I’m fortunate to pastor in a rural church that has a really great building (and it’s paid off baby!!!) Okay, sorry. I was getting a little excited there. But along with a nice building, there is a really nice sized office with the title “Pastor” hanging on the door. My “office” has a full bathroom too, shower and all. The square footage of that office actually allows for me to fit all of my books too. Seriously, it’s really big. I’ve had a ton of visiting guest speakers walk into it and attempt to call it home. Heck, I have a French press, excellent coffee, and candles. The room is ridiculously nice.
And I’m no longer using it as my office. Here are five reasons why I believe rural pastors need to get out the church office:
(1) Many rural pastors don’t actually have an office. There are probably thousands of churches in rural communities that own or rent buildings that simply come with zero office space. For many rural churches that are over fifty years old, there was simply no reason to construct a church building that was large enough to fit over fifty people, which means that having a full time pastor was probably not going to happen. Hence, no office. Thus, a really good reason for rural pastors to get out of their office is to start by acknowledging that they might not even have a church office (and that includes getting out of the small closet located in the back of the worship auditorium!).
(2) People in rural communities struggle with getting help or counseling from a pastor because they are worried that other people in the church might find out and then tell everyone else. Put simply, your office makes people nervous about gossip. In the small town church, the pastor’s office mine as well say, “Enter all who are really messed up and who want everyone to know.” So few people will make an effort to even enter your office because rather than seeing it as sacred ground, that office is cursed! All who enter will become the subject of the next ladies social where tea, cake, and gossip is served. At least that’s what everyone thinks.
It’s hilarious. You’ll keep office hours, and no one will ever schedule anything. You’ll wonder why. You may even foolishly just think the congregation you serve is really healthy and has no problems. And after you’ve been around for awhile, you’ll notice that you’ll keep your office hours and no one will ever use them and then when you leave the office, people will stop by and talk to you as you are leaving, right there in the parking lot. Why? Because the parking lot says, “safety” and your office says, “death.” People talk in parking lots all the time, especially in a rural community! It’d be a much better office for you, trust me.
For those rural pastors who are required to keep office hours, here’s a little piece of advice. First, spend time building trust with your board so that they will eventually take your advice on whether or not you should be required to spend 40 hours in an empty office. Second, if the board is foolish enough to insist that you spend 40 hours in an empty office twiddling your thumbs (I’m sure you’ll do some studying too), you can slowly change the culture of the church to become a little more open to meeting with you in you office but it’ll take a lot of work.
(3) Many people assume that the church is the building and ministry only happens in that building. Seriously, people’s ecclesiology is often misguided. The church (ekklesia) is the people of God, right? It’s the gathering of those who have been redeemed. And ministry is what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing at all times of their lives, especially when they are outside the walls of the church gatherings. Yes, insert reminder of being missional here.
Here’s what I found out: even if you constantly are telling people that ministry should take place outside the walls of the building, you are unknowingly contradicting those imperatives by constantly having all of the ministry you personally do happen in that building! When you get out of the church office and into the lives of the community, you start demonstrating that ministry happens beyond the church walls. In fact, the divide between the “sacred” and “secular” begins to thin and people start to see how the kingdom of God is a present reality in the day to day operations of life. Why? Because the pastor doesn’t sit in his “sacred” office all week long anymore. He’s out rubbing shoulders with people in the community and being an example of what a missional community understands is important… loving people where they are at and inviting them to know and experience the grace of Jesus and his kingdom!
(4) You can send your kids to childcare or you could include them in your ministry. I know I’m painting with some broad brush strokes here, so let me just explain what I mean.
I have seen a lot of families suffer as a result of ministry. Ministry life has a way of confusing people and causing family priorities to compete with the concept of “serving the Lord.” Therefore, spouses and children suffer because a person in ministry will spend hours upon hours doing… well, stuff that is supposedly all about the kingdom. The apostle Paul wrote that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Yet there are literally thousands upon thousands of families who have suffered at the hand of… “ministry.” I started out down that road, spending nearly 50 to 60 hours a week doing what I was sure was serving God. Thankfully my wife and some close friends were able to help me get out of that destructive rut.
