Over the last two years, I have developed a much greater appreciation for a commonly overlooked ministry — yoked congregations. When congregations are yoked, an intentional decision has been made to retain separate congregational lives but share a pastor. Usually, these are congregations that can’t afford to pay a pastor on their own but are not quite to the point of needing to close.
I first heard of yoked congregations when a Methodist friend was assigned to three small congregations in a small town nearby. I couldn’t imagine how he could do something like that, and honestly thought that something crazy must be going on in the Methodist churches! As days passed, I began to hear more and more about this type of setting in every denomination until I was asked to supply on behalf of New Hope Presbytery at two of our own yoked congregations. I was eased into this idea at first since the two congregations were worshiping together on this Sunday after Christmas but it was only two months later when I got the full Sunday experience.
For a pastor of yoked congregations, a typical Sunday morning might look something like this:
8:45am (or before)– arrive to church #1 to prepare for worship and greet congregation
9:45am– Worship begins at church #1 (be sure your sermon is timed and does not exceed a certain limit based on what other worship aspects are present!)
10:45am (no later)– jump in the car and drive to the next church (sometimes as far as 20 minutes away)
11:00am (or sometimes 11:15am)– Worship begins at church #2
12:00pm– greet second congregation
The remainder of the day could include committee and session meetings between both congregations, fellowship events, Bible studies, and of course pastoral care visits.
Up until this past Sunday, I definitely had a great appreciation for pastors in these settings but it was more in the sense that I wasn’t sure how they managed to serve two or more congregations when the schedule was so hectic. This past week, however, Littleton Presbyterian Church and Stanley White Presbyterian Church showed me a different aspect that pastors get to work with when serving in a yoked setting.
Quite typically, both Littleton and Stanley White were smaller congregations in smaller buildings on the outskirts of town. As I pulled up to park at Littleton Presbyterian around 8:40am though, I noticed a big cement slab out back. It was clear that this was a new addition and I was definitely curious. As I looked through the bulletin, two members and leaders from the congregation set-up for Fellowship following worship (yoked churches cannot run without the efforts of every member). They explained to me that just over a year ago, the congregation had dwindled to 10 people on Sunday and a vote had been made to close the church; a year later, there are 20 people in worship and the cement slab is the start of a new building that is intentionally being built in a way that it can transform over time from a much more basic shelter into an enclosed building that can be utilized for multiple things. She explained that people finally realized how serious things were when the announcement about closing was made, and they came back and continue to bring new life back to the church.
Following worship, I enjoyed a few crackers with the congregation before jumping in the car to make the trip to Stanley White Presbyterian Church (following the church pianist who also serves both congregations). We arrived with a few more minutes than I am used to with the other yoked congregations I regularly visit, so I took a minute to greet the congregation and prepare in this new space. Quite unlike Littleton, this sanctuary looked newer and more modern. The building appeared to be a big bigger and the light streaming through the windows had a very bright and refreshing feeling. Following worship, the few of us there (roughly 10-12 people) had a conversation about “how do we get people to come? Not just young adults, or old adults… anyone?” I realized while visually, this church looked to be in one place that meant nothing. We had a great conversation and I continue to pray for and with this congregation as they discern their next step during this transition time without a regular pastor.
These two congregations, only twenty minutes from each other, served by the same pastor until recently, with the same Order of Worship every week couldn’t be more different. I imagine in the time they have been yoked, they have both changed in many ways. I imagine the pastor had many long weeks, but I also know that there had to be many more life-giving weeks. Each congregation brings its own joys and concerns every week, each congregation functions as an individual community. Each congregation took what I imagine could have been a very hard step, but one that just might have been what allowed them to get to where they are now — to join together and call a pastor who would serve each one in a complete, yet divided way.
Not only am I encouraged by the decisions that these and other yoked congregations have made, knowing it may not be the norm but it is the right decision for them and their community, but I am encouraged by the pastors who serve these yoked congregations. Ministry, as we all know, is an exhausting and emotional job. The demands that we have on our lives as ministers are unlike any other job. To willingly accept a Call to double the demands (because remember, it isn’t just that there are more people- there are at the very least, two very different community stories and lives) is an incredible recognition of God’s presence in our lives and demonstration of allowing God to lead as we serve as God’s hands and feet.
I have only experienced the Sunday morning aspect of yoked ministry, and want to nap for the rest of the day when I think about it. And so, to all of you who step-up and lead your congregation while the pastor is with another church — thank you. To the church musicians who might have to learn extra hymns each week due to different hymnals between churches, and who guide guest preachers like myself along the road — thank you. To the pastors who give so much of their time and energy to lead these congregations in remarkable ways — thank you. And to the congregations who spent a great deal of time discerning separately and together, who sought new ways to answer God’s Call, and banded together to continue your unique ministries side-by-side, thank you.
One of the definitions of “yoked” is “well muscled; powerfully built.”
Your faith, your steadfastness, your determination– this is what inspires those of us who see you, those of us who do not know what the next step might be. The leadership from within and the love that must be present and is shared with one another when the pastor can’t be with you because they are with the other congregation- this is a model for all of us. You might be small, but you are powerfully built both together and individually. Thank you.
Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer