Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Pluto’s Feelings and Small Congregations

From the Gettysburg Seminary PO
by President Michael Cooper-White (

After 75 years of appearing on the solar system’s planetary players roster, on August 24th of this year poor little Pluto got dropped from the team. There had long been an ongoing debate about its status among astronomers and others who worry about such things. In part, I suppose, because Pluto was first “discovered” in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Illinois, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium rushed to issue a kind of pastoral statement on the reclassification. It noted that “the concept of a planet has changed throughout history.” Before it was realized that our planet Earth orbited the sun, this revolving, rotating very mobile terra firma on which we live and move and have our being was not afforded planet status. Further attempting to soften the blow for our tiny feeble friend who had just been demoted, Dr. Paul H. Knappenberger, Jr. (isn’t that a great name for an astronomer?!) gave assurances that Pluto surely will continue “inspiring and engaging young and old alike in the interesting progress of science!”

Well now, you know that I know that a cold inanimate flying sphere 4.5 billion miles from our terrestrial ball does not have hurt feelings over its reclassification. Pluto didn’t grow smaller, thereby perhaps contributing in some measure to its loss of former status. But if it did have feelings, would Pluto welcome and celebrate or rue and be saddened to now be regarded by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as a “dwarf planet”? Perhaps Pluto would simply ignore the whole silly debate, and in defiant retort to IAU echo the words of Job 38:4: “Oh high and mighty IAU, where were you when God laid the foundations of the earth (and other planets too)?”

No indeed, planets downgraded to dwarf category don’t have feelings. But congregations do! And millions of members in thousands of small congregations have feelings. There are warm and friendly feelings about the kind of deep and abiding fellowship that is possible when everybody knows everyone else’s name, personal and family history, and often much, much more. While typically unable to muster huge programmatic activity, for many persons small congregations make up for it relational quality, and in enabling members to share their gifts in multiple arenas. Many pastors intentionally forego calls to bigger and better-paying churches because they enjoy and find themselves deeply fulfilled serving faithful flocks in smaller corrals.

But there is the other side, the other set of feelings that go largely unexpressed by members of small congregations. “We’re not important. ‘They’ (especially synod or national church staff) don’t care about us. We can’t afford our own pastor, or maybe even regularly have one fill our pulpit at all. We’re probably dying out here in our little church in our tiny burgh. Sadly, we may have to close our doors before too long. Who will then take care of the cemetery where our loved ones are buried (and where I may be taken before long, too)?

In recent days, I have been privileged to be given a peek through the window into the worlds of some church leaders who really do care about small congregations, and who realize that often their mission outreach and impact, and their benevolence which flows from generous big hearts that beat in the pews of small congregations, are huge. At a gathering of bishops and other synod leaders from Region 8, I discovered the major topic was caring for, supporting and assisting smaller congregations in fulfilling their mission. These regional leaders were joined by ELCA churchwide staff from Chicago who have given much attention and thought to ways small congregations might be helped in discovering sustainable styles of staffing and creative ministry. These folks are motivated by pastoral instincts flowing from deeply driven theological foundations. They take seriously that the church exists where the Word is preached and Sacraments administered (Augsburg Confession VII), regardless of the numbers of hearers and receivers. They take seriously Jesus declaration that where two or three gather, he is in our midst.

Here at the Seminary, we also have a longstanding tradition of taking seriously the people in every place, regardless of congregational size or setting. Especially through our Town & Country Church Institute, hundreds of pastors and other leaders have been prepared and better equipped for service in small congregations. If demographic trends persist and the predictions are borne out, there will be more and more of these communities in the years ahead that are Pluto-sized rather than giant Jupiterian behemoths. Let’s not regard them as dwarf congregations, but as full members of the communion of saints!

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