Help for the Small-Church Pastor. By Steve R. Bierly. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995. 110 pp. Paper, $10.99.
I really liked this book! As someone who has pastored two “small” churches now for almost 15 years, I read it thinking, “At last, someone in print who has walked in my moccasins!” At one level it is a practical primer on the proper perspective needed to shepherd a small church. At another level it is a refreshing and needed reaction to much of the recent “Church Growth” movement as it relates to the ministry of the small church and its pastor.
As a practical primer on pastoral perspective, the book both encourages and exhorts the small church pastor. Bierly expresses several simple but profound truths that pastors may already know but tend to forget; thus becoming unnecessarily discouraged in the ministry. For example, there is an extended section that emphasizes the differences between “success” in seminary(i.e., good grades and the approval of one’s professors) and “success” in the pastorate (i.e., numerical growth and expansion of buildings/programs). The author states, “In seminary…hard work and clear thinking are (consistently) rewarded” (p. 25). He then goes on to say, “Having been indoctrinated in the ‘Hard Work Guarantees Results’ school of thinking, the seminary graduate accepts his first call confident that a well-stocked personal library, subscriptions to quality pastoral journals, a phone network of friends who can dispense good advice, and time set aside to use all of the above will lead to church growth, a spiritually mature congregation, and offers from larger churches (p. 26). However the common reality in small church ministry is simply that “effort, logic, appeals to authority (even the Scriptures)…often lead, ultimately, nowhere” (p. 30).
Bierly concludes that rather than giving up on the church, small church pastors “need to give up on the idea that effort in the same areas that brought success in school will (automatically) earn them an A grade when it comes to ministering in small churches. There is a way to get an A, but it is more relational than rational, and on the surface, more intuitive than intentional. It is a way that demands the leader be more lover than boss and more participant than manager” (p. 35).
Another representative nugget that the author unearths is the concept that “the small church” is in fact a specialized and especially challenging “mission field” with its own established culture and priorities that must be understood and appreciated by its pastor. “Pastors who want to thrive in small churches should adopt a missionary model for their ministries. Like missionaries in foreign fields, small-church leaders are often entering a culture that is not their own…As much as possible they need to work within existing structures and with prevailing mindsets in order to make inroads for the Gospel” (p. 48).
Equally edifying as its discussion on proper perspective for pastors is the book’s interaction throughout with some of the key tenets of the modern “Church-Growth” movement. (See especially the chapter entitled “But I Followed the Instructions!” and the one entitled “From No Growth to Pro-Growth.”) Bierly notes that too often “Church-Growth” gurus belittle the small church and discourage small church pastors with the implied message, “If your church isn’t experiencing constant numerical growth there must be something seriously wrong with you and/or your church!” He suggests that too many evangelicals today see God’s relationship with the small church as similar to the relationship of a young man with a comatose great-grandfather. While the young man loves and respects the older man, and while he is saddened by his condition and the obvious fact that he is dying, at the same time he feels simply that the older man’s day is past and that his impending death will be a blessing to all concerned. Bierly counters such patronizing thinking by both affirming the inherent value of the small church, and by attesting to the validity of its ministry into the 21st century. This is an important theme that all evangelicals would do well to appreciate, since in fact over 90% of all of the churches in America have a Sunday morning attendance of fewer than 75 people.
Because this book is practical and not theological in its approach, the reader is left to “plug in” his own theological grid for himself. One red flag for most members of GES is an occasional reference to the small church pastor as “she.” Although I realize I am “politically incorrect,” I remain convinced that “female pastors” are in violation of direct biblical guidelines as articulated in such passages as 1 Tim 2:11-12 and 1 Cor 14:34-35. However this one problem in no way lessens the book’s overall value. I believe that every small church pastor would be helped by reading it, and I challenge shepherds of larger churches to read it as well to gain a better understanding and appreciation of their brethren who minister in the uniquely challenging vineyard of the small church.
Tanglewood Bible Fellowship