So one of the ways that I’ve sought to avoid hurting my family and to pastor them and to pastor the congregation is to include my kids in ministry stuff. Since you are in a rural community, your wife is probably working a part time job because rural churches rarely have large enough congregations to pay you the big bucks. If you have a college and/or seminary education, you may have some pretty heavy school loans on top of your mortgage/rent and car costs. The extra money helps.
It’s hard to take a couple young kids to a church building and expect them to watch Veggie Tales for 8 hours while you twiddle your thumbs waiting for the mass of people to finally realize that you are waiting for them so you can minister to them. Could you watch Veggie Tales for 8 hours? I certainly couldn’t. Coloring can only distract your kids for so long. And there is no way that your three year old is going to sit in your office with you, staring at your book shelves in wide-eyed awe (trust me on that one).
For these reasons, rather than sending kids to some sort of child care, I actually take my kids with me for many of the visits I’ll do and have them around when I’m meeting with people. Why? Because I believe that my first responsibility of pastoring is towards my family. My kids are under my role as a pastor in a special and unique way. I don’t want them to despise God or the kingdom because they were never a part of the amazing things I get to see or be a part of. Rather, I want them to be included and grow up learning how to participate in these things and to see them as normal, not as some foreign concepts that happened outside of our family.
Having my kids around has helped me slow down and to enjoy ministry more too. Plus (and this is the selfish part of me talking here), those difficult meetings that you sometimes have to have are a lot smoother when a couple cute kids are running around. Most adults who are angry tend to calm down when they see a pair of bright eyes and bushy tales hanging out their dad. The cuss words fly a little slower (most of the time).
Pastor, get out of the church office and include your spouse and kids in your life of ministry!
(5) Your church office has a thick bubble around it and you want to get out of that bubble. One of the most important books I read on my journey of understanding missional theology was Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus but Not the Church. In it, he unpacks the idea that many pastors are often “to consumed with meetings” that they miss out on a lot of good ministry. He writes,
“I looked at my schedule as a pastor in an active church. It seemed I had become so consumed with meetings: meetings to review the weekend worship gathering, meetings to plan the next worship gathering, meetings with our home group leaders, meetings with all of the staff, meetings with leaders of ministry teams, meetings abotu the church budget and goals for the upcoming year. In addition, I’d block off a good chunk of time every week to study for a sermon, usually at home or in the office with my door shut so that I could have it quiet. It dawned on me that all I was doing was meeting with Christians all week long.” (p.38)
Kimball helpfully discusses how church offices can actually become “prisons” and that it’s very easy to get sucked into the “Christian bubble.” Even though his book is now five years old, it’s still very relevant for rural church pastors. Partly because rural church culture is always a little behind the times (hey, it’s true), and partly because I believe his insights will probably always be important for ministry.
Throughout Kimball’s work, he’s almost entirely talking about evangelism. Thus, it makes perfect sense why he’d encourage Christians to get outside the Christian bubble in order to reach people for Christ. However, I think his insights are extremely important for rural church pastors to consider in relation to how they minister to rural church Christians! This is to say that the people we are serving are often more comfortable sitting around a table at the local diner or will open up in ways you never imagined while they are sitting in your living room.
So what should replace your church office? Where should you spend your time meeting with people?
I think there are a number of places that will be far more effective for ministry to take place. There are several questions that I think you should really think through:
- Where will people feel most comfortable to open up?
- Where will people feel safe?
- Where are the people? After all, it’s hard to minister to people if there aren’t people!
- How can you best provide an example to the church that ministry isn’t about a building?
For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that ministry happens a lot easier in my home. In the rural churchMy wife and I have worked hard to create a safe environment in our living room. There’s something about a cup of coffee, a comfortable couch, and the safety of not being in a church office. My second favorite place to meet is a local diner. Sitting around a table while being surrounded by other people from my community is also a great place to hang with people. And there are always coffee shops too.
It’s not that church offices are inherently evil, so please spare me the hate mail. Obviously I still find myself in our building doing a variety of administrative things. Church buildings are not evil (sorry house church folks, you take things too far).
What do you think? What would you add?