How to Kill a Small Lutheran Congregation (sarcasm alert)

Small-Country-ChurchThis is published with the explicit warning to the reader that the article is sarcasm. If the reader does not understand what sarcasm is, then the fault is the reader’s.

For the past few years there have been more and more requests at Synod Convention for advice on how to deal with the problems facing small rural congregations. This article has been assembled to answer many of those problems and is based on many years of practical research.

We start with the family because the family is the basic unit of congregational life. Anything that can be done to keep families busy is a benefit to destroying a congregation.

One of the most basic things you can do is encourage both husband and wife to work jobs away from home. The practical benefits of this are manifold. First, instead of just one worker who needs to work out a vacation schedule, both spouses need to coordinate their work schedules. In most cases this reduces the total time available for family and church to Saturday, Sunday, and 5-9pm weekdays, plus a 10 day vacation. The vacations can only count as family time if they are taken together. Fortunately, there are events-like funerals- to which the lady of the house may be obliged to serve at church, thus eliminating a vacation day or two.

Collateral damage can be multiplied if the couple have children. This next suggestion is especially valuable for single parents or families where both parents work. Get your kid(s) involved in every extracurricular school sport or activity that you can. This can easily eat up the 5-9pm weekday hours. It very often takes care of most of Saturday and part of Sunday. Under this plan, not only do families have the complexity of two work schedules and vacations, they add to it the complexity of a school event schedule. This brings the family’s total contact with each other down to a manageable 4 to 8 hours a week. Much of that time will be occupied by shuttling kids back and forth from events. And there is always the radio to supply relief from uncomfortable conversation which might distract you from driving.

This brings up another fantastic suggestion. Occupy your family time with great activities like shopping. Make there are as many TVs and video players and video games as members of your family. That way there won’t be any fighting over viewing choices.

Now, it is also important to fortify the family members with good defense and justification for these lifestyle choices. After all, they’ve earned it. So, if someone should point out that both parents working might not be in the best interest of the children, encourage the parents, especially the female, to become indignant and offended. Anyway, who do these busybodies think they are judging dual-income families? If those know-it-alls have one parent staying at home, it obviously means they don’t know what it means to sacrifice.

Now we turn to training all the members of the congregation.

Grudges are essential. Nourish them. Feed them. Every time someone apologizes, realize that they are only bringing the issue up to hurt you and to soothe their consciences at your expense-especially if the apology is public! The more you can encourage each other to act like selfish ten-year-old girls the better. Almost no one would want to join a congregation where years of bad blood have been spilled on the doorposts and lintel of the church. The more irrational the grudge the better. Why? Because you don’t have to think so hard about it. It is easier to hold in the heart and much, much harder to let go.

Along with grudges you need to nourish the feeling of under appreciation. The Bible tells us that when we are giving we should not “Let our right hand know what the left hand is doing.” Encourage the feeling of martyrdom and apathy towards those who do things for the congregation. And encourage those people to grumble softly to others about lack of appreciation.

If there are troubles, the pastor should not be informed directly. Instead, encourage the members to speak discretely to relatives outside the congregation so they can pass the message to others inside the congregation. Eventually the information should get to the pastor through his wife. And if the pastor hasn’t done anything about it in the next week, then use the same channels to pass the concern and complaint to the pastor.

If at all possible, when there are troubles, a member should take it upon himself to call other pastors or synod officials before going to his pastor. The member should then talk with a few members he can trust to make use of the advice he’s received. That way the strongest possible case can be made to the pastor through the synodical officials and the official will have the support of a significant part of the congregation.

Nostalgia is an important tool. It is the basis for good complaints like: “The old hymnal had good hymns, not these hard hymns.” Or, “Pastor Sø Åndso never did it that way.” It doesn’t matter if he did. What matters is the authority with which the older members can use nostalgia. Former pastors and old hymnals or Bible translations are great sources of controversy. The former pastors are especially good resources if they are deceased and therefore unable to be asked about what actually took place.

This should make it apparent that the best ally to nostalgia is selective memory. The dining hall may have been built originally to benefit the Sunday-school as a teaching space for the young. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the kids keep messing it up, and the teachers don’t do a good enough job cleaning. So it all falls on the ladies’ group to clean up the mess when they are trying to host a baby shower for a former member’s unmarried cousin.

