Among the comments from a recent blog article I wrote (11 Mental, Emotional & Spiritual Challenges Unique to Rural Pastors) a guy named Joe asked “what advice would you give someone leaving suburbia to do ministry in a rural context?” There is so much I could talk about here and like a little kid overwhelmed with the task of cleaning up his messy room I am having a hard time even knowing where to start. So I will pick one topic and the let two other rural pastors (Luke Geraty and Judd Rumley) pick some personal advice that resonates with them.
Rural ministry, for several reasons, puts the demand on the pastor to facilitate the growth of the church not program it. Facilitating a church vision and helping it grow into a fruit bearing state requires some deliberate habits that might not be so easy for pastors who have cut their teeth in a suburban program driven church context. I have learned over the last 7 years of rural ministry to proclaim and model Christ to our people in a way that will not remake community but continually establish the person and work of Christ at the core of our community. Before I get into the topic of facilitating growth rather than programming it allow me to qualify what I mean by growth.
Defining growth… In the pastor’s world numbers can be like a redneck’s belt buckle… it seems pastors like to show them off and flash them around in public but numbers are pretty much meaningless when it comes to defining growth for a rural church. Growth in my mind is health. In a suburban context growth usually boils down in some way to numbers. Rural church pastors can feel sometimes convicted that their church is not growing numerically. Growth in my mind should be scene holistically in a rural church. In a rural context Gospel centered growth will manifest itself 1.mentally, 2.emotionally, 3.volitionally, 4.spiritually and 5.physically within the church community. A rural church pastor is pleased to see the manifest presence of Christ growing the church community in all five of these areas. It is foolish to cheapen growth to the counting of numbers or new members. Here are some things I have learned about facilitating growth in a rural church context.
1. Get out of the way… Making my way from a suburban ministry context to a rural context was an adventure in getting out of the way. At first I wanted to be in everything. I wanted programs to line up with vision and purpose. I wanted a chain of command. Finally it dawned on me that I had to learn to get out of the way and allow room for everyone’s vision. Some of the ideas where odd and confusing at first but I learned that allowing people to vision cast and helping people to minister in their own way to the body provided them with a much needed sense of ownership within the church. Many times their weird or quirky ideas were more profitable than any of mine. Anything I can do to get our rural congregation to see the church as theirs and not mine is my priority now. Getting out of the way and becoming more descriptive (representative, expressive) in my leadership rather than prescriptive (recommending, authoritative) has built trust between the people that I minister to and it has allowed me to speak truth into their lives in a much more meaningful way as a pastor. I am really trying to show our people how to bring Christ to the core of our already established community. I want to influence our already established rural ethos with the reality of Christ not re invent it or put my mark on it.
2. Don’t do it… I am not God’s local church multi tool. I have had to avoid being a do it all pastor. In a rural context it is so easy for your people to just let you do everything and soon a thing done a couple of times out of emergency can become one of your permanent job requirements. A member of a church I pastored was always complaining that no one picked up the garbage on the floor of our church after Sunday morning. She was a fastidious character and a little grumbly about disorder. She perceived others to be too lazy. She was doing everything in the church and it seemed to her that others were doing nothing to pull the weight. One day she was picking up things from off the floor after church and I could see that she was frustrated. I asked her what was wrong and she unloaded on me. “No one cleans up around here!” she said. “I seem to be the only one who cares about all this trash.” So I asked her to stop. She just looked at me for a minute and said, “who will take care of it?” I explained to her that she was doing such a good job that no one knew there was a problem. She was seeing herself as the solution to every one of the problems in the church. As a pastor I have done the same thing. In a rural community you will be surrounded by problems. As a pastor do not see yourself as the solution to every problem instead help others to see themselves as the solution. The pastor is not the head of community he is the keeper of it. We need to see opportunities to unload responsibilities not absorb them.
3. Visit your enemies… One of the most difficult things to do as a rural pastor is visitation. You are expected to be the representative of all 20 of the major denominational traditions that make up your rural congregation. I cannot tell you how many homes I have entered where I am putting out a fire. Some pastors do not start any fires so they may not need to put any out. But if you are starting fires in a rural church your greatest friends and support will come from visiting people who do not like you (for the moment). Usually those people are on fire because they are passionate. It can be so easy to just ignore them. Do not ignore passionate people they are the catalysts of a rural community’s become friends with them. If you will just go to them and let them yell at you, curse at you and tell you how they used to do it in the 60’s you would be surprised what kind of friendships can come from a response like “I apologize for making you feel that way. Can you forgive me… and I promise I will work on that.” Pray for your rural enemies and love them because you will bump into them three times a week at the grocery store
4. Ask permission from the right people… In most rural churches the power brokers are not paid. You (the pastor) are not the power broker. It can take a long time for a rural pastor to be passed the baton of influence that the people in your congregation have given to some of its most trusted and loved members. I have made big mistakes here. I have sought permission to make a change from yes men and not the members of influence and it has caused division. Seek permission first from your church power brokers. Get to know them and learn how to communicate with them. Go have coffee with them, be vulnerable with them, respect them and let them teach you how to communicate to the people that make up your community. This is true rural church polity.
Conclusion… Be prepared in your transition for God to change you. Commit yourself to loving and praying for your congregation and your words will gain weight. Programs can make rural churches think you love them for who you want them to be. Show them with your words and actions that you love them for who they are and you will be blessed!