“One of these days, you’re going to be old and your children are going to leave you, and it will break your heart, then you’ll know what it feels like.” Those are the words that dear Mrs. Margaret spoke to me after teaching my last Wednesday night Bible class as the minister of the Gorman Church of Christ.
The congregation in Gorman is small. Everything in Gorman is small. It was once the Peanut Capital of Texas–a hustling bustling meeting place of hard-working farmers eager to sell their crop. Now it is little more than a wide spot in the road. It doesn’t have a Dairy Queen anymore, if that tells you how small of a town it is. (In Texas, any town without a DQ might as well pull up its city limit signs.) When I began preaching there a little over seven years ago, there were about 40 saints in attendance. Then, through much patience and tribulation, the numbers slowly rose to the mid-60s.
I had big dreams when I moved to Gorman. I was going to lead them back to their former glory of a triple-digit membership, and then I was going to pat myself on the back for a job well done. Of course, I would never admit that I believed those things, and it is only now looking back that I realize that I believed it. If you had asked me, I would have said that it is God who grows the church, not me. It is on me to preach the Word in and out of season. It is on me to be a witness. It is on me to plant seeds and water them, but it is God and God alone who gives the increase. Those are the words I would have said, but secretly deep down inside, I felt that if this church did well, it would be because of Jason. If this church failed, it would be because of Jason.
So, like many other good preachers, I committed myself to the ministry. I visited coffee shops. I drove widows to doctor appointments. I walked around town as an ambassador of the church and of Christ. I left the house at 4:00 a.m. to drive to Abilene so that I could say a prayer with a church member before their surgery. I chained myself to the office to study and write timely lessons. If possible, every sermon had to have a strong introduction to capture attentions, make bold points and compelling applications from the text, if possible include a tear-jerking story about transformation, and of course end with the traditional “come while we stand and sing.” I often found myself writing those final words in the office at 2:00 a.m. Of course, I would always be rewarded with a “good job” afterwards. One dear sweet lady would say, “I always like your little talks.” I laughed when they laughed and cried when they cried. Mrs. Margaret wasn’t mincing words when she called me her child. My family had become a part of her family.
Unfortunately life and death both seem to get in the way of church growth and stability. Many of the members left in either a hearse or a moving truck, and church attendance dwindled down to the mid-30s during my final six months there. So what do you do when you invest your life in a small church but there doesn’t seem to be much return on your investment? Personally, I began to pray about it: “God, if you want me to go, then open the door wide. If you want me to stay, then slam the door shut and lock it tight.”
I am now preaching for the Church of Christ in Elgin, TX. The church is about 75 members but the town is much larger, and I think there is much more potential for growth. I know that the Lord gives the increase, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel the weight of the church on my shoulders. I still plan to visit coffee shops, drive widows to doctor appointments, walk around town smiling and shaking hands, wake up while it is still dark to hold a hand and pray before an early morning surgery, sit with their family until they go to recovery, and be on call 24/7 in case I am needed. My name is Jason Wilder, and I am a minister of a small church. I love the church and will invest my life in it. I will laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry, because that’s what you do when you’re the minister of a small church.
Fight the good fight (1 Tim 6:12).
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series developed in conjunction with the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit, Sept. 17-20, 2017.