That brings us to scheduling. Keep the schedule changing. That way your neighbors won’t be able to visit the service easily. This keeps you from having to constantly explain why we have closed Communion. And it’s a handy excuse when the relatives show up and you want to avoid the embarrassment of closed Communion. After all, many of us have relatives in the ELCA and their lady pastors tell them that they’re Lutheran just like us.

An added plus to a changing schedule is that it amplifies the use of nostalgia and selective memory. Great complaints can help build grudges. For example, “We used to have more visitors.” And, “How come we can’t have church the same time every Sunday?”

Scheduling is a very effective tool in parishes with more than one congregation. There are no ends to the arguments that can be generated over who gets to have early or who gets to have late services. Just the addition of hosting dinner at one church can throw the whole schedule for the rest of the churches. Sunday school has to be rearranged, all the families made aware of the schedule changes through the bother of a telephone call-out list. Placing the burden of responsibility to call out these changes on one or two people at each congregation can quickly generate a feeling of under appreciation and help feed grudges.

If the pastor asks for all events for the upcoming year, don’t give them to him. Hold out on two or three at each congregation so that he is left in the dark until the calendar for the month has already been printed. He makes enough mistakes already for it to look like his fault anyway.
And if the pastor tries to lay down the line for consistent scheduling remind him that his authority is limited to the proper administration of the Means of Grace. He shouldn’t meddle in the civil affairs of the congregation. Again, nostalgia and selective memory are very handy tools in such a confrontation. “Pastor Sø Åndso never complained about the service times!”

This guide is meant to be an introductory help. It is by no means exhaustive. But these techniques work. They are well tested.

Before this article ends there is a very important point that needs to be made about destroying a small congregation. Several of the techniques listed above are examples of this basic way to destroy a small congregation. The basic technique behind all others is to allow people to be members no matter what they believe. Learn from the huge mega-churches “Doctrine divides, deeds unite!” Always emphasize what is socially appealing and your church will grow. Thus, it will not be a small congregation anymore, but a bustling, gossiping, socially engaged and theologically ignorant group of busybodies.

Wherever Scripture is uncomfortable dismiss those passages as “culturally conditioned,” or mere “historical information” valuable in that it shows us today what kinds of different struggles the early Church had to endure. Use the term “relevance” with respect to what kinds of deeds and experiences the assembly will accept, emphasize what they can do: boycotts, protests, packing shoe-boxes full of human relief for children, anything that can keep the congregation filled with the idea that they are really doing something “relevant” to help someone somewhere in their very “real” life experience. Do not let theology or the Doctrine of Scripture interfere. By all means, cause doubt in the minds of those who would want to emphasize Doctrine. Show them a tolerant God and their own intolerance. Hold before them the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ rescue of her. Emphasize the ignorance of the Apostles, after all, weren’t they just some dumb fishermen? (of course, no one can prove how well educated they were, so this becomes a strong argument—remember argument from ignorance is the strong position)

And finally, if someone emphasizes the Lutheran Confessions, ask them why they don’t trust the Bible more than the Confessions. Remember the slogan “Deeds, not Creeds.” Point to humanitarian relief efforts and how well they work with inter-faith groups. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already decided that most of the Bible isn’t relevant to the current social situation. What matters is that you can put the person off guard. If the person appeals to the Lutheran Confessions as an authority on what the Bible means, reply simply “All I know is that I’m supposed to love my neighbor. How can I love my neighbor if you insist on all these divisive doctrinal lines? Aren’t you a sinner too? Don’t you love your neighbor and want to help him in his time of trouble?”

About Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson serves Faith Ev. Lutheran Church, Clara City, Minnesota (E.L.S.). He and his wife, Mary, have 10 children. Pastor Abrahamson is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies. He has served on the Faculty/Staff at Bethany Lutheran College teaching Religion, Linguistics, Archaeology, and Self-Defense; and was on Staff at the University of Wisconsin as an Information Processing Consultant (Computer Geek) while doing graduate work in Semitics. Pastor Abrahamson served Clearwater Lutheran Parish (ELS) from 2001 to April 2015.


How to Kill a Small Lutheran Congregation (sarcasm alert) — 15 Comments

  1. I was looking to destroy my family and my small church. This will come in handy! Thanks, Pastor Abrahamson. (sarcasm)

    Great article. Laughing with sadness and pain is cathartic.

