Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple....
...open the doors, and see what looks like a small businessman.
By William Whitehead
I spent an hour this morning on the flat roof of the church where I am the pastor with a can of tar, searching for a hole. It wasn’t an obvious hole otherwise I would have found it the last time I was on the roof. I’ve been on this crummy roof so many times I’ve created the La Brea Tar Pits up there. I continually ask God to heal my leaky roof, but God’s answer is, stick with the tar. I bet you are wondering why I do this. It’s really very simple: My church is small, I am the only employee, we struggle to pay our bills every month, and if I waited until a volunteer can make the time to do the work my Sunday School kids will experience Noah’s flood first hand. I am the pastor of a small church, by far the largest category of churches in America at 59 percent. And I see no difference between me and the largest category of businesses in America, the small business.
Small business owners have to do it all themselves. I may not do everything, but what I do would surprise even my parishioners. I have mopped floors, painted walls, unclogged toilets, shingled roofs, repaired boilers, killed bugs, cut grass, chopped weeds, and so on and so forth. If it has to get done I get it done. Ask the owner of a small retail shop who cleans. I doubt you will find many who can afford maid service. Ask the owner of a small auto repair shop whose desk the buck stops on. In my church the buck stops on my pulpit. This is not the only similarity between us.
Both small businesses and small churches have trouble finding affordable health insurance. Most churches are under umbrella organizations, either centrally structured denominations or looser associations. In the insurance world, all of these organizations are considered associational. The reason for this is because no one can force a church to sign up for the health plan. If you work for an employer, your choice is to say yes or go without health insurance. If your organization is associational, a member can look for insurance elsewhere. If you don’t like the cost and you have healthy staff, you can shop the market for a better deal. That leaves the churches with people who have health problems as the only ones left in the plan. The result is costs that are even higher than the ridiculous prices we already pay. Many insurance companies won’t even write a policy for an association. My health insurance is covered by my wife’s employer. If that wasn’t the case, my church along with many churches and small businesses would not be able to cover me and my family. It’s hard to believe but thousands of ministers are in the same boat as millions of uninsured Americans.
In the world of business, it’s all about the numbers. In the world of ministry, it’s all about the numbers as well. Put lots of bodies in the pews and dollars in the plate and everyone loves you. But if things stagnate or decline, someone will say that it’s time for the minister to move on. The same rules that govern the rat race govern the church world. Churches may not fail at the rate of small businesses, but pastors fail at a surprisingly high rate. Twenty-five percent of us will be forced out of a church at least once in our career. And the attrition rate for people leaving the ministry stands around 10 percent. There are a lot of reasons people quit. But at the heart of most of these moves are the numbers. Congregations will forgive a lot if the numbers are up. The rat race is alive and well in small churches.
And so we ministers must market our churches. I spent a lot of time in the last year knocking on doors in my neighborhood. In all, my little group of supporters knocked on 500 doors. If you haven’t done anything like this, you just can’t imagine how rough it is. We could hear one family on the other side of their door talking and listening to a very loud television. They were laughing and carrying on. After we knocked things quieted down and there was a pause. A clear and loud voice came through the door: “Are they still out there?” I have new-found respect for the Jehovah Witnesses. I used to hide from them, too, but now I shake their hands. Small businesses have to market themselves or die and so do I. If I don’t, I will be forced to leave or, worse, my church may fade away completely to be replaced by townhouses or a commercial building. Someday I might know the sadness a retailer feels when passing his or her closed and empty storefront.
Loneliness is another issue. We pastors spend a lot of time in relative isolation, working on sermons or Bible studies. We often go visiting people or they visit us. But in a small church, as in a small store, it’s not busy all of the time. At first it is enticing to not have anyone looking over our shoulders. I am my own boss, and my time is my own to use, and I tell people that is worth a million dollars. However, after the novelty wears off, not having another person to work with, to lean on, to bounce ideas off of, or just vent to, is tough to deal with. I have a friend who wants to sell her retail store and enter the corporate world for just this reason. We all start to feel isolated and alone. For those of us with faith, God is there in the quiet halls of the church. So I’m not entirely alone after all. I guess that’s what keeps me going.
Back to work. Today I worked on my sermon, visited a wonderful older woman, and stuffed a garbage can full of dead tree branches. It is, in other words, just another day at the office. • 14 May 2009
Rev. William Whitehead is a writer and pastor of a small Baptist church in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Spiked Online, Alive Now, Religion and Spirituality, SOMA Review, and Why Spirit.
Photograph by luv is max via Flickr (Creative Commons).