Changes in the Small-Town Church

by Peter J. Surrey

Father Surrey is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Savanna, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  October 31, 1979, p. 1060. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our love of the past conflicts often with your plans for the future; our love of order does not show up on abstract statistics; our tendency to look to each other for affection and support stands against a minister’s wish to obtain emotional support away from the small church. The clergy never really belong to a small church, and because of that, we have a hard time trusting them.


Be we High or Low

The status is Quo.

 --  Old Episcopal saying.


10 Church Street

Small Town, U.S.A.

Dear Pastor:

It was only after much hesitation that I decided to write you this letter. Last Thursday’s meeting between you and the Women’s Guild does call for a few observations! In the course of my 70 years, I have seen many clashes between parishes and clergy, and they do upset me. For as long as I can remember, I have loved this little parish and the clergy who have served it as pastors, and it has always seemed to me that many difficulties between them could have been avoided if both sides could have recognized the basic values of the other. Many times laypeople expect clergy to respond to subtle cues and chance remarks, while clergy, seeking to maintain their ministerial image, fail to express their true feelings. Consequently, both parties frequently become involved in what the lawyers call an “adversary position.” Too often the victim in all this is the parish. To illustrate what I mean, let us go back to the Guild meeting of last Thursday.


You began by remarking on our low Sunday attendance. Then you reviewed the budget, especially the many bills. The main explosion was provoked by your innocent comment -- or was it that innocent? -- on the old furnishings of the sanctuary. “All that old stuff,” you said, “is so dreadful that it looks as though it had been handmade by the monkeys in Noah’s ark!” As a matter of interest, you were closer to the truth than you realized.

The women’s reactions were even more revealing. Joy Matthews spent loving moments on the state of the washrooms and simply refused to listen to our problems about obtaining a janitor. Josephine’s observations about your not joining Rotary did appear to be a little off the subject, but given her set of values, they were not surprising. You did not like it when the conversation turned to Jim Clancy’s matrimonial adventures. Anne had come to that meeting armed with this information, and she simply had to tell it before too many of the women left!

I suppose that if we are ever going to explain ourselves to each other, we had better state some basic facts. First of all, this is a small parish in a small town. Probably neither the parish nor the town can be expected to change much. This fact is the clue for understanding the entire situation. Small churches are not smaller editions of large churches, any more than my Volkswagen Beetle is a small Cadillac. Historically, small churches are on the fringe of denominational attention and thus are less influenced by central decisions than are larger parishes.

People, however, cannot live in a vacuum, and so we have built up our traditions, some of which have nothing to do with the policies or influences of the larger church. With this process has come a certain way of looking at things. Unfortunately this “way” is often hidden and difficult to grasp, and laypersons will sometimes go to great length to make sure the pastor does not understand them. Many of your people’s ideas are quite opposite to yours and to the hopes of the national church.

In a sense -- and I know this may be difficult to grasp -- you as the pastor are a threat to a small church. This sort of thing goes back at least to the time of St. Paul -- who, I understand, had a difficult time with his parishes in Corinth and Galatia. The chief problem with St. Paul was that he wanted his entire parish to go straight to heaven at the precise moment he converted them, while his parishioners kept saying, “We’ll be glad to go, Paul, but we have a few other interests we would like to deal with first.” All of us are interested in salvation, but all of us have interests in the church that frequently lie outside the church’s chief purpose. May I be a bit presumptuous and begin with you?


As I see you (and most clergy), you are always looking forward to the future. Pastors want more and more worshipers on Sunday, more and more programs during the week. It is always a source of satisfaction when a pastor can report more baptisms and more children and teachers in the church school than in previous years. Growth means that more bills can be paid. Advancement in your profession is often measured in terms of a larger membership, whether you had anything to do with the growth or not. The system forces you to be forward-looking.

Second, clergy live with statistics, but statistics tend to make parishioners abstract. There is no way of reporting to headquarters that Mrs. Jones came back to church after a year’s absence because she was worried about her sick son, or that Bob Thomson suddenly upped his pledge because he was thankful for the success of his surgery. Your parishioners, in other words, are human and have human responses, but there is no way of getting such facts on a computer printout.

Third, clergy have a tendency to seek their satisfactions outside the small church. They look outward, toward headquarters or toward meetings or toward books, for their inspirations and new ideas. It is hard for parishioners to appreciate this attitude, despite the fact that they may be well educated.

People in small towns value pastors in terms of their ability to be known and liked. A sense of humor, an ability to read social cues, a willingness to become “one of the boys or girls” (provided you know where to stop) -- these are what small communities value in their pastors. If questioned on such matters, most search committees would deny that these are the qualities they want in a pastor. But do not let such denials fool you!

Against your points of view are the traditions your church people believe in. I think of them in terms of three loves -- first, love of the past, then love of order, and finally love toward each other. We will take each of these in order.

