By Tom Claibourne
I recently turned 60 and marked my 38th anniversary of serving with the same congregation. I am blessed, but the past five years have been the most challenging of my ministry for many reasons. As a result, I’ve had plenty of opportunities for introspection and evaluation. That’s a good thing, because every congregation or person in ministry needs both.
My journey has been mostly positive, sometimes frustrating and disappointing, seldom dull, and always educational. I continue to learn valuable lessons about life and ministry.
Bethlehem Church of Christ has been representing Jesus Christ between the fence posts of rural southern Ohio since 1840. During most of those 177 years, services were held in a building constructed in 1860 that now houses three offices, two Bible classes, and a music practice room.
When I arrived as a part-time minister in 1979, the congregation was stable and healthy, but I was as green as the open fields surrounding our small house of worship. My fear of public speaking and insecurity regarding leadership kept me from trying to push for change too rapidly.
In 1981, I became the congregation’s first full-time preacher and settled into life as a young, single minister. My wife joined the team in 1987, followed by our three children. All four have been involved in Bethlehem’s ministry in an integral way, and our two daughters now serve the Lord in Colorado and France. Many other young people were trained to serve at Bethlehem and are now having an impact in lots of settings.
After decades of positive, unified ministry together, and decent numerical growth, our congregation experienced some issues in 2013 and 2014 that led to misunderstandings, conflict, and a decline in attendance as several people departed. It has taken time to recover, but our church culture is increasingly hopeful and positive.
We have learned, and continue to learn, many lessons on our journey in rural ministry.
Every Congregation Is Unique
Every church setting is unique. Congregational histories are unique. Congregational personalities are different. Ministry is not done in a cultural vacuum. That’s why demographic studies are beneficial. To be effective, our ministries and methods must fit our particular setting. Each congregation needs to find a unique niche to better serve its particular community.
At Bethlehem, we try to learn from observing healthy, effective congregations, but strive to be what our congregation can uniquely be.
Some Growth Is Not as Visible
During my first seven years at Bethlehem, morning worship attendance fluctuated from 80 to 100, with no consistent pattern. Most outsiders, and probably many of us, could not see the foundational growth that was taking place.
• We grew together in unity and teamwork.
• We built strong relationships.
• We created a positive atmosphere in the life of the church.
• We restudied the purpose of the church and began to evaluate things from that perspective.
• Attitudes changed.
• We learned to change things gracefully.
• We gained mutual trust.
• We grew in servanthood and involvement.
• We grew in missions interest and giving.
Were we a growing church? In God’s eyes, yes. In most observers’ eyes, no. Were those years worthwhile and productive? Absolutely, for without that kind of growth, the numerical growth might never have begun. We then enjoyed modest but steady growth for 15 of the next 17 years.
God Can Bring Growth Anywhere
God intends for churches to be healthy and growing. That is the biblical pattern described in Acts (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; etc.), and it is what God still desires from every congregation.
Congregations often impose low ceilings on their growth potential and become comfortable in their smallness. We could easily have done that in our isolated setting. Our mailing address is Winchester, Ohio, but we are out in the country, 5.5 miles from that small town of 1,000 people.
We are 60 miles east of Cincinnati, the closest big city. Fewer than 10 houses can be seen from our facility; otherwise, it’s all open fields. The county’s population is approximately 28,000. Congregations averaging more that 300 are quite rare in our county and in the more populous county to our west, from which we also draw.
Yet, in our peak years from 2004 to 2009, we averaged more than 250 each year, with a high of 260. Attendance on Resurrection Sunday exceeded 400 three times.
Our facility now consists of four separate but connected buildings, including a large family-life center with a gymnasium. Parking lots have been added or enlarged several times. At our 2016 VBS, more than 190 children were welcomed and guided by more than 80 adult and teen volunteer leaders.
God can bring growth even in the most unlikely settings.
Growth Cannot Be Taken for Granted
After many years of modest growth in attendance and then a period when it plateaued, we declined each year from 2012 to 2015 (the year we averaged only 195). Maybe we became too comfortable. Maybe we lost focus. Maybe we began to coast. Maybe we experienced some purpose-drift.
And maybe—probably—several cultural factors affected us, as well. In studying our attendance through the years, I have concluded one factor that impacted us was something I have dubbed “The Principle of the It Church.” In virtually every community or area, at a given period of time, there is an “It Church” that has become the place to go and the place to be seen.
Looking back, I believe Bethlehem was the “It Church” for a period of time, during which I probably gave myself and our congregation too much credit for our growth. We no doubt did some things right and well, but some of our growth occurred simply because we had become the popular place to be at that time.
In years since then, I have seen two or three other congregations come and go as the reigning “It Church.” Like every congregation, Bethlehem must remain alert and intentional in fulfilling our mission, especially during this epidemic of consumer-driven church-hopping. That part is up to us.
