Book Review by Michael J. Breznau, Th.M.: Steve R. Bierly, Help for the Small-Church Pastor: Unlocking the Potential of your Congregation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
In this “results” driven age of church growth seminars and attention grabbing methodology, it would seem that a small church pastorate might equate as failure in the eyes of many recent seminary graduates. However, as Steve Bierly helpfully points out in his short yet poignant work: Help for the Small-Church Pastor, even the smallest congregation can fulfill the biblical purpose for the local church and honor God in their ministry. Yes, some grandiose programs and outreach projects run by much larger flocks may be impossible, but this does not mean that a small church is less valuable or less pleasing to God.
Central to Bierly’s thesis is the concept that the small church should be likened to the foreign mission field (p. 23-4). Thus to implement the ecclesiological strategies of those outside of the small church culture and context will most often end in disaster (p. 24). The seminary professor or mega-church leader purporting tactical, numerical growth methodology through strict, logical steps may find it feasible in a particular context (perhaps metropolitan). However, to directly transfer these same ideas to the world of the small church is analogous to a mid-western American missionary expecting his church plant in Africa to look, sound, and operate just like his home church back in the West. While the same truths and biblical principles govern both congregations, the manner of application most often is entirely different.
Loving All the Sheep
In the same way as missionaries must adapt to the new, foreign context, Bierly makes it clear that both the pastor and the congregation should realize their place in God’s plan and respond to their situation correctly. First, he illustrates the two most common responses to the context of a small church: (1) the pastor escapes the challenge by simply “getting out” or (2) the pastor moves forward with ministry realizing his parishioners to be “beloved and valuable” brethren in Christ (p. 10-11). Each of Bierly’s points is heavily illustrated by true, everyday stories, and this first issue is no exception. He relates how one older pastor counseled him to “get out” of the small church he was shepherding, remarking on his own severe dissatisfaction with tiny congregations. Yet as a counter point, the author tells how another recently retired pastor, who had led small churches his whole ministry, exuded an entirely different perspective. Instead of viewing the unique struggles and challenges of that environment to be hostile towards advancing God’s kingdom, this elder chose to rejoice in each difficulty and fostered strong relationships with his congregants. As a result, his lifetime of small church ministry was marked by the life-changing love of Christ.
While a myriad of other illustrative examples fill a good portion of the remaining pages, this latter response is essentially held up as the prime benchmark to follow. Therefore, with this renewed perspective in mind, Bierly sets out to explain just how one can follow in the steps of this faithful and fulfilled small church pastor. Gleaning from his lifetime spent in small churches and the preceding eleven years as a pastor of the same, he remarks that the first step towards this end is to have a correct understanding of what God thinks about small churches. He states, “I believe God looks at the small church and sees much good there. He calls leaders to discover and focus on that good and to find ways to strengthen and increase it (p. 12).” Thus in an effort to encourage pastors toward this goal, he essentially outlines the main body of his work in alignment with these themes of discovery, focus, strengthening etc.
Bierly does an excellent job bringing the many advantages of the small church setting to the fore, while being wholly realistic in his expectations. His stories clearly show that he has been involved in or aware of a significant number of disputes and difficulties. However, for all the challenges found in small churches, he successfully makes a case for their biblical validity and unique value in the sight of God. The differences between the small and larger church are many, yet Bierly also points out that most of them may be thought of as special advantages for the pastor. Whether it may be the ability to know every parishioner or even to commune truly as a “family,” these opportunities can result in great blessing for both the pastor and his people (e.g. chap. 4).
No doubt difficulties will come (as they will in a large church as well), and this book is replete with negative examples. However, the author convincingly demonstrates through positive illustrations just how one might “redeem” a tough situation. For instance, a youthful and enthusiastic pastor may arrive at a small, older congregation with dozens of “new” and “recently proven” ideas. Most often this established church will resist many if not every single “new” idea presented. However, if the young pastor wisely studies the church’s history, he may likely find a time long ago when something “new” was successfully presented and implemented (p. 62-4, 97). If he lovingly and carefully demonstrates the parallels between the past and the present, some of his newer ideas are far more likely to be accepted.
In keeping with the main thesis of discovering and strengthening the “good” found in the small church context, Bierly offers four helpful principles for those leading small congregations. These primarily involve attentiveness, relevance, patience, and helpfulness (p. 82-86). Encapsulating all four of these ideas is the simple word: love. On this key term Bierly rests his case. He writes, “Organisms will only prosper in healthy environments that are conducive to growth. The healthiest environment for the church is love. Love begins with the leaders” (p. 99). Thus the central admonishment to those serving in the small church context is to self-sacrificially love those whom God has placed under their leadership. To this end Bierly makes not only a strong case from personal experience but also from the Word of God (p. 103-104 cf. John 4:21; 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 1:23-24; 6:11-13; Gal 4:12-16, 19; Phil 1:7-8, 16; 2:1-2; 4:1; 1 Thess 2:7-12; Phil 8-11, 19-20). Regardless of the size of the congregation a pastor is to shepherd with love for each individual. He is to think of his church as a blessing rather than a burden (p. 103). This attitude and perspective in the ministry is only possible through the Spirit’s power and the application of wise and godly counsel. Here Bierly has presented just that – wise and godly counsel for those who wish to glorify God and serve others through pastoral ministry in the context of a small church.
