Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.

2 thoughts on “Ugly Duckling Theology”

  1. I wonder if we get hope and entitlement mixed up? It’s perfectly fine for someone to hope to grow into something better, bigger even – to spread the Gospel and let more people know about Jesus. But when we replace this hope for people with entitlement we become success-driven, not Gospel centered … it becomes about us and not about Jesus. … and then we might find we were dealing with neither swan nor duck … but a chicken. Thanks for this reminder today and for all the work you for the Church, Dr. Koessler.

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