It’s Important to Honor the Past While Not Dwelling There
Older, smaller churches often commit systematic, congregational suicide by going to one of two extremes. They either back into the future while looking toward the past (and then lament the fact that no young people are around anymore), or they show blatant disregard for time-honored ministries and traditions in a misguided attempt to bring relevance and instant growth.
Balance is critical. We have tried to celebrate past victories, recognize years of faithful leadership, and rejoice over life-changing moments while moving forward with exciting dreams.
We focused on past blessings at our 175th anniversary celebration in 2015, but concluded with a clear and powerful list of 16 resolutions and principles that would guide our future decisions and efforts. People left the event focusing on the future.
It’s Vital to Make Changes Gracefully
I wrote out a principle many years ago that I have tried to follow in dealing with change in the church:
Preachers should not kill all future progress by insisting on the immediate acceptance of their personal plans for the church. Likewise, they should not kill all future potential by waiting until everyone agrees with everything before implementing something new.
When the time comes to propose changes, I have sought to adhere to the following guidelines that generally are good anywhere, but especially in rural ministries.
2. Never rush things.
3. Plant ideas.
4. Be realistic.
5. Blend the old with the new.
6. Expose people to new things.
7. Show how the proposed change fits into the overall purpose and plan.
8. Involve lots of people in the process.
9. Find ways to achieve successes in areas where most people agree.
10. Use common sense.
It’s easy to get caught up in strategies, statistics, budgets, and programs, and to overlook people in the process. We must remember the church is about people. The Great Commission is about people.
“For God so loved the world” is not a geographic or environmental statement. It’s a mission statement! For God so loved people that he invested in them.
At Bethlehem, we have struggled at times to maintain the proper balance between people and programs, and between evangelism and shepherding. Balance requires communication, organization, sensitivity, and constant evaluation, but it’s worth the effort.
People in church settings do not like being treated as mere statistics or agenda items. That is especially true in rural ministry.
Read “The Impact of a Humble and Faithful Servant,” Shawn McMullen’s tribute to his friend Tom Claibourne.
Developing and Maintaining an Outward Focus Is Mission-Critical
We have not always maintained an outward focus at Bethlehem. We began to change that in the 1980s through increased involvement in missions that included larger financial contributions, better correspondence, and short-term trips (more than 60 members have now participated in these).
Yet local outreach lagged far behind. A turning point for me came when I read this question in a book written by my friend: “If your church closed its doors or relocated to a different community, would it be missed by the community?”
I did not like the answer I had to give. So over the last decade we have sought to bless others through community service days, a health-supplies lending ministry, a food pantry, funeral meals, tornado relief, nursing homes, encouragement for fire and rescue personnel, free haircuts as the new school year is starting, a Junior Deputy Boot Camp for at-risk children through our sheriff’s department, county fair ministries, and in several other ways.
We have discovered we have limitless ways to connect with a rural community that needs Jesus. Rural and small-town congregations need to remember that a healthy church of 75 in a village of 800 people may very well have a greater capacity to influence its particular setting than a large church in a city of 1 million. With members living as salt and light throughout most areas of community life, a small church can have significant impact.
I’m thankful God is not finished working in my life and within our congregation. We will continue our firm commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the absolute authority of his Word. We want to clearly communicate God’s truth in a compassionate, uncompromising way to a culture drowning in moral relativism and political correctness.
We are starting some long-overdue strategic planning. We need to once again prioritize discipling and reexamine our shepherding system.
I plan to visit a few vibrant congregations (300 to 500 in size, rural or small town) to observe and ask questions. The elders and I will become more intentional in preparing a wise, healthy succession plan for Bethlehem’s future without me.
We want to be like the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32), and that includes better understanding the millennial generation.
God is faithful, and we fully intend to be faithful, whatever that may look like, until the Lord Jesus Christ returns.
Tom Claibourne serves with Bethlehem Church of Christ near Winchester, Ohio.
The Importance of Perspective
Several years ago I was immensely blessed to read what Ed Dobson called “four myths of ministry” in his article “Renewing Your Sense of Purpose” in Leadership Journal (Summer 1995). I try to remember these during the changing seasons of ministry.
• “It is never as bad as you think it is. Even when things seem darkest, circumstances are usually not as hopeless or as awful as they first appear. . . .
• “It’s never as good as you think it is. There are times in church ministry when everything seems to be going marvelously. That’s when you need to be careful. . . .
• “It’s never completely fixed. Ministry is a process; it’s people. To say, ‘I’ve taken care of this problem; it won’t recur,’ is foolish.
• “It’s never completely broken. No matter what it looks like, God’s work has not stopped.”