Experienced clergy, lay people, and large-church folks will all gain valuable understanding of life in the small church through Jason Byassee's gift to the small church.


-Marilyn Johns

The Cool Thing About Ministry in a Small Congregation


Earlier this year, a young mother stood up during the announcement time in church and said that she was collecting money to buy tents to send to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.  She saw the pictures on the news showing parents with children the same age as her own and she knew that we needed to do something.  In two weeks, we had children’s clothes, medicine, tents, tarps, hand tools and other emergency times ready for transport to the people on that small island.


Over the past couple of years, our church has worked hard at maintaining and deepening our relationship with the local high school.  We felt a particular need to help the girls who were pregnant by providing counselling, support and arranging for whatever medical care they required.   One of the girls came to us and asked for help.  In two weeks, we raised over 500 dollars, and two laundry baskets full of baby items and a few special items for mom.  We also have provided for her ongoing support during her pregnancy, delivery and afterwards.  The young teen has been so grateful, and wants to tell her one of her friends who is also pregnant about St Paul’s. 


We go out for breakfast at a local restaurant after our early church service on Sunday mornings.  Recently, I walked into the restaurant and as I looked around, I realized that I knew everyone sitting at the tables.  I have run into them at the Legion, the local curling club, and even on my walks to the post office and my conversations with the local business owner’s downtown.   As a pastor, it suddenly struck me how many various connections the parish had with the wider community.


A high school student was walking home from school and found a 50 dollar bill on the sidewalk.  At first she thought she would spend the money she found, or save it.  But then she passed by the youth drop-in centre sponsored by the local churches in town.  She came by St Paul’s and said she wanted to donate the 50 dollars to the youth centre.  She heard of the good work we do there for her friends, and wanted to do what she could to support that ministry. 


These are four short vignettes of what it is like, and can be like, doing ministry in a small congregation in a small town in southern Ontario.  I continue to be amazed and grateful for how we connect with people and places in our community and around the world.  We do not boast a lot of committees or infrastructure, but when a mom sees something on TV or a young woman finds money on the street, they both know what they need to do.  As someone wiser than me once said, “We may not be big, but we are not small”.  And in small congregations across both the United States and Canada, God is at work, one heart at a time, to call us into mission to a world that is still in need of grace, love, compassion and mercy.  And the cool thing is, that as  pastor, I get to see that every week!


The Rev’d Michael Calderwood

Pastor as St Paul’s Anglican Church

Brighton, Ontario

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Monthly Small Church Resources from Virginia Seminary
This resource is compiled by Marilyn Johns, D.Min., project manager of The Summer Collegium, as an extension of that project.
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