I never met Carl Dudley. But when my email popped up with a Presbyterian News article announcing his death, a deep sadness filled my heart. This is a man who wrote a book that was a very significant source of inspiration and encouragement for me in the very first years of my ministry. After reading the short article (Presbyterian News Service, number 09338, April 24, 2009) I pulled my copy of Making the Small Church Effective, (Abingdon Press, 1978) down off my bookshelf. This is not a book I have looked at for many years, but as I paged through it quickly I felt again the power with which this book blessed my ministry. As with all my books, the year I first read it is written in the front cover: 1982. That was my first year of seminary and this book was one of the required texts in our Introduction to Ministry course.
After graduation in 1985, I started ministry in a very small, rural congregation in Kiskiminetas Presbytery. I remember those first years of ministry with great fondness. I remember most of all the profound graciousness of this family church that took me in as one of their own and literally taught me how to be a pastor. They poured out hospitality, kindness, and tolerance for the young, new minister who had all the academic answers and none of the life experience to be a pastor. Indeed, in the first years of my professional ministry we created, by the grace of God and the amazing tolerant and accepting love of the congregation, a very effective ministry.
But there were many dark days in those first years of ministry; days when isolation and loneliness burdened at my heart. On Thursday mornings when I tried to write yet another sermon, or on Monday mornings when I sat quietly wondering what exactly I should do with my time all week, I often pulled this little Dudley book off the shelf and read through it again. That a “professor of church and community at McCormick Theological Seminary,” as the back cover proclaimed, would have bothered to write a book about the tiny, isolated church where I found myself serving was an idea that itself inspired me. Somehow, just the fact that this book existed with its focus on and celebration of small churches, encouraged me. “Truly, I am not alone!” Furthermore, that such a small church could and should actually be “effective” was like a fount of divine inspiration for me.
So I type out here Dudley’s eloquent description of small church as family. This is my own heritage and history. Deep down in my heart, there is an abiding love and affection for small, family churches:
“To understand our small church, we begin with the feelings of the members. When asked, members show a strong sense of ownership and deep feelings of belonging. ‘This is our church,’ they say. Members do not begin with apologies or comparisons, unless they are implied because the questioner comes from a larger congregation. For members, the small church is not ‘small is beautiful,’ or ‘small is quality,’ or ‘small but anything.’ Members have a strong, positive attitude toward belonging, because it is a significant experience in their lives. Some ‘members’ are not active in programs, or even in regular attendance on Sunday. They may participate only on special occasions and attend only for annual events. Some such members are not even listed on the rolls of the church, but it remains ‘our church’ to them. They have remained with the church despite other alluring alternatives. In times of crisis for the congregation, they have rallied with support. In the crises of their personal families, the congregation has surrounded them with care and concern. Belonging to the church is like being a member of the family.”
(Dudley, Making the Small Church Effective, page 29)
Thanks be to God for the life, witness and ministry of Professor Carl Dudley.