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Dr. Timothy Tennent: Celebration of All Small Church Pastors

Published Date: March 2, 2023

Hundreds of Asbury Alumni/ae serve small churches with 100 or less members. I want to honor you for your faithful service to the Kingdom, many of you serving in remote outposts.

My heart swells with joy as I reflect on the wonderful opportunity given to me to pastor several small United Methodist churches in the earliest days of my ministry. I was a true Methodist “circuit rider” with four churches on my charge. I would start early on Sunday morning and preach at 8:00 to a small congregation. I remember, at the end of the service, the lay leader would take the offering plate and count the money and he would give me twenty or thirty dollars directly out of the offering plate for my weekly pay. Then my wife and I would jump into our 1973 Buick LeSabre and drive about ten miles to a 9:30 service at another church. Then, by 11:00 I was in yet another church preaching the same sermon. Twice a month, I would preach in a fourth church on Sunday evenings. I remember one time preaching a sermon about God himself being the greatest “circuit rider” of all. He left the portals of heaven, came to earth to purchase our salvation, and returned to heaven to prepare a place for us. I am so glad that I was once a bone fide Methodist Circuit riding preacher!

As a young man raised in the city, I was completely unfamiliar with rural life in America. They taught me how to grow corn and tomatoes. I had never held a fishing pole in my hands growing up in the city. Yet, these dear saints did not ridicule my ignorance about life. Instead, they taught me to fish. These were mostly farming communities, and the churches were filled with many extended families, sometimes three or four generations. Many of them lived in small shack like homes they had built with their own hands. I remember sitting down with one member of one of our churches and we mapped out on a large sheet of paper how everyone in the church was blood related. In that particular church, only one couple in the entire church had no other blood relations in the church. Three of the four churches had cemeteries connected to them and we would often walk through the graveyards looking at the tombstones where mothers, brothers, sisters, and even children of our congregation were buried. In my first two years I conducted 52 funerals in the four churches. I remember when one of our older members was about to die. It was New Year’s Eve. The woman didn’t call 911 because in those days, there was no 911. Instead, she called me and asked if I would come over because, as she put it on the phone that night (I will never forget her exact words), “Preacher, Buford is commencing to die. Would you come?” I had never been in a room and held someone’s hand as they died. I remember us all singing Amazing Grace as he slipped into eternity just as the midnight came and the year 1985 was ushered in. I remember crying with one of our families who lost their only daughter in a tragic car accident. I remember conducting the funeral for two twin babies who died in childbirth. I have so many memories like that from those precious years of ministry.

I quickly learned that each of the churches had amazing, even miraculous, stories of how the church buildings were built and how they had worked together to see that dream become a reality. One of the churches had burned to the ground after a horrific lightning storm. These congregations couldn’t afford insurance. They would tell the story of how they came together to rebuild the church back with brick. These were poor people with little means. Stories abounded about how people sold their cows, or held bake sales, or even brought their inherited jewels to the altar to be sold so that the church could be rebuilt. I remember how one church decided to build a fellowship hall. For years they collected money and held rummage sales to raise the money for the new hall. The small youth group even held car washes to raise money for the project. The construction was often done by the men in the congregation. I have glorious memories of the days when we held a “dedication Sunday.” We all gathered around a new extension, or a new fellowship hall, or new Sunday School rooms, or even a new outside fellowship area with picnic tables and a barbeque pit for church-wide gatherings to dedicate the new construction, share a meal and enjoy fellowship. It is no wonder that when these members looked at their church they swelled with pride as they reflected on the sacrifices they made to construct these buildings. One of these churches was connected to a Camp Meeting. I remember the time when the church decided to put a new tin room on the large arbor which covered the open-air sanctuary for the annual camp meeting. At that time, I had no experience in construction. Yet, I remember how several Saturdays we all gathered on the grounds and spent the day up on the roof pounding roofing nails in the large tin sheets to cover the arbor. When we completed each day’s work the women of the church had been busy preparing huge meals of fried chicken and overly cooked green beans with pieces of ham in the broth and huge baskets of dinner rolls. We would eat those meals right on the grounds of the church, laughing and telling stories. Some of the men would even get out their banjos and play. They loved to sing. I remember one of the churches didn’t want to give up their small brown Cokesbury hymnal for the new one, because the ones they used had shaped notes and many of them only knew how to sing using the shaped notes.

One of my four churches had a number of young people and they wanted to have a youth group. We didn’t have the budget to hire a youth minister, so I agreed to be the youth director. We met every Sunday afternoon and played basketball together. After we were done, my wife would have a meal all prepared and we would eat and I would share something from the Bible. I remember how they all wanted to go to a real NBA game. So, we planned a series of fund-raising events and eventually we all went to an Atlanta Hawks game. I remember the amazement on the faces of those young people as we drove though the big city of Atlanta and saw these players, some over 7 feet tall! They talked about that for years. We even stayed after the game and got autographs. Those were wonderful days.