  2. Excellent post, Joe! I’m afraid to say that almost everything you’ve written hits home even in large urban congregations. Oh, the astounding power of grudges and demonization! Welcome back to high school!

  3. It seems like a prescription to kil small congregations and to make large ones little. I hope you feel relieved having gotten this off your chest.

  4. Find it very interesting that none of the sarcasm is directed towards the pastors of said congregations – how about adding this line – “Call an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”

  5. …and then there was the dual where one congregation was slightly bigger than the other, so demanded a 60-40 split of the Pastor’s time (and got at least that).

    All (apparently) was well until the Pastor found a house 6 miles from the larger congregation and 4 miles from the smaller one. 🙁

  6. @Chris Winston #4
    “Call an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation…

    Now, Mr Berquist has just said that the responsibility for calling the pastor rests with the congregation. (Sarcasm mode off)

    …and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”

    You are not saying what sort of change… (“happyclappy” is not so good),
    but sometimes things need changing. 🙂

    [It’s not usually done in the first five minutes, though.]

  7. Chris Winston :
    Find it very interesting that none of the sarcasm is directed towards the pastors of said congregations – how about adding this line – “Call an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”


    I think Pr. Abrahamson has hightlighted a failure of both pastor and people together is his clever post.

    Your comment seems intentionally derogatory and without charity toward pastors who serve small congregations.

    Your words, “an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation” are simply mean and insulting. You words “have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival” are an undeserved caricature of pastors –one nonetheless, still shared by many in LCMS leadership.


  8. I’ve never liked the assumption of some that one is less of a pastor just because he serves small rural congregations. In fact, if a pastor is assigned too large a congregation, he may end up doing less pastoring and spend most of his time bogged down in adminstrative duties possibly being tempted to avoid being with his parishoners during very difficult times when a pastor is needed.

    Rural areas with declining populations need to be served Word and Sacrament just as much as growing suburban congregations. May the Lord place men in both settings with the abilities and life experience needed for that paticular calling.

    I certainly not against recieving a call to a larger congregation if it be the Lord’s will. However, if I spend the rest of my time in the ministry serving small rural congregations, I will not consider myself a failure or less of a pastor. I would consider myself a failure if I failed to properly preach the word and adminster the sacraments in any setting no matter what the size.

  9. @Rich #3
    The article is not a vent. It’s meant to be an observation on some of the ways Satan and our sinful flesh use so many of the ordinary things of life to fool ourselves into feeling justified about doing harm. I wanted to illustrate the absurdity of some of these self-righteous points of pride by showing how absurd, sinful, and damaging they can be if followed to their real conclusions.

    I’m very happy and blessed by God to be at this very rural 4 point parish. By God’s grace our family and our congregation members here have supported each other in uncountable ways through some very difficult times and some very joyous times. And by God’s grace we have been privileged to experience this bond of fellowship in the Body and Blood of Christ now at this place for over a decade. All the base sinful problems that face Christians elsewhere affect us also.

    I am sorry if the literary use of sarcasm was confusing. That’s why Pr. Scheer and I thought it might be good to put the disclaimers at the top of the article. It is very easy for people to incorrectly attribute motives to a writer based on the literary style.

  10. @Chris Winston #4
    I think that you are importing your own issues into the article. The whole article is directed at both pastors and members. There are only two points where the contrast between them is drawn out: gossip outside the congregation-to others or to synodical representatives; and establishing the calendar. Perhaps this could have been made more explicitly, but I believe that most people can understand that the issues of family time, jobs, school, vacation, grudges, gossip, nostalgia, minimizing Scripture, minimizing the Confessions, minimizing doctrine for the sake of unity: these all apply equally to pastors and their families as to the rest of the members of the congregation(s) he serves and of which he and his family is also part.

    I’m going to assume, for the sake of clarity, that since the literary device of my article was sarcasm, that you also were intending to use sarcasm when you wrote: “Call an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”

    I’d suggest that if you wish to flesh this thought out into an article of your own, that you separate the sarcastic points from each other for the sake of clarity.

    Deal with one at a time. “unqualified individual” is a bit big.