Opposite to your tendency to look to the future, a small congregation is much more likely to look toward the past. A recent visitor from headquarters called us “backward-looking,” and although his opinion needs to be modified, there is much truth in the remark. The need for modification lies in the fact that if our values are to survive, we must pass them on to future generations. We do this all the time. When Mrs. Slatterly warned the younger girls last Easter to be careful with the altar cross because it was a memorial to Jim Hope, who had been killed in World War II, she was educating them about their heritage. It is your task to teach newcomers about Christian doctrine and Christian behavior and that sort of thing; it is our task to make sure that newcomers know about local traditions. You might sum us up by making a comparison with Henry Ford, for it was he, I believe, who said that “history is more or less bunk.” If, by some great stretch of the imagination, Henry had become our pastor, he would not have lasted a week!


All of this is leading up to your attempt to replace that sanctuary furniture. In case you did not know it, that set was given many years ago by the family who founded this church. Oh, we all know their bodies are out in the cemetery, but as long as we have that altar and all that goes with it, these people in a very real, spiritual sense are still with us. Every time we recite the creed that says, “I believe in the communion of saints,” I think of my great-aunt who once sat where I now sit.

And please do not accuse us of worshiping the building! It is not the building we worship; it is the roots the building represents. All around us are change and decay. The house where I was born is now the site of a filling station; the school where I was educated will educate no one else, for it has been replaced by a parking lot. Yet the small church remains, and as long as it does, it is our psychological link with the past, showing us Sunday by Sunday that we are not adrift. And that sense of not drifting is also shown in our love of order.

Allow me to describe that love with an analogy. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ garment is described as a seamless robe. To weave it, its maker had to put every thread in a certain place. Think of people as threads, and you will have the picture of what I mean. If you still do not understand, let me take you back to our now-famous women’s meeting. I will pick it up where you were exhorting us to help with the bills.

Susan: Old Jim Clancy might help.

Anne: I would not call him old. He is getting ready to marry for      the third time.

Everybody: He is?

Susan: Where are his children? He had a big family.

Anne: The oldest girl got married last year and now has a young      boy of her own. Young Jim is after a master’s degree in      engineering, and his wife is working in a library. Larry, the      third boy, is in the army. And Amy, the youngest girl . . .

Pastor: For heaven’s sake, what has all this to do with the budget!


That conversation, Reverend, was not for heaven’s sake, but for ours. If we have a deep regard for the past, we also have a certain way of looking at the present -- a certain social way. We like to know things about our fellow parishioners. Do not put that habit down to idle curiosity. In our scheme of things, everybody has a place and nobody is really happy unless he or she knows that place. You can see this truth in many different ways. Why do we always choose the same pew? Why do we take communion, Sunday after Sunday, in almost the same order? Why do we re-elect people to the same offices year after year? It is because of our basic need for social order. You see, we had to discuss Jim Clancy’s matrimonial adventures because we had to fit him into our church life. We fitted him in because we love him.


Once, long ago, I was a church school teacher, and the course I taught was called “Our Family the Church.” That title captures the essence of my last point. Remember how puzzled you were when we took up a collection to help Pat Jones pay his lawyers? Of course he was guilty -- we all knew that -- but he was “our guilty parishioner.” Pat had grown up in this parish, attended its church school and sung in its choir. He belonged! Once you belong, we do not desert you. In small churches, bonds of affection run deep. In a small church like ours, unlike in a large church, nobody is anonymous. A funeral, a baptism, a wedding are church events that bring all of us to the service, because these concern members of our church family. There is no better way to describe us than that verse from Romans which says. “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.”

Obviously my “three loves” stand in contrast to the way pastors think. Our love of the past conflicts often with your plans for the future; our love of order does not show up on abstract statistics; our tendency to look to each other for affection and support stands against a minister’s wish to obtain emotional support away from the small church. The clergy never really belong to a small church, and because of that, we have a hard time trusting them.

But more than that, we are reluctant to change to your standards. Certainly we want new families, if these new people will really understand us. Can we be sure they will learn and appreciate our long past? Will they realize that we cannot fit them into our structure until we know a good deal about them? Above everything else, will they be willing to be adopted into our parish family and in the process to grasp that we are a family, with all that that word implies in terms of loyalty, care and love?

The demands a small church places on its membership are high indeed, and may seem at first glance to have little to do with Christian love and discipline. Yet, on the other hand, did not Christ form a family that we know as his disciples? Is not religion constantly emphasizing tradition? Is not love considered one of the highest of Christian virtues? If we were not the way we are, those Christian attributes would and could not exist.

The greatest poem in the English language was written, so Milton said, in order to explain the ways of God to man. This letter hardly meets the standards of Paradise Lost, but it is my sincere hope that it may explain the pastor to the small church and the small church to the pastor.

Your loving friend,

Mary Walsh.