I remember sitting with a young couple from the church who had decided to get married. I requested three pre-marital sessions to discuss principles of building a good Christian marriage. I will never forget the young man asking me, “Preacher, have you ever married anyone before us?” I said, “No, you are my first couple!” They were so excited that they would be the first couple I ever married as an ordained minister. The man was very nervous about saying anything in the service and he asked if he would not be asked to repeat all of these lines which come up in the official marriage liturgy. He just wanted to say “yes” and nothing more. I remember adjusting the liturgy to accommodate his shyness. When the big day came, the church was packed with all of his extended family and friends. When, at several key points, I asked him one of the questions, he couldn’t bring himself to even say “yes” but instead he just nodded. I remember we all laughed so hard later when I said that he was the first person in history to ever get married without saying a word!

I could share many more stories, but all of these experiences bound us all together in the ministry of the church. These stories are from the churches I knew and walked with. Hundreds of Asbury Alumni around the world could share similar stories.

Large churches are also a wonderful gift from God. Those churches have very effective programs and gifted staff. I could write a similar article on the special gifts of large churches, because I have also served several different churches with over 1,000 members, and which ran amazing programs with gifted staff. But, small churches are highly relational and they are about interweaving the gospel into people’s lives in very personal ways. I want to encourage all Asbury graduates around the world who are serving small churches. Relish the moments with your people. Give yourselves completely to them. See every member (even the difficult ones!) as special gifts from God to help you to grow as a person, as a pastor, but mostly as a follower of Christ. I have had the privilege of serving small and large churches. For the last fourteen years I have had the amazing privilege of serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary. But, looking back, the greatest lessons in life, and the profoundest lessons I ever learned about leadership, were from those small churches I served as a young pastor.

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14 responses to “Dr. Timothy Tennent: Celebration of All Small Church Pastors”

  1. David Nicholls says:

    Thank you from all of us who have served small churches!

  2. John Lee says:

    What incredible encouragement for those pastors seeking to be faithful in communities unlike those in which they were raised. What incredible lessons God deposits into our lives as we follow Him, loving those He has placed around us.

  3. Paul Yeun says:

    Dear Dr. Tennent, thanks for your comments. I served two small church for two years in the rural areas in Ohio. I felt blessed with the the people I served. After that I was given the opportunity to serve churches with a little larger membership for 10 years. I was privileged to serve as a military chaplain in the US Air Force for 20 years and 18 years as chaplain in a medical center in PA. I’m retired now in Atlanta, GA since 2019. Today, I’m serving as a part time retired supply pastor in a church of less than 100 parishioners

  4. Chuck Savage says:

    Great encouragement to those who serve small churches. Sharing you experiences helps them to understand the significance of the ministry they serve. Some of the most lasting relationships I have are from the small churches I served. Thanks you for being the champion of the small church pastors.

  5. Janine L Plum says:

    Amen and amen, Dr. Tennent!

  6. David Yinger says:

    Thank you very much Dr. Tennent. I greatly appreciate your wonderful article. I’m in my twenty-sixth year of ministry in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. I have served small rural churches my entire ministry in Ohio. I especially can identify with your ministry experiences and stories you shared. Your words of encouragement to us serving in rural America and serving small churches is much appreciated. Thank you for reminding us all of the importance of being a small church pastor. You are a real champion of the small church and to us who serve small churches as ordained pastors.

  7. Jamie Brunk says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the stories Dr Tennent shared. Could identify greatly. Have spent 45 years serving small (tiny) churches in eastern KY as part of the Red Bird Missionary Conf (34 years) and now the KY Annual Conf (11 years). God called me to the mountains. Wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Hallelujah.

  8. Michael Guertin says:

    May God’s grace and peace be with you. Thank you for that wonderful testimony to small churches. I say amen to everything you said about them. They are the backbone of the UMC.

  9. Max William Furman says:

    I truly appreciate the thoughts shared by Dr. Tennent. It brought back so many memories and affirmed my service as an elder. I started in a three point and moved up to a two point and now serve a two point as a retired pastor. Two cars at a stop sign is a traffic jam. Even though I was encouraged by the Bishop and DS to take a tall steeple church, I felt called to the smaller churches. Thank you for affirming that.

  10. Mike Gatogo says:

    It is exciting to read this article about being a Pastor of a small church. I can relate with it. In my early twenties and in the early days of my ministry- I served two very small churches in the rural parts of Kenya for six years. Both combined had a membership of about 50 adults. Yet it was a lot of joy. I am currently serving an adult church with a range of 120-150 adult members. It is such a joy to know and relate with almost everyone at a personal level. Both small and mega churches are a gift from God. Let us not faint. Thanks Dr. Tennent

  11. John Briscoe says:

    Amen, from a local pastor. With thanks.
    (Rev. Dr.)

  12. Jeannine Brabon says:

    What a great article, Dr Tennent. It is beautiful how God uses the small churches. I have had one supporting me for years on the mission field. What a blessing to hear of your earlier days.

  13. Jeff Graham says:

    Thank you. I read this earlier somewhere else, and greatly appreciated it. I’ve spent 40+ years in rural communities. Never felt called to go elsewhere. Even in retirement, I’m serving a small rural congregation. My experiences echo your own. It is good to hear someone in your position articulate so well what rural churches are all about.

  14. Ed Crenshaw says:

    I remember Duke United Methodist Church, Duke, Oklahoma, with much affection. Unfortunately the church is no longer in existence, but the saints and the memories will last forever.

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