I was at one time an ant biologist. Myrmecologist, as the title and discipline is normally described. Words like petiole, gaster, propodeum, and epinotal spine still lodge themselves permanently in my mind, likely displacing more pertinent information, which undoubtedly I could use nowadays in my life as a pastor.
Myrmecology, the study of ants, is a term coined by William Morton Wheeler, a famous American entomologist and Harvard Professor from the 19th and early-20th centuries. Among Wheeler’s many accomplishments, he was responsible for the scientific descriptions of innumerable insect species, including one ant type called Pogonomyrmex maricopa, the Maricopa harvester ant. This little ant, which lives in Arizona, is notable because it possesses one of the most toxic insect venoms in the world. And I should know – I was once stung by one. My finger ached for hours and hours. Not that you want to know this, but 12 stings from this ant can kill a 2-kg rat. Again, space-wasting information still lodged in my brain.
Which brings me back to Wheeler. He and I share several things in common, but in particular and most importantly, a love for things that are small.
Perhaps that is why I am a small church pastor. I have a love for small things.
Like my life once spent with head lowered to the ground, looking at the skittering little insect things “that run the world” (to quote E.O. Wilson), I now spend my days with my head in the congregational life of the small church. And oh how interesting a species that is, let me tell you.
The small church is an oft-maligned thing. That by itself is interesting given that by most estimates, a very large majority of congregations in North America are small. According to the National Congregations Study (Cumulative Dataset, 2012), 87.4 percent of congregations have 250 members or less; 66.8 percent have 100 members or less. In contrast, only 2.4 percent of congregations number over 1000 members. Which is to say, small membership churches are the rule, not the exception.
And what this means is that many of us who have trained in seminary and have entered the churches to serve them will more than likely end up in small membership churches. This is a good thing, despite the narrative that suggests otherwise. Small churches offer you a freedom and intimacy of ministry that larger churches often do not. For members, being in a small church forces you to be a part of a community because it’s harder to hide. The transparency of the smaller community means that a kind of social-spiritual chemistry often emerges (Bonhoeffer speaks of this in Life Together). This chemistry is harder to capture when community scale increases. For those serving in a larger context, think of the richness of small group ministry, and you’ll get the idea. Small churches offer community members great opportunities for ministry – from widow visitation to scrubbing toilets – it all needs to be done and we want you to do it!
And of course, occasionally the small church, like our friend the Maricopa harvester ant, will sting you. And my goodness, how the venom is strong! Perhaps this is because, as a small church pastor, you can become so deeply entwined in the lives of your church, so the pain can seem more personal and deeply affect you. Don’t eschew the small church because of this though. Pain and contentment often attend the paths of love and ministry, and they both have lessons to teach. The small church, like any other church, can bring a pained burden upon the pastor. It’s a small price to pay for the rewards of ministry, though. Most of the time there is such immeasurable joy.
So go on, have a love for small things – and small churches. Like the ants, they are the smaller majority. They are our present and future. They are, in so many ways, our best examples of communities of love.
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.