Little big mission: Small churches leave big footprints

Walk into any United Methodist church in rural Madison County on a given Sunday, and chances are you'll be greeted by empty pews. There are eight churches in the county, located about an hour east of Tallahassee in the North West District, and six of them have small congregations, some as small as 15 or 20 members.
But fear not, this isn't a sad story about dwindling church membership. 

Madison County Cooperative Ministry volunteers pack snack bags
Madison County volunteers pack snack bags for hungry schoolchildren in a United Methodist Cooperative Ministries effort that helps small congregations make a big difference in their communities. Photo from UMCM of Madison County.

These eight churches together, through the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries (UMCM) of Madison County, have tackled disaster relief in and out of Florida and assisted people in dealing with unemployment, hunger, devastating illness and temporary economic setbacks.

Experts say active church members can make a difference despite their small numbers. That’s good news in Florida, where more than half of the approximately 670 churches – about 56 percent – have an average weekly attendance of 125 or fewer, according to data compiled by the Florida Conference’s Knowledge and Information Services. These churches often need support in addressing community needs.

“Through the cooperative ministries, we can come together and do ministry,” said Deborah Brown, UMCM coordinator.  Otherwise, she said, “you wouldn't have the volunteers. You wouldn't have the funds.”

Although Madison is one of the poorest counties in the state, the churches worked together to build and then manage the Florida Conference Disaster Response Supply Depot for nine years, sending disaster relief supplies to communities in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.  

The depot has since closed, the remainder of its supplies going to the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Sager Brown Depot in Louisiana. But other collaborative projects continue:  food programs for seniors with low income, snack packs for children facing chronic hunger, a thriving thrift store and a benevolent fund.

“Those are things that they just wouldn't be able to do in the churches [alone],” Brown said.

Volunteers stuff "ditty bags" of hygiene items for people in need as one of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries/Suncoast Inc.'s community outreach efforts. Photo from UMCM/Suncoast's Facebook page.

For small churches that seek the support of their district's outreach office, the rewards can be great:  financial and in-kind support, opportunities to collaborate with other churches and community organizations, and organizational and administrative assistance. The kind of support varies depending on the needs of the churches in the district and the experience and background of the outreach staff.

The North East District, where Jim Young is community outreach minister, is home to a few churches with more than 1,000 members, but there are many small churches serving small communities.

“A lot of times, people have a passion to do something and they don't know where to go to do it. I connect them to direct service providers,” Young said. Providers include government and non-governmental agencies and sometimes churches in other religious traditions.

His counterparts in the other districts can provide assistance tailored to the congregations and communities in their area.

“Each of us has a unique view of community outreach and what God's called us to do,” he said. Young acts as a networker, a connector of resources, so that churches can pursue their passion.  He also provides training on how to witness to others and encourages a balanced approach to outreach that includes mercy and justice ministries
“I go and meet with pastors.  I get to know pastors and I do a survey and I get a feel for a congregation,” Young said. “What is the heart and passion of this local church?”

Helping smaller churches connect with existing networks of service, so they don't waste time, money and volunteer hours, is an important role of the community outreach office.

“Sometimes a church has an idea, 'Oh, I'd like to do this,' but they don't realize that somebody down the street is already doing it,” said Pamela Qualls, executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries/Suncoast Inc. in the Gulf Central District. “If that is the case, we connect them with that organization or that group.”
“But if we find … that there really is no service similar to that, then we'll find a way to help them get it started,” Qualls said. “We have a lot of collaborations with other organizations, and so we'll work very hard to put together the right group to make what they want to happen happen.”

She cites as an example the food pantry opened by Lealman UMC, St. Petersburg, which has a Sunday attendance of 50 to 60 people. UMCM/Suncoast Inc. connected Lealman with the larger Clearview UMC and Feeding America to address hunger in the community.

For another example of small churches banding together for ministry, see "Jailhouse needs a rock" on Florida Conference Connection.

“We gave the funding to Clearview and, between their staff and our folks, we were able to work with Lealman to open another food pantry,” Qualls said.  “We also had brought Feeding America into their area to do a food drop to help get them started.”

The pantry is now open every Thursday.

Small churches that provide outreach services will reap rewards beyond the obvious.

“One of the things that comes out when we get out there and we get into these different activities, is it brings the churches together,” said Brown, who described how quickly many of the activities go by because of the number of people working together. “We have fun and fellowship in the volunteering.”

Community members also learn about the church.

“It's very difficult for a church to attract people from the community if they don't know the people from the community,” Qualls said.

“It gives you an opportunity to know them from an academic standpoint, just having knowledge about them, but then also that way to meet them and start to build a relationship. Even if they never attend the church, the fact that they're connected to the church and see the church as a positive influence in their lives is very important.”

Top Three Outreach Tips for Small Churches

  • Find your passion. What are church members excited about doing for their community?
  • Learn what other services are being offered in your area. You can either support those efforts or contribute services that are not yet being offered in the community.
  • Know that collaboration is possible and ask for help.  If your community outreach office doesn't get in touch with you to support another church in your area, contact the office. To find your district's office, visit

Source: Community outreach coordinators in the Florida Conference.

-- Karen L. Shaw is a freelance writer based in Palm Harbor.

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