Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor from out-of-state at a conference. He told me he was from a small town in the Southwest. “How small?” I asked, as I am always curious about small towns.
“Oh, very small,” he assured me. “Only fifteen thousand people or so.”
Depending on your background, you might think that is a small town, too. Or maybe you know some places to take that brother to show him what a small town really is. His town has more people than the whole county where I pastor. Similarly, my town of 3,500 is the "big city" compared to the towns of 1,000, 600, or 300 around us. Pastoring in rural communities has it own set of challenges and difficulties, as well as it’s own pleasures and privileges. Pastoring is a challenge no matter the size of the community, but having the right set of tools can make the job a little easier.
It’s possible to drive a nail with a rock, but it sure is easier with a hammer. It’s possible to pastor a rural church without these tools, but your life will be much easier if you keep these resources close at hand.
1. Patience and Perseverance
If you are like me, you are already rolling your eyes at this one, but it’s true. Things move slower in a small town. Everything in town is within a mile of everything else, but things just move so slow. I don’t just mean the line at the Dairy Queen either. Change happens in rural churches and communities, but it happens slowly.
A rural church in need of revitalization can hold out much longer than a city church. The rural church pastor must learn to work in the ebb and flow of the rural community and that requires patience. It’s possible to swim against the current, but it takes more effort than you probably have to give. When you work with patience, using the strengths of a rural community to your advantage, things will change eventually. I can promise you it won’t happen as fast as you want it to, but if you stick with it, even those things that don’t seem like they will ever change will change with time.
If you come to a small town from the big city, you will have to fight the urge to change the church and community into what you think it should be like. Your church is never going to be like the megachurch in the state capital, so quit trying to make it that. The rural pastor needs to get over the idea that the church is his canvas on which to paint his masterpiece. It is not the place for you to implement all the systems and structures that you learned at the latest conference. The church is God’s canvas, not yours. The pastor is no more than the brush, a tool in the hand of the master. Only when wielded by an expert does the pastor have any power to do good.
Our attempts to change churches systems and structures often hinder our ability to do the real work of ministry, that of bringing people to the Lord and discipling them. There is a time for change, and when we embrace the natural rhythms of the church, we will find that those things change without much effort or strife. Accepting the idiosyncrasies of the rural church allows us to see that it, too, is the wisdom of God made manifest in its community.
3. A Place to Get Away
There is nowhere in a rural community a pastor can go where he is not still the pastor. A small town pastor can have a much larger impact on people as he is known by many, even those who don’t go to his church. At the grocery store, the feed store, the ball game, the bank, and the Christmas parade, he is always the pastor. More than that, the pastor is often expected to be at all or most of the community events. I’ve been in the community long enough that I am regularly called pastor by people that I don’t know that well. This is a blessing as it allows us to have impact outside our church walls, but it can also be an added stress.
The rural church pastor needs somewhere he can go where he can be himself. This might mean going to larger city nearby, or on regular vacations, or to family gatherings. This is often harder for rural church pastors to accomplish as they are usually the only full time staff person and there are fewer people to pick up the slack when they leave. Every pastor needs a regular Sabbath, but rural pastors often have limited means and time. Even just the matter of having to drive 2 hours to get to a big city makes it harder. Only with intentionality can a rural pastor obey the command of God to rest from his work.
Most research says that 80% of churches have under 150 people in attendance. This means that at the majority of those churches, the pastor is the only full time staff person. Sometimes there’s a part time youth, childrens, or music leaders, but the majority of the work often falls to the pastor. A rural church pastor might like to sit in his office day reading great theologians, but he also will have to help order church supplies, fold bulletins, help with the youth, plan the parade float, lead in outreach, be the IT person, plan mission trips and more. All pastors have to wear multiple hats, but the rural church pastor will find himself doing it more regularly. This means he must use his time wisely as he wears all hats he has to wear. Flexibility is necessary if a pastor wants to be effective in a rural community.
5. The Willingness to Send
We often think of rural churches as never changing and stuck in their ways, which can be true. But there are other parts of rural churches that are constantly changing. You might think of large churches from bigger cities as those that effectively send missionaries, and that’s often true, but rural churches often send their best and brightest away to the larger cities. Study after study shows that rural communities are shrinking, that more people are moving to large cities. A glance around most churches in small towns shows that there is often a generation missing. It’s often missing in the town as well, as young people don’t want to stay in small towns. They leave for school or work and don’t often come back. There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule, this is true in most rural churches and towns.
This means that rural pastors are often pouring into kids and youth that they will never reap the benefit from their leadership as they grow and mature. I can think of numerous students whom I have loved with all my heart, who benefited our church even as teenagers, but who left our small town for bigger and greener pastures elsewhere. I’m not mad at them; I must understand this is a part of rural church life.
It’s not just students, either. Families frequently move after their kids graduate, or senior adults who have been mainstays in the church for decades move to be near their kids. The rural church pastor is constantly losing leaders and having to replace them. We can let this make us angry towards the big cities and carry a chip on our shoulders, or we can see it as a sending opportunity. This means I must be purposeful in my work and discipleship in order to best equip these people to be servants of God and the church wherever life takes them.
Pastoring is difficult no matter where we find ourselves doing it. There are certain challenges unique to pastoring in rural churches and towns. The good thing is that the same God who called us to these communities will be the one who equips us to do the work of ministry there. A pastor's nature or temperament might make him more suited to ministry in one place than another, but wherever he is, he must learn to stay on his knees in front of God for his people. These five tools won’t make the work of the shepherd easy, but they will likely make it easier.