Bill Easum recently wrote that the pastors who serve churches that have no hope of growth are wasting their time. This sentiment, often repeated by bishops and leaders who should know better, reminds me of Simon Newman, the college president who urged his staff to "drown them bunnies" when they were dealing with a student who may not make it all the way to their four year degree. The assumption of the college president was that his school existed to profitably collect four years of tuition and maintain an excellent rating with their accreditation agency. Those of us who look for a college education to broaden a person’s life, even if that person doesn’t complete their degree, will find little common ground with Newman. Similarly, I happen to believe that congregations have a higher purpose than longevity or institutional growth.
There is something repulsive about the whole exercise of clergy passing judgement on congregations and basing that judgement solely on whether or not a situation can sustain a full-time, ordained, pastor. I have served situations of various sizes and been the elder in charge of group ministries that involve various clergy categories. I am convinced that vitality can be maintained in situations with limited resources, if the supervising elder is willing to be creative and employ trained laity. Each of the situations that I served were "of God" and remained a part of His overall plan of salvation, even when they weren’t growing. Further, local churches are instruments of a mysterious grace, even when they are ineffective or in the final decade of their lifespan.
Easum’s point about the clergy who feel that they are wasting their time serving certain churches says more about how some have lost their servant’s heart than about the loss of sustainable ministry in poorer rural and inner city situations. Three of these small membership churches that I served, closed some years later (I don't think I had anything to do with it). If the Lord tarries, all of the churches that we serve will eventually close. I reflect back on Winterport UMC (Maine Conference), Prouty UMC (Central PA conference), and Fellowship UMC (Western PA conference) and see them now as instruments of God's Holy Spirit. I cherish their memories as one would a departed loved one. No, my service with them was not a waste. It was an honor. I am humbled.