One of the questions raised in the comment section of Able’s infamous blog on the 11 mental, emotional, & spiritual challenges unique to rural pastors was a question:
“So what advice would you give to someone contemplating leaving a suburban ministry for a rural one?”
That’s a really good question. I went from living in very large cities (3 million people +) to ending up as the lead pastor in a city with a surrounding area population of under 10,000. In fact, the city I live in has 1,623 people. So I went from the “big city” to the “country” in a matter of, well, it was quick. I’ve been here for over seven years and I still can’t believe that I live in the middle of nowhere.
Oh, and I love it.
So what kind of advice would I give someone who is transitioning from suburbia for a rural ministry? Let me start by making a point about the necessity for training. Everyone’s probably heard that “leaders are readers” and I absolutely agree with that. But more so than just reading, leaders will naturally seek out more training. Actually, I should qualify that a bit more. Effective leaders seek out training, and it’s a life long type of thing. I would write a lot about that, but alas, it shall have to wait.
I spent a lot of time doing formal theological training and I actually loved most of it, whether it was during my undergraduate or graduate experience. It was great. Not everyone gets to do that, and that’s okay. The important thing is to be motivated to learn. That happens in both a classroom as well as in the “real” world, so to speak.
So assuming that a person has been in the ‘burbs for awhile and has been working with people for awhile and has picked up some knowledge and wisdom along the way, the thought of transitioning to a completely different culture can be a little overwhelming. I’ve actually come to realize that if I were to ever leave, it’d be quite the culture shock to go from a city where my kids can play in the front yard with zero worries to living in a city where everyone is a suspected ax-murderer. I’m sure there are people out there who spend a few years, or even a decade, in a large city who are led by the Lord to do ministry, whether pastoring an existing church or starting one, in a small town, out in the middle of nowhere.
Do you discount what you’ve learned? Do you throw it all away and start over? Yes… and no.
In some ways, the answer is yes. Many of the people dynamics are so different that it’s hard to find a way to take what you’ve applied in places with huge populations and apply them in a city where everyone is related to or knows each other.
But in many other ways, you are simply going to contextualize your training and previous ministry activities. For example:
(1) Preach Christ and apply the Gospel. Assuming that you were faithfully preaching Christ and explaining the various ways that the people in your congregation were to apply the good news about Jesus and his kingdom, you’ll need to do the same thing in the sticks. Sure, you may not have as many bankers, investors, or real estate tycoons that need to hear about the ethics of business, but you’ll have mechanics, farmers, and groceries that still need to know about the ethical implications of being a follower of Jesus. While the details of employment may not be the same as in large cities, the dynamics are.
(2) Missional theology is still foundational to the rural church, it just looks different. I’ve written on this before (here), but it bears repeating. There is a great need to communicate the truths about Jesus and the kingdom he preached and demonstrated in ways that people can actually understand. Often times, are super-spiritual communicate gets in the way of people who are actually interested in learning more about Christianity but don’t know the secret handshake. So in city-centers, we basically remove all “Christianese” in order to help people understand what we’re saying. Guess what? In rural towns, you actually might have to contextualize by putting the “Christianese” back in your speech! Why? Because there are often a lot of people who have deeply religious backgrounds, whether from mainline Protestant upbringings or because they grew up Roman Catholic (or Lutheran). So they are so used to hearing those spiritual sounding phrases and concepts (sometimes because of Grandma!) that you will actually loose credibility by being more credible by trying to relate to them. But not always. Ha ha. Frustrated yet? Let’s move on…
(3) Your corporate worship gathering still has the same goals, but it may seem very cheesy… and yet some people will love it. This was the big challenge for me. The only cheese I like is from Holland Family Cheese. When it comes to being cheesy, I’d rather avoid that like the plague. Yet I’ve seen some of our worship gatherings go completely off the tracks and start down the road to cheeseville… and the congregation loved it! Argh! The really awkward testimony? Check – they loved it. The out-of-tune special song? Check – they loved it. Having cheesy decorations from the late 80’s? Check – everyone is absolutely fine with it. Heck, our church actually used overhead projectors for quite a long time after everyone had made the transition to a computer and projector (we finally made the switch, praise God). There’s also a catch22 on this as well because the cheesy stuff that some people really like, others will hate (yeah, they are probably either young or cultural transplants like myself, but they count too, right?). There’s a need for balance, but don’t write off the cheesy stuff before you determine whether it actually is cheesy or just doesn’t go over well in big cities.
What would you add?