Critical Interaction and Evaluation
This book could essentially be understood to contain two major themes or theses. The first is a negative warning: the strategies and methodological instructions of those outside the small church context (i.e. seminary professors or large/mega-church leaders) will not work when applied to a congregation of lesser size (p. 9-10, 15-24). The second is a positive exhortation: the small church is pleasing and valuable to God and can fulfill the biblical role and purpose of the church regardless of its size (p. 12, 41, 74-5). Furthermore, leaders who realize their parishioners to be beloved brethren in Christ will discover many excellent ways whereby they can together see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel.
The first major thesis, which warns those attempting to apply mega-church methods to the small church context, is a much-needed admonishment in our time. All too often the young and enthused storm into aging congregations as bullying change agents, without any mandate to do so. While there are some smaller churches which desire rapid and drastic change, most do not. Bierly contends that small churches are like big families that wish everything would just operate as usual and where everyone may enjoy the traditions they have always enjoyed (e.g. chap. 3).
As previously mentioned, he draws an analogy between church-growth methodology and missionaries vociferously applying western concepts to a distinctly different foreign setting. This analogy however, only works in a basic way for the author’s purposes. He can simply and only point out that those in a small church context must consider information from other settings or situations in need of translation per se, before it can be utilized. Unfortunately, he does not adequately qualify this first thesis until the appendix section (cf. p. 111). Thus readers could be left wondering if any suggestions or pointers from “outside” the small church context are worthwhile. Bierly seems to allude to the contrary as the book goes on, however, this issue is not satisfactorily addressed. Certainly, there are some methods that work in a western church setting that may also work in a foreign missionary setting as well. It is not coherent to rule out all outside information and methodology as “alien” and therefore unworkable.
In continuing the contrast between large-church and small-church methodology, Bierly puts forth that small-church pastors are predominantly in the “people business” (p. 33-5). Such is often why the “B” or “C” seminary students are often far more successful in ministry than those who consistently receive “A’s”. The author points out that the “C” student is probably so because he spends more time with people than with books (p. 35). He is more “relational than rational”. In much the same way, a successful pastor must be a people person, a shepherd who expends a great deal of time and energy for his sheep. In this way, a small church has a unique advantage over the larger fellowship, so says Bierly. Such a pastor has the opportunity to know every single parishioner. Thus he commends pastors to understand and apply this opportunity to their ministry.
The only minor fallacy in this argument is again, what goes unstated. The author does not explain that most pastors of medium or even mega-sized churches are also much more relational rather than rational. It would seem that the large-church pastor has the opportunity to study alone in his office to the exclusion of everyone else, only to prepare for that “perfect, flawless” message on Sunday morning. Such an idea is obviously not the case at all. In fact some large-church pastors may be required to be even more relational than their small-church counter-parts. Although Bierly presents an important warning to those entering the small-church pastorate, he does not provide enough solid balance to his argument in this regard. Instead, his first thesis is supported by dozens of short stories that seem to hold up his viable exhortation on fluffy-white, cumulous clouds.
Unlike the first thesis, the second exhortation consists of a much more exegetical and balanced structure. Short stories still abound and surround this portion of the book with helpful and interesting tidbits of information. But again they seem far too numerous in places and are used to support his argument rather than illustrate it. Besides this weak joint, Bierly successfully contends that the small church is indeed pleasing and valuable to God and can fulfill the biblical role and purpose of the church (p. 12, 41, 74-5).
This book shines predominantly in two areas and both are found in the construct of this second theme. First, Bierly defines what a typical small church looks like. These are given in four consecutive points: (1) the small church is a group determined to stay together, (2) the small church is a group that works to preserve their traditions, (3) the small church is a group led by a few key figures, and (4) the small church is a group who are often suspicious, if not contemptuous of outsiders (p. 41-48). These four basic principles are well supported and seem to be especially true in light of the relevant evidence. Again, the author seems to see no need to adequately qualify his statements with balancing nuances. But the basic points are logical and relevant. His evaluation of the small church as a “group who are often suspicious, if not contemptuous of outsiders” seems somewhat overstated to one who has also spent his life in small churches. However, these concepts will prove invaluable to those who serve in the pastorate.