    It could mean man or woman, it could mean –and I think this could be a very good point to be made– that every pastor is really unqualified and serves only in weakness by the grace of God. That could make a great contrast with the sad reality that there will always be alligators in congregations for whom any pastor is “unqualified” no matter how faithful he is to his duty toward God’s Word and his congregation.

    “who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation”

    This is very clever if you could make it clear that you are showing a sinful attitude in sarcastic mode. You could point out the strong tendency of pastors to last only 3 to five years in small congregations. And the sinful view of pastors that such places are often considered “exile” while those pastors covet the material blessings that are more likely to be available at larger congregations–like actually being paid a living wage. At the same time you could juxtapose the fact that the big congregations have the exact same problems as the small congregations because of our common sinful natures. You would probably need to give three or more sarcastic examples to flesh out this sinful attitude clearly enough for your readers.

    “and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”

    This is probably the most vague, and would need the most treatment in a sarcastic article. You would need concrete examples instead of “everything” for the point to hit home. And for the sarcasm to address sin clearly instead of being vague on personal preference the examples would need to show how it impacts the historical Lutheran Confession of the faith. Hipster and contemporary modes of worship are a fairly easy target, but then they’ve already been treated extensively, along with church growth programs. Perhaps an example you might consider is the divvying up of congregations into multiple boards and ministries: e.g., so that evangelism is no longer considered the same thing as preaching the gospel in the service because we have a committee for that; redefine youth groups as a separate “ministry” within a congregation so that the youth are shown that the congregation really doesn’t think they are part of the congregation; various positions could be created, both committee and “ministry”, and the focus –just as an example–on something like “music ministry” or “minister” could be placed on how well known the person is, how well he/she plays/writes/sings at the same time showing that that the doctrinal qualifications are not really essential to good music; etc.

    But there’s a basic logical problem with the main sentence, that is, if the intent of what you wrote was to be an example to show a flaw with pastors.

    The example sentence was: “Call an unqualified individual who couldn’t get a job at a larger congregation and have him change everything within five minutes of his arrival.”

    The logical problem is that the sentence assumes that congregation members are intentionally looking for a man or woman in order to destroy the congregation. It’s true that this has happened many times, both from within congregations and from synodical offices in various synods. But the example doesn’t really succeed in a logical way to focus sarcastically on the sinful pettiness of the pastor, rather it focuses on the sinful pettiness of some members of a congregation or synodical official.

    Perhaps, if the focus is to be humbling those who want to be pastors, then a couple of concrete examples of biblical unfitness could be brought in–like not having a good understanding of and an unqualified subscription to the Book of Concord.

    If the focus is to be humbling synodical officials who place biblically unfit men in the ministry, there could be several good lessons by playing out the “justifications” that were made for the placement and the silence that may have surrounded the issue of such a call.

    I wish you well in writing the article. But run it past a few harsh critics first just to be sure it says what you want it to say. This article I wrote 6 years ago, distributed it to about a dozen people for criticism and input, then published it a year later on my own blog. From there I received lots of criticism, which helped to improve it. And even with all of that help over 6 years, there still are things I’m learning I could have stated more clearly.

    So, thank you.

  11. @Pr. Abrahamson #9
    I am well aware of sarcasm and its literary use. But what I don’t understand is the need for it here. My experience is that sarcasm reveals more about the author than about his subject. This is why I thought you might be “blowing off some steam.”

  12. Let us not forget the dual parish pastor could be shut off by his wife after the birth of their first child and turn to the parish member from the larger congregation to have his needs met. That has proven to really tear the congregations apart ( they really did not need any help)

  13. I have sometimes thought of responding to insignificant complaints with the words of St. Paul:

    “I have determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

    I haven’t used it yet, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

  14. Great (snarky) post. It could be tightened up considerably if you would simply say: “Call a pastor with PLI training to be pastor and CEO of your church.” Even if the church grows in numbers (temporarily), what grows isn’t Lutheran. (At least in my experience.)

  15. @KrustyKraut #12
    Let us not forget the dual parish pastor could be shut off by his wife after the birth of their first child

    That man should read the OT prescriptions on care of a wife after the birth of a son… and if he can’t manage it, he is not mature enough for either wife or son, let alone a Call.
    [I could wish him a daughter….] 🙁

    @Robert Hoffman #14
    …simply say: “Call a pastor with PLI training to be pastor and CEO of your church.”

    Sad but true.

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