McLaughlin, Mary Collier. Big Lessons from Little Places: Faithfulness and the Future in Small Congregations. (New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2015). ISBN # 978-0-8192-3167-3.
Kay Collier McLaughlin serves as the Deputy for Leadership Transformation and Transition Ministries in the Diocese of Lexington, KY. As part of her work, McLaughlin works with predominately small membership Episcopal congregations along the “Kingdom Come Parkway” in Kentucky. From her learnings in dialogue with these churches and throughout her denomination, McLaughlin realizes that areas like the Kingdom of God Parkway “exists, not only in Kentucky, but across the country” (p. 4) and the ideas to be explored in her book apply to churches of varieties of size and context.
McLaughlin is concerned that small membership churches are overlooked or deemed less likely to provide much to the greater aims and purposes of the church. She critiques an attitude not necessarily unique to the Episcopal Church that churches under a certain “average Sunday attendance” (ASA, in Episco-speak) may need to be closed due to being “too small” or a drain on resources. McLaughlin’s book celebrates how a church attended by a few dozen at most can be a place of vitality, community and spiritual depth.
McLaughlin draws examples from her own Diocese as well as from her interactions and interviews with churches across the United States, again reminding us how the churches who embody this spirit are fellow pilgrims along the “Kingdom Come Parkway” (real and metaphoric) as well as signs and symbols of the effort to go against the grain of the worldly (and in some ways, the institutional Church’s) expectation that churches “count” only with certain metrics lofty in goal and ravenous for praise and admiration.
Among the learnings explored in this book, my Baptist upbringing resonates well with her observation that the best way forward is to flip the pyramid of leadership and values where the larger “base” of local churches is far more where the emphasis and action should be in denominational outlook and emphasis. Of course, I freely admit that not every local church (Baptist, Episcopal or otherwise) should fall prey to the temptation to “go it alone”. Churches with a collaborative spirit driving their mission will benefit from efforts to share their efforts with community, ecumenical/interfaith and denominational partners. As I have said many times in my own denominational work, a small church can have a great big missional footprint! Further, the adaptive responses of certain Episcopal dioceses to become less institutional in their way of interacting and serving churches is a fine example of how denominational structures can still exist in a “post-denominational” climate. The solution for judicatories is to become more embedded in the midst of the churches than lost in the administrative details sustaining an organization that has outlived its ability to be nimble and adaptive.
The final chapter “What is an Institution to Do? From ASA Snobbery to Hope for the Future” offers her most substantial and sustained writing, offering some thoughtful words and engaging issues, though part of me wishes the book would have had some of the material earlier in the book. Overall, McLaughlin’s format tends toward shorter chapters with reflective personal and group conversation questions as well as an invitation to move into action. She prefaces each chapter with a quote from writers in small church ministry or secular authors who have captured the tone and tenor of smaller communities in their fiction. Sometimes the quick chapters provide a good introduction, yet I was left longing for a bit more insight before McLaughlin moved onto her next chapter. Some issues overviewed need more time and advocacy than were given, particularly her chapter on the acceptance of clergywomen in churches resistant or simply unaccustomed to the possibilities when breaking beyond the “stained glass ceiling”).
A short bibliography highlights print resources largely familiar to long-time readers of small church ministry books, though I particularly note her appreciation and frequent quotations of Karl Vaters’ The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us (Fountain Valley, CA: New Small Church, 2013).