One Hundred

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Is 100 members the threshold for congregational viability?   Harry Boessenkool says as much in a response to "Does Classis Help Churches". Citing some statistics about the number of Christian Reformed Churches that fall below that level, Boessenkool says that in his opinion these churches are not sustainable and that classis has some work to do here to help each other out.  While other factors must surely be considered in any discussion congregational viability, the same benchmark appears in an article about a Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) program designed to place seminary graduates in smaller churches ("New Pastors, Small Churches").

The article points out that half the PCUSA’s 10,000 churches have fewer than 100 members, that the median congregation in the US has only 75 members, and that 90% of all congregations have fewer than 350 members.  Many of these congregations are unable to support a pastor.  At the same time seminary graduates are looking for positions and larger congregations want experienced leadership. The program called, “For Such a Time as This”, provides grants that place new pastors in small congregations for a two year term.  The program is “not about charity”, according to the article. “It is about opportunity. New pastors get a chance to acquire experience. Small churches get a chance to see if they have the resolve to be viable and then perhaps vibrant centers of faith.”

Though we might think this has little to do with us, the CRC has its share of congregations in that category. Using Boessenkool’s numbers, we can calculate that about 10% of Canadian CRCs fall below the 100 member threshold while 35% of US CRCs fail to reach this mark. However, percentage is higher when considering only churches seeking a pastor.  When comparing Yearbook numbers with the list of opportunities for ministerial placement prepared by the Pastor Church Relations ministry of the CRCNA, we find that approximately 45% of US congregations that are seeking a pastor have fewer than 100 members, compared to 14% in Canada.  Interestingly, in the US, very few CRC congregations seeking pastors fall into the 100 to 150 member range.   In Canada another 14% of the churches with opportunities for placement are have between 100 and 150 members (note, these percentages depend on the reliability of Yearbook information, the completeness of the list of opportunities for placement, and the accuracy of my own math).

The other side of the equation is the supply of candidates.  While the candidacy committee opts to see the number of candidates as a blessing (Acts of Synod 2013, pg. 209), it admits that placing them can be a challenge.  The challenge is not just about numbers, but the numbers must be a factor. At any given time the list of opportunities indicates that there are about 100 CRC congregations seeking a pastor.  Compare that number to the 40 to 50 candidates the CRC has welcomed in each of the last four years, add in the 20 individuals whose candidacy was extended in each of those years, factor in the percentage of churches that fall below the 100 member threshold, and the challenge is only magnified.

If 100 members is indeed the threshold of congregational sustainability and we continue to be blessed with people eager to serve as pastors, it could be worth our while to consider a program like “For Such a Time as This.”

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We should consider what "viable" means?  In this article, viability is associated with finances to pay a preacher/pastor.  Viability does not seem to address in this article, the various gifts within the congregation, or the ability to grow, or the community it serves, or the strength of conviction of the members, or alternative service mechanisms.  Viability is also not compared or contrasted with usefulness, with need, with mission statement, in this article.  Churches do not exist to support a pastor;  they exist to unite the body of Christ, and to serve God in a community, as a community.  A hundred members of which only half attend, and yet sufficient funds available, with debt free facilities, may still not be a viable church.  Only a useful purpose makes it viable.  In that case some churches with only 40 members may be more viable, especially if they have a higher attendance rate, including attendance by non-members. 

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