by Chad A. Edgington, Pastor, First Baptist Church of Olney, Texas
Although I’ve served on staff at churches in larger cities, the only place I’ve ever actually pastored is in a rural area. I am sure there are wonderful things about preaching and leading a congregation in a sprawling metropolitan area, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.
I was born and raised in the DFW suburbs. I attended a college where the entire student body was smaller than my graduating high school class. I’ve generally lived in towns larger than the population 3,500, small Texas town that I call home, but I genuinely love the way of life here. I tell my church that I am a certified “city-billy” now after being here for 8 years.
One day you might find yourself heading out to the country to pastor in a rural area. If you are like me and didn’t grow up in that context, you need to be aware of some early missteps you can easily avoid. I am sure most of these things apply in other ministry settings, but they should be of particular help to the small-town pastor.
“It isn’t just a myth or a cliché: everybody is related to everybody else in a small town. If they aren’t related, their families may have been best friends for generations. Be careful of what you say and how you say it.”
A key to rural ministry is establishing trust between the people and the pastor. Very early on you should be aware of how you are perceived. For example, are you accessible, and do you answer your phone and return texts and emails (even Facebook messages)? Do you come to the office? Do you put in the work? Do you take time to have conversations with people who want to talk to you? You paint a picture early on in your ministry of what kind of person you are. Be mindful of the fact that you are building your reputation in the early days of your pastorate, and you will reap the rewards: church members who trust your leadership and champion you when you most need it.
2. The importance of Place
When you live in a large metropolitan area, you can find the same grocery stores, home improvement stores, chicken sandwich restaurants, and drug stores every five miles. Land is developed and re-developed. The place doesn’t really seem to matter that much because it is continually changing. In a rural community, that isn’t the case. The place matters. People are strongly connected to their land and the people of their community. The histories are long, the stories matter, and you have an opportunity to learn to appreciate what they all love. Learn to love the place.
3. Positivity is the Key
Anyone looking to criticize aspects of small-town living will find something to complain about. It can be expensive to live in a small town, there is usually a good deal of blight to be seen, resources are scarce, and you may be an hour from the nearest Walmart. On the other hand, if you choose to focus on the many positives and privileges of small-town life, you will find them everywhere you look. Stay up-beat and optimistic. If you stand in the pulpit and criticize or belittle the town or the church, you put up a barrier between you and the people. The things about the small town that you find annoying, the smart pastor finds charming. Stay positive. Be a champion for your adopted community. My advice for any man who is pastoring in a rural area: if you love your town, it will love you back.
4. Do Your Part
All pastors everywhere are busy. That is true. But nobody knows more about being busy than people who live in a small town. In rural communities, everyone pitches in everywhere from church to city council to the Chamber of Commerce to the little league fields. In other words, your busy-ness isn’t an excuse. In small towns, people expect that a pastor will pull his weight as a leader in the community. Help coach a ball team, participate in a service organization, write articles for the local newspaper from time to time, volunteer to judge speech competitions at the school. The great thing about living in an actual community where you are needed is that when you participate in the community, you develop relationships outside the walls of your church. This opens opportunities for ministry that pastors in other contexts can only dream about.
4. Pay Attention to the School
Strong towns need strong schools, strong hospitals, and strong churches to thrive. If the influence of the school seems disproportionate, that’s because it is. You will notice early on in your ministry that the school schedule drives the town schedule. Keep a copy of the academic calendar and the athletic schedule. Be supportive of school activities. Celebrate the achievements of your students. Recognize the stock show participants. Be sure to announce the band concerts and one act play performances. Even if you decide that homeschool is best for your children, you should still be involved in the life of the school.
6. Say Yes to the Funerals
A funeral home director often recommends local pastors to people who don’t have anyone to officiate their loved one’s funeral. They also steer clear of recommending the guys who do a poor job. Try to do your best on every funeral you conduct. Meet with the family beforehand. Pray and minister to them in their time of need. You will have more opportunities to share the gospel with those far from the Kingdom when you preach funerals than you will week in and week out preaching behind your pulpit. Don’t miss out on the opportunity.
7. Watch Your Mouth
It isn’t just a myth or a cliché: everybody is related to everybody else in a small town. If they aren’t related, their families may have been best friends for generations. Be careful of what you say and how you say it.
Remember that those football stands are small. A player’s mother is probably sitting within earshot of your running game commentary. She’s taking note of how you talk about the team. Your positivity and optimism about the town should extend to the school, the small-town grocery store, and the gym on game days.
8. Have Patience
I’ve heard it said that patience is the master skill of ministry. I promised the people in my first business meeting that I wouldn’t change anything but my underwear for the first year of my pastorate. It was important for me to learn what made the church great before I started trying to change things. Many pastors try to change too many things too fast and too soon. Only so much innovation can be tolerated. Take a long view of your ministry. Blowing up the church schedule and disrupting the church culture in your first year will not produce the fruit you are expecting. But the final two items on my list will continue to produce fruit long after you are gone.
9. Love the People
A pastor must develop many practical gifts and talents to serve his people well. He must preach well, he must listen, he must know how to study and teach. But the element of ministry that makes the most difference is the pastor who has a love for his people that reflects his deep love for Christ. The people will not remember many of the things you say during your ministry, but they will remember how you loved them.
10. Preach the Word
Finally, the most loving thing a pastor can do for his people is to faithfully preach God’s Word to them. The pastor should impart to his people a deep and abiding love for scripture. In his expositional preaching, Bible studies, and one on one conversations, he conveys to his people the power and all sufficient nature of the scripture in all its splendor. Slowly, the church is built up into maturity by the methodical and faithful Word-work of the pastor. A pastor who loves his people teaches them to love the Word.