The following area in which his second thesis is strengthened is closely aligned with the specific terms in the thesis itself. The small church is pleasing and valuable to God and can fulfill the biblical role and purpose of the church regardless of its size (p. 12, 41, 74-5). Furthermore, leaders who realize their parishioners to be beloved brethren in Christ will discover many excellent ways whereby they can together see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel. Thus Bierly believes, “[God] calls leaders to discover and focus on that good [in the small church] and to find ways to strengthen and increase it” (p. 12). For this reason he outlines four more practical principles that will help guide a pastor: (1) a small church leader is primarily a problem presenter not a problem solver, (2) leaders should present problems in as graphic and as personal a manner as possible, (3) it takes time for small congregations to decide to take action, (4) a leader must help his or her people remove obstacles that prevent them from seeing the problem clearly (p. 82-85). Observing the first point, this may be confused with the pastor being a complainer, yet this attitude was rejected earlier in the text. Thus this principle more accurately means that pastors are not to be the “guy who knows how to do it all and fix it all.” Instead a pastor should attentively, yet humbly point out a need and graciously enable others to use their own expertise. This idea is counter-intuitive to those of us who are of the “take charge,” type-A personality. However, in order for the people of a small congregation to feel needed they must be given responsibility. Certainly such a concept cannot be taken to the extreme. If this happens to be the case, the pastor will find himself run over by the board. Again, it seems due to the brevity of this book, the author does not engage in any of these nuanced or counter arguments to his principles. This is unfortunate, yet forgivable because of the intended audience of this work.
The second and third principles given specifically speak of wise relevance and patience. The pastor is one who makes his people acutely aware of whether or not a need is urgent or vitally important. Furthermore, he is one who demonstrates enduring patience during the many deliberations that may ensue. Lastly, the fourth principle is characterized by sincere helpfulness. Bierly contends that a small church pastor will need to realize their board members have lives (sometimes exhausting lives) outside church (cf. p. 85-6). This must be lovingly taken into account. Thus attentiveness, relevance, patience, and helpfulness are keys to a successful and faithful small-church ministry. In these very practical and tangible lessons, Bierly’s experience and counsel shine with wisdom.
The author remains realistic as he honestly and openly talks about the failure of some churches even when good, loving leadership is present (p.33). In the latter half of the book he wisely moves away from the numerous and fluffy illustrations to sound biblical support and historical validation. However, this comes almost as a surprise to the reader who is by then used to each chapter being seventy to eighty percent short stories and examples. Also, the author is obviously writing from an egalitarian point of view, as a significant number of his illustrations involve a female serving as pastor/elder. While his content is thoroughly evangelical, this more moderate view on church leadership may hinder some evangelicals from hearing his message. Otherwise, this book presents two strong ideas that need to enter the contemporary evangelical discussion. In conclusion to his main thesis, Bierly encapsulates his message with the centrality of serving in love (e.g. chap. 9). Regardless of the size of the congregation a pastor is to shepherd with love for each individual. He is to think of his church as a blessing rather than a burden (p. 103). This attitude and perspective in the ministry is only possible through the Spirit’s power and the application of wise and godly counsel. In Help for the Small-Church Pastor, Bierly has presented just that – wise and godly counsel for those who wish to glorify God and serve others through pastoral ministry in the context of a small church. This book provides seasoned instruction from a pastor surrounded by other loving pastors in an easy, readable style that should prove to be a great resource for numerous pastors and lay-leaders alike.
Personal and Ministerial Application
For one who looks forward to serving as a pastor in a local church setting after graduation from seminary, this book has provided a great deal of insight into the structure and thought make up of the small church context. I have not only grown up in and around small churches, but also would wholeheartedly accept a call to such a congregation if God directs in that way. After reading and studying this useful text, three concise points of application seem most important.
First, a small church pastor must be especially attentive to the needs of his people. He must know when they are hurting, sad, or overjoyed. A pastor should understand what the spiritual and physical needs of his congregation may be and work towards assisting them in both arenas. If the church facility is impeding the toddler’s ministry, the pastor must know what is going on and take steps to help enable improvement. The pastor should take thought to that marriage which is in disarray or rejoice with the parents of the wayward child that has come home. Whatever the case may be, a small church pastor must be relational attentive.
Second, a pastor must be thoroughly patient with his congregation and board. He must never seek to force his way upon the people but instead show appreciation for the history and current position of the church. New ideas are not dropped, yet they are held with a patient, understanding, and loving hand. The small church pastor must move forward with the “long-view” in mind.
Lastly, all pastors must operate and minister with self-sacrificial love. The must learn to put others before themselves and serve in humility – even those whom they may disagree with. They will need to learn how to appreciate the differences between their congregants and between their church and the “bigger” one down the road. This idea includes going the extra mile for those who may never be able to give anything in return. Self-sacrificial love might be demonstrated in changing dear old Mrs. Beardsley’s tire on a Saturday morning so she can get to church on Sunday, or a number of other little loving projects. When the pastor sincerely loves his flock, his sermons will suddenly become relevant and more importantly his parishioners may start listening too. What may be the result? Lives changed for the glory of God by the Spirit of God. Such will be the result of those who, by the Spirit’s power, serve and minister with attentiveness, patience, and self-sacrificial love.
Originally written in November, 2009 by M. Breznau.
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 I am personally aware of several churches that have undergone such devastating pastoral irresponsibility. In three particular congregations such action on the part of the newly hired pastor was especially marked by arrogance, selfishness, and an unloving attitude toward anyone in the church who opposed the “new way of doing things.” I find this in stark contrast to biblical church leadership (cf. 1 Tim 2; Eph 2:20-22).