Pastor Karen Handke knows why her parishioners in the northwest Iowa towns of Rodney, Oto, and Smithland have been putting fewer dollars in the offering plate: winter is near, fuel prices are up, and the recession is taking its toll.
In larger congregations, this reduction might translate over time into staff cuts or trimmed programs. But here, as in small churches across the country, the effect of tight times has actually been to create new ministries and ministers.
In Pastor Handke's case, stretching dollars means making sure she meets everyone in a neighborhood when she drives 30, 40, or even 50 miles to get there. In the past she might have called on just one family, she says, but now she knocks on every door. "Out here, we know everybody. And if we don't, we should," Handke says. "We're going to do ministry with what we have. [Tight times] means we're more intentional."
From coast to coast, churches can relate to similar challenges. Sixty-three percent of the nation's churches have fewer than 125 in Sunday worship, says Cynthia Woolever, director of the US Congregational Life Survey Project.
Small congregations struggle to pay pastors' salaries and benefits, insurance, and building maintenance each year. But lately, these costs have become even weightier albatrosses. Examples:
• Annual health insurance premiums for a New England Methodist pastor jumped from $6,400 in 2002 to more than $12,000 in 2003. Congregations have been warned to expect premiums in the $20,000 range by 2006.
• Driven by a child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, liability insurance has quickly become an apparent necessity for congregations of all sizes.
• Seminary costs have risen 58 percent over the past decade to a median tuition of $9,000 per year, plus living expenses for a three-year, full-time education. Ordained ministers with mounting student loans are requiring higher salaries as a result.
Today's squeeze could force some closures, especially in pockets of dwindling populations, according to Jackson Carroll, director of the Pulpit & Pew research project at Duke University. "Small congregations are having a difficult time," Dr. Carroll says in a telephone interview. "They seem to be able to roll with the punches, but there comes a time when they can't roll much longer."
Nevertheless, small-church experts say these tradition-bound groups draw on a history of getting by. What's new today is the advantage of offering something Americans in the 21st century find important yet hard to find - meaningful, personal connections.
"This century will be the century of small churches and mega-churches made up of lots of small churches within them," says David Ray, a national consultant to small churches. "I tell them, 'You have what people are searching for.' I just think there's a tremendous need and hunger in society for community."
Research supports hopeful signs for small congregations. Adults under age 35 are more likely than older adults to worship in a small congregation, according to Barna Research of Ventura, Calif.
The biggest success factor for a congregation is whether new forms of inexpensive ministry crop up. Five years ago at First Baptist Church of Dighton, Mass., the four-member congregation felt the shadow of its 220-year-old building in disrepair. Instead of bankrupting the church, the restoration effort drew new volunteers. The church has now grown to as many as 30 on Sundays.
"It's as if God sent each and every one of these people with their gifts - a carpenter, a painter, a contractor," says Pastor Bob Burton, a non-ordained health-food store owner who has been leading the church for $150 per week.
Chief among life-giving new ministries in small churches has been the "raising up" of lay people to lead congregations. United Methodists increased lay pastorates by 48 percent, from 1,413 pastors to 2,096, between 1990 and 2000. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose hallmark has been a well-educated clergy, began commissioning lay leaders with minimal training this year in order to fill some 4,000 pastoral vacancies.
Handke represents this growing breed. Ten years ago, she was teaching Sunday school when three area churches pooled resources to make her their pastor. For three years, she studied theology on weekends in Des Moines and is now licensed in the United Church of Christ.
Today's pressures are demanding creativity. In mid-coast Maine, five United Methodist churches have been pooling resources for five years to support one full-time and two part-time staff. But this year, rising health-insurance costs have required cutbacks.
"We've reached our saturation point," says the Rev. Tracy Reeves, coordinator of Pine Tree United Methodist Ministries. "We felt we'd been making real strides forward before this health-insurance cost came up. I hope we'll get serious about evangelism and stewardship" to boost church attendance and donations.
In Iowa, congregations keep trimming costs. Rodney United Church of Christ is now closed every other month. At Smithland United Methodist Church, parishioners in November fixed Plexiglas over stained-glass windows to retain heat and minimize winter's fuel bills.
And where there are savings, it seems new ministries are born. In the first week of December each year, the Smithland Church treasurer brings Handke a check for whatever the church did not spend that year. The sum, about $1,000 last year, helps locals buy groceries or make car repairs.
"Congregations are the safety net of the nation," says Carl Dudley, a sociologist at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. "They're the place people turn when the fire hits the apartment, the place people turn in crisis.... Right now, I think [small congregations are] hunkering down for the storm. It never occurs to them to close."