By Merianna Harrelson
This morning at the CBF General Assembly six people gathered for the single-staff breakfast. We quickly learned that although we were from states all across the country, the issues we were facing in our congregations were quite similar.
We were not your typical CBF churches, or were we? Rick Jordan who is in charge of Church Resources for CBF of North Carolina, shared that out of the 300-400 CBF churches in NC, over one third of the churches were single-staff churches. Chris Thomas who pastors in Jacksonsville, Ala., reflected around the table, “It’s always good to be reminded that not everyone pastors full-color bulletin churches.”
As the group shared their struggles and the stories of how their churches came to be single-staff churches, the discussion became deeper. Chris McLain, a pastor in Crowell, Texas, said, “Small churches particularly in agricultural places like mine, where everything is dying take on that identity. The church begins to think we are going to dry and become a tumbleweed and blow away.”
Churches in these situations tend to have an inward focus on surviving rather than thriving and the struggle for those who pastor these churches is that is very isolated. The group reflected that either they are pastor in remote locations far away from access to peers who could help them reflect on how best to lead and guide their congregations or that they are surrounded by multi-staff churches that don’t understand the unique pressure and burdens that accompany being the only staff.
Vicki Bullard who accompanied her pastor Teri Shipley from Lee Summit, Missouri, explained, “These are really tireless conversations and we can’t have everyone looking on one person to make make decisions. You have to change, change is a part of everything.”
Thomas added, “It’s not just the pastor in my church who is worn out. Everyone is burning out because the same person who has always taught 4th grade Sunday School is teaching 4th grade Sunday school.”
Darryl Thomas who pastors in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma explained he had been pastoring a single-staff church for 41 years. In the past 15 years, they have been joining with other churches and now have three churches who are worshipping and doing mission work done.
As the coffee cups were emptied and the conversation came to a close, Jordan asked the group how CBF could better help single-staff churches. Merianna Harrelson who pastors in Lexington, S.C., explained that if there were more opportunities like this conversation to share the struggles and realities of being the single staff of a church, then perhaps the journey wouldn’t feel so lonely.
They group also recognized there were many single-staff churches who weren’t represented and wouldn’t be represented at General Assembly because of budget restraints and lack of coverage for these pastors.
Single-staff churches represent more churches than we might think in our denomi-network, perhaps it’s time for us in the Fellowship hear more of their voices and more of their stories.
Merianna Neely Harrelson is the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, S.C. She received her M.Div. from Gardner-Webb University. Merianna works as a bi-vocational minister and is the Editor-in-Chief of Harrelson Press.