By Neal Michell
In my role as canon to the ordinary, it was my responsibility to visit all the churches in our diocese on a consistent basis. My standard practice for churches in rural areas and small towns was to drive to the town, visit a local coffee shop, order coffee, and ask the waitperson or cashier if they could give me directions to the local Episcopal Church. Seldom did anyone even know the name of the parish, much less how to get there.
I have been involved in the discernment of people exploring ordination to the priesthood for the past 20 years. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find people who either want — or are even willing — to consider serving a church in a small town away from the larger cities and suburbs.
That is a shame. Serving as priest in a small town can be greatly rewarding and, really, a lot of fun. Although I have served churches in cities and towns of just about every population size — rural areas (population 2,400 to 4,000), small town (7,000), largish town (31,000), suburb (40,000), and city (5.5 million) — I have found the smaller towns the easiest to get involved in, through community organizations, and thus the easiest places to raise our parish’s profile.
This essay will cover the things I have learned about raising a church’s profile in towns with populations of 2,500 to 40,000.
How does a church raise its profile in the community?
- Network through Parishioners. Raising the church’s profile starts with the priest. Often, many parishioners are already engaged in the community in a variety of ways, but when a priest does so, it heightens the awareness of all the church’s volunteer efforts in the community and can serve as a doorway for the priest to volunteer as well. In one town I served in, a parishioner was the head of the school board and invited me to speak at the teacher orientation. In another community, a parishioner was the valedictorian that year and invited me to speak at the baccalaureate service for the graduating seniors.
- Newspapers are invaluable. Introduce yourself to the editor of your local newspaper. Yes, many small towns still have a local newspaper, and it is the major medium for communication and still plays an important role in community awareness and cohesion. Here are some suggestions for working with the local newspapers.
- Buy ads. People in smaller towns do read those ads, along with most everything else in the local paper. That will get the attention of editors as well, as newspaper ads are their “bread and butter.”
- Offer to write an occasional commentary for the local newspaper on local or national news or societal trends. (Because your church already buys ads in the newspaper, you will be an attractive candidate for getting your opinion pieces published.)
- When asked for a comment, give it well. For example, if there is a community event, or an interdenominational community gathering, prepare your comments ahead of time. Communication is the word of the day, not erudition.
- Get involved in community service. Some of these suggestions are suited for individuals, and some are appropriate for the church as an organization.
- Join the neighborhood association where you live as well as the neighborhood association where your church is located. Become known there as a servant to the community. Open your church as a place for the neighborhood association to hold its meetings.
- Volunteer to serve on community boards, such as hospice, food pantry, and so on. If the town has a service organization, such as Lions Club, or Rotary Club, and so on, by all means join one.
- Volunteer for ride-alongs with police officers. That will provide you with wonderful stories that can raise your credibility in the community as well as raise the church’s awareness of other needs.
- Serve as a mentor, a Big Brother/Big Sister, or a reading partner in your neighborhood elementary school.
- Have the church join the Chamber of Commerce and attend luncheons.
- Use illustrations in your sermons about some of your experiences serving the community and preach on the servant ministry of the church in the community. Encourage parishioners to be volunteers as servant ministers of the gospel in the community.
- Be involved in sports activities. Sports involvement can be a wonderful bridge to the community. Consider these possibilities:
- Do you have extra space on your property? Often soccer teams are begging for practice fields. Consider allowing a local youth or adult soccer team to practice on your church’s property.
- What is the most well-attended high school sporting event? In Texas it is football. In other areas of the country it might be basketball, baseball, or hockey. Buy season tickets and be visible at the games.
- Recognize that social media is as necessary as it is in a city. The small-town priest must be a generalist, knowing about many things. Being adept at social media is a must. Here a few of the basic “must dos” in this digital age. I’m keeping this list simple, because small churches often don’t think they have resources for much social media.
- Keep your church’s website up-to-date. This is not rocket science, but it is amazing how many churches still have their Holy Week service times on the front page of their website in September.
- Facebook. If you don’t have a Facebook presence, you should. For little money you can get people directed to your website. Don’t know where to turn for advice? Contact your friendly diocesan communications director. Consider asking your diocese to sponsor a webinar on social media for the small-town church.
- Broadcasting your Sunday services. Online services are a must, even after the pandemic. For very little money you can get your church wired and online. You say you don’t have any digital experts in your church? Hire a high school sophomore for very little money who can help you broadcast your services.
- Try these challenges. Some churches may want to tackle bigger challenges. Here are two:
- Community garden. This may not be needed in some smaller towns, but if your town has at least one apartment complex, this may be a nice fit for your church. Building a community garden is not cheap, but it can allow your church to reach people that would not normally be reached. The community garden at our church reaches young adults, seniors, and Hispanic neighbors who are not a part of our church. We have had at least a dozen families join our church in the last 10 years through our community garden.
- Theology on Tap. This outreach goes by many names (because the original Theology on Tap is trademarked by the Roman Catholic Church). The idea of Theology on Tap (and its progeny) is to hold speaker series in local pubs or bars on a consistent basis.
I realize that an essay like this can be pretty intimidating. Don’t be intimidated. Tackle one or two of these ideas at a time. Let your vestry wrestle with these as a group. Here are some questions for the vestry to ask itself:
- What community service organizations are members of our vestry already involved in?
- Which of these ideas are we already acting on and doing well?
- Which of these are we not doing well that we should work on?
- Which of these are we not doing well that we should quit doing?
- Which of these suggestions, if we implemented them, do we think would give us the “biggest bang for our buck”?
- Which three ideas would we like to see our church accomplish this year? Tally the votes of the whole vestry and develop a plan to implement these ideas.