Ministry in small towns and rural settings requires a special skill set. The congregations tend to be family-sized congregations with a long history but a shrinking impact. At the same time, the role they occupy in the community is more important than ever. Especially throughout the pandemic.
In this article I will zero in on three big skills every small-town pastor needs to know plus the #1 trap you must avoid in order to be effective.
The years I spent ministering in an isolated Wyoming community showed me the necessity of these skills. More than that, their necessity has been confirmed through my work in Creating a Culture of Renewal® in which we serve small town, bi-vocational, and rural pastors (as well as urban and suburban pastors.)
Joys and Challenges of Small-Town Ministry
If you’re reading this article, likely you know that ministry in small towns and rural settings is both a joy and a challenge.
First, the joys: folks are committed to the life of the church; they don’t put on pretenses; and they are resilient.
Next, the challenges. Smaller congregations have needs larger than their church size would indicate. For instance, their communities have changed through economics, immigration, and age demographics. That means they are probably poorer, more diverse, and less able to reach out to young people and young families than they need to be. At the same time, their resilient congregational culture means they don’t easily change. Finally, they often can’t afford full-time ministers, so it’s harder for them to steer the congregation in a new direction. These hard-to-solve challenges can set you, the small-town pastor, up for a trap.
Avoid This Trap
I call this trap the give-more-time trap. This is the number one trap of part time and bi-vocational pastors. It’s based in the belief that if you really cared, or you were really called, that you would do it all: attend every meeting, event, community function and make every pastoral call possible; and that somehow through sheer force of will, you would be able to solve the community’s problems. Even if you’re part time. The other side of the trap is that if you don’t do it all, you are not a “good” pastor.
Both of these are lies.
Don’t fall prey to the give-more-time trap. Buying into it sets you up for over-work, resentment, burn out, and loss of faith. None of these are good outcomes. For you, the congregation, or the community. Forget about being a time-warper. Instead, focus on the following three big skills.
Three Big Skills
- Lead from the Middle
There are three positions from which to lead: in front, from behind, and in the middle. Leading from the front means you are generally moving faster than your people. Leading from behind means you are either more risk-averse than they are, or slower paced than they are. Honestly, it’s hard to get buy-in when you lead from either of these positions; you are too disconnected from them. Instead, try leading from the middle.
To lead from the middle, find their natural pace of decision-making and speed up the pace one notch. It’s like driving 5-7 miles over the speed limit. Leading from the middle also means working collaboratively rather than dominating or lagging behind. A great way to do this is to form a Bible study with your key leaders and decision-makers so you have natural points of additional contact with them throughout the week and month.
- Train and Empower
Because you can’t solve all the community’s problems—especially if you are part time or bi-vocational–you have to figure out the wisest way to use your time. A close study of the life of Jesus shows that even he didn’t try to do it all. Instead, he used the bulk of his time to train and empower others. Remember how he sent out the 12 and the 72 ahead of him? By the time Jesus went to the cross, he had people who could carry on his ministry. Emulate Jesus by training people to preach, teach, pray, exegete the scriptures, and lead meetings. Then empower them to do so while you coach and encourage, disciple and mentor them.
- Be Community-Minded
In small towns and rural settings, the community is the congregation; and the congregation is the community. When you show up at community events you demonstrate your love and leadership in tangible ways. While you don’t have to serve on Rotary, volunteer to be the police chaplain, and attend all the hometown sports, do find ways to be present in the lives of the children and youth. In light of the pandemic, offering mental health and grief support may be the most effective way to serve your community at large. Remember, you may be the professional most equipped in your community to address these concerns.
Embrace the Joys and the Challenges
Every ministry has its own joys and challenges. The same will be true for you. When you embrace the three big skills of small-town pastors, you’ll find more joy than challenge. Have you identified another skill you would recommend? Or not sure what your next step should be? Reach out for a one-on-one consultation and let’s talk.
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