Being the pastor of a small, rural church comes with its own set of challenges.
You know what it’s like when people ask for directions to your church and you have to say, “It’s on Old County Line Road, a mile or so past Big Deek’s Pharmacy and Chainsaw Repair.” You know that the only coffee shop where you can sit and be missional is the one that is opened 24 hours and also serves waffles. You know what it’s like to preach in front of 75 people and consider that a really big crowd.
But there might be a few things that you don’t know about the small, rural church that you pastor. Don’t worry. It’s not all your fault. Most of the authors you read and professors you learned from assumed that you would end up being the pastor of a church a million miles away from Big Deek’s fine establishment. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that you need to be prepared to faithfully lead Christ’s church.
While there may not be a ton or books or seminars to help rural pastors, we can learn from the mistakes of others. Here are four such mistakes.
The ministry is a great place for lazy people to hide out. The old joke is that pastors only work one day a week. For some, that old joke is more like a life philosophy. But if you carry this approach with you into a rural setting, it will come back to haunt you. If your congregation is made up of people who wake up at 4 in the morning to feed cows, they’re not going to have a whole lot of respect for you if they know you struggle to make it out of bed by 11 a.m. because you spent all night playing video games.
The remedy is not to become a workaholic. Nor is it to constantly talk about how hard you work. Just work. Show up on time and stay late to help put up the tables.
Your church isn’t in Los Angeles so stop comparing yourself to your friend from seminary who got to counsel a crack addict last Sunday morning before having lunch with Justin Timberlake. And stop thinking that the same things that work out there will work where you are. Most likely, they won’t. The people in your church are much more likely to be distracted than engaged by a dimly lit sanctuary and smoke machine. Stop trying to bring the suburbs to the sticks. Bringing Jesus to the sticks is good enough.
Gossip is a cancer in any type of church but it’s much more dangerous in small towns. There is a greater than 90% chance that the lady who plays the organ is related to the guy who cuts the grass so keep your comments to yourself about how off key the music was last week or how terrible the grass looks. Even if you’re guaranteed not to get caught, you should still hate gossip. But in a small town, you will get caught.
I once had someone approach me who was in desperate need of help. When I asked her if she had spoken to her pastor, a look of horror came over her face. “Are you kidding? He’d tell everyone in town!”
Don’t be that pastor.
Wait. What? Aren’t pastors supposed to be Kingdom builders? Yes, we are. But in a rural setting it’s awful tempting for us to care more about building our own kingdoms. After you’ve counseled hurting people, preached a few funerals and stuck around longer than all of the previous pastors, people will begin to appreciate you. And that’s a good thing, until you manipulate that appreciation into more and more power and money for yourself. As a result, the church will be too scared of you to hold you accountable and too broke to actually take part in building God’s kingdom.
Be encouraged, pastor. A lot of your best work goes unnoticed. Sometimes it even feels like you’re just treading water. Don’t stop swimming. God is honored by your faithfulness. And your community is blessed. Don’t get discouraged by the fact that you never get invited to preach at some big city conference with a bunch of big city preachers. If you hang in there long enough, you just might get invited to go skeet shooting with Big Deek.
Now that’s missional.