Realities of a Small Church Pastor, Part 2: The Church Is a One-Room Schoolhouse.

I’m married to a teacher. My mom is a teacher. My sister-in-law (whom I’ve known since we were five) is a teacher. My wife’s mother and father were teachers. My best friend since high school is a teacher.

I value teachers and education. (I have two master’s degrees and ponder a doctorate from time to time, so I guess it’s safe to assume I like education.)

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all my teacher friends and family! 

Education metaphors speak to me deeply. A couple of years ago I was in a workshop with Tom Albin of the Upper Room institute when he reminded us of a reality: in your congregation there are people who are, in terms of spiritual formation and development, first graders, fifth graders, high schoolers, and grad students. 

So here’s your education metaphor: the worship hour on Sunday is a one-room schoolhouse. You have about an hour a week to help people in all stages of spiritual formation level up at a healthy pace. You have some struggling with basic math facts, some wrestling with long division, some learning to solve for the quadratic equation. You have some struggling with Green Eggs and Ham while others make sense of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

One of our jobs as pastors is to help each of them move up a level, one step at a time. Just as the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse had to be masterful at differentiation in instruction, we have to learn differentiation in preaching. We have to drive home both the simplicity and the nuances in a confession like “God is love.”

Spiritual development doesn’t correlate nicely with age. You can have people in their 60s and 70s who are spiritual 3rd graders and teenagers who are spiritual college sophomores. It’s also not linear. A crisis of faith can cause regress.

Of course, no single sermon can adequately address the spiritual formation of people in every possible stage, but over the course of a year all should be addressed in a balanced way based upon the spiritual maturity of the real people in your congregation.

I don’t have any solid advice or super-deep insight here. I just acknowledge that the task is difficult.

My personal goal is: “don’t judge ’em, nudge ’em.” Don’t judge anyone in the congregation for being spiritually immature, just try to lure them forward and help them grow. Don’t venerate anyone for being spiritually mature, either – there’s still growing to do, and we can help them level up, too.

I’m grateful for the teachers in my live who did more nudging than judging, and loved me enough to help me move forward from where they found me.




Author: pastorwillie

Husband to a beautiful wife, father to four awesome children, Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, pastor of a great church in rural southern Illinois, guitarist, songwriter, ukulelist, blogger.

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