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A Big Heart for Small Churches
Dr. Christine O’Reilly believes small-town churches are an integral part of Canadian community life where church members have the opportunity to live their beliefs.

Rev. Dr. Christine O’Reilly says the best thing she’s done in her 21 years as minister is to wash dishes at church dinners.

Christine O’Reilly

“No man is an island,” says the coauthor of Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered (Alban Institute, 2006). “This is particularly true in a small community.”

Currently ministering at Knox Presbyterian in Thedford and Watford, Ontario, O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Toronto, Knox College, and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her focus is on rural and small church ministry, as well as dealing with congregations and clergy in crisis.

Having been a single parent for 17 years, O’Reilly can personally attest to hardship as well as the comfort provided by small churches. “I cannot say enough about the support I’ve received from the congregations I serve, who have respected and cared for us in profound ways,” she says. “They have done a fine job of ministering to the minister’s family.”

Church, says O’Reilly, is not a spectator sport. She believes in “incarnational ministry” which means playing on local sports leagues, watching curling with congregational members and paying attention to photos on fireplace mantles.

“I may be playing softball but I’m still the minister—which simply means having integrity about who I am as a Christian person.”

While she believes strongly in the value of small churches, O’Reilly is concerned about their future due to the effects of rural poverty.

With geographical and financial factors not providing for full-time ministers in rural locations, churches are being forced to close or amalgamate. Additionally, under-qualified, overworked lay personnel are taking the place of educated ministers.

Respected widely for her views on the issue, O’Reilly was asked to report on rural poverty to the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, June 7, 2007. O’Reilly requested the Senate’s plan to address the problem acknowledge the extraordinary contribution made by both lay and ordained people.

“Hometown leaders need support, encouragement and assistance to be part of the answer to rural poverty,” she stated. “They need to be included in decisions, programs, and implementation strategies since they have both intimate knowledge of local concerns and the trust of local residents.

“The role played by rural congregations is part of the fabric of community life,” O’Reilly continued. “Church buildings offer space for meetings, shelter in crisis and places to mark the transition of life. Church members live out their beliefs by providing much-needed assistance to local communities.”

Each of O’Reilly’s ministerial charges helps to alleviate rural poverty by providing a church benevolent fund, assisting families with hydro bills and groceries, providing transportation to medical appointments in nearby urban centres and mentoring local students.

Ultimately, O’Reilly believes small churches matter because their heads aren’t too big.

“They don’t offer all the bells and whistles, but on Sunday mornings where you find little congregations you’ll find people gathered for worship—who, in their small way are saying to the world, worshiping God matters,” she says.

 “Without our rural churches, without the values they express and beliefs they live out, Canada would be an impoverished place.”

Emily Wierenga is an author based in Blyth, Ontario. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.

 

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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