In 1835, realizing the strategic place the west would play in the future growth and vitality of the country, Lyman Beecher wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Plea for the West.” In this pamphlet, he called upon the church to recognize and support the need for education, training, and equipping individuals to go as pastors to bring the gospel to the frontiers. But for the evangelization of the west to occur, it would need young men who were willing and desiring to “go to the West with unostentatious benevolence, who identify themselves with the people and interest of that vast community.” But this training would have to come in the west itself, where people could learn and adapt to the Western culture. This was reaffirmed by Warren Wilson, who formed the Town and Country Church to provide training for rural pastors and serve as a clearinghouse for joint action on problems related to the rural Church (Sanderson, Rural sociology and Rural Social Organization, p 717). Thus, the call went forth for seminaries to provide unique training for rural ministry so that rural pastors would have the theological training necessary and an adequate understanding of the problems and culture of rural life.
Today, rural America is likewise facing a crisis of pastoral leadership. With the allure of urban ministries, rural churches have been overlooked and are increasingly finding it difficult to attract and retain pastors. In her research published in Assessing the Clergy Supply in the 21st Century, Patricia Chang concludes that the church, as a whole, does not face a shortage of pastors, but a lack of pastors willing to serve small congregations, especially isolated rural communities. To fulfill the great commission to rural America, there needs to be a new army of pastors willing to reach America’s forgotten places. However, this call mustn’t be just another trend. It needs to be sustainable by focusing on the right kind of individuals who will be effective in rural ministry.
Rural areas need pastors who are present.
In recent years the frustration of rural people has boiled over. When rural people voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump, much was written regarding the anger and frustration behind the vote and the increasing divide between urban and rural communities. In his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Robert Wuthnow conducts extensive research into the reasons why rural American expressed such a mixture of fear and anger behind their moral outrage. Tired of being looked down upon by urban pundits and frustrated with a government that constantly intrudes in their lives without understanding the problems they faced, they gave voice to their anger through their vote. Because of Washington’s failure to understand them, rural people have become suspicious of outsiders who come purporting to have the answers to their problems. They see outsiders as a threat to their culture and way of life. People outside the community are not connected to the people and do not understand the challenges and struggles. Thus, Wuthnow writes:
“I’ve called rural people’s anger towards Washington’ moral outrage’ because they view the federal governments’ basic mode of action in recent years as an affront to their way of life. The contrasts could not be clearer, and they do not focus only on a single issue or policy. Rural communities are close, personal; Washington is distant, impersonal. People in rural places care about one another and share common understandings; people in Washington don’t care and don’t understand the common person; rural people know when to help and when to leave people alone; Washington intrudes unhelpfully in people’s lives; rural communities are practical and use common sense; Washington’s ideas are impractical and define common sense. “(Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018, p 111).
People distrust Washington because they see Washington as distant, unconnected, and unconcerned with the daily problems and struggles people in rural communities face.
The same is true within the church. In an age of multi-site churches, when sermons are broadcast on a screen from miles away, we have lost the importance of personal presence. But presence is more than being available on a Sunday or being connected organizationally in a local congregation. Presence is being with people to understand their struggles and identify with their lives and the culture they embrace. Once I asked my brothers (who are farmers in Northern Idaho) about the church’s new pastor and how they liked him. They responded by stating, “He preaches good sermons, but he doesn’t come out and ride the tractor with us.” What was their frustration? It was not that the pastor was failing to take a few trips around the field; it was that the pastor was still distant, unconnected with their world. Peter writes in 1 Petr 5:2, “Shepherd the flock of God among you.” The word “among” is critical. The preposition “en” is the preposition of location. It points to the shepherd being present with the people and living among them. To impact people and minister them, we need pastors engaged with the people. Effective leadership culminates in our prophetic message from a pulpit, but that is not the starting point. Leadership starts in the week, and we interact with the people we serve, listening to their struggles, understanding their world, identifying with them.
Rural areas need pastors who are adaptive.
In seminary, we are taught the art and practice of pastoral ministry. We take courses on leadership and management, program development, and structural analysis. We are taught (often from an urban perspective) how to run the church organizationally. We are taught evangelism techniques that have proven to achieve effective results. However, when we enter the ministry, we find ourselves floundering because the principles are not working. So we attempt to change and direct the church to conform to what we have learned from other successful leaders. However, the result is only more frustration. This is not to say that we cannot learn from others and their experiences. The problem is that we become restricted by them. In many ways, the first step for effective ministry is unlearning what we learned in seminary regarding church leadership and ministry. While the principles we learn in Scripture are absolute, we need to be careful about reading into Scripture what we have learned from secular leadership.
When we come to the rural ministry, we need to learn that there is no one-size-fits-all. Instead, we need to recognize that each church and community is unique in culture and structure. The question we must ask is not “What worked elsewhere?” Instead, we must ask, “What will work here?” To answer that question, we need to learn and listen to the people we serve. We must understand how they work together and operate as a church and a community. The problem with a one-size-fits-all approach is that it fails to recognize the uniqueness of each person and congregation. To be effective, we need to adapt to the local setting. It may not be efficient, but often it is effective within the specific setting. We need to read their book, not written on pages of paper but revealed in stories and memories conveyed over a cup of coffee. This takes time and effort. But in the end, we it is much more effective.
Rural areas need pastors who are dedicated.
Tragically, the rural and small church was seen as a steppingstone for ministry. It was the bottom rung upon which a person would start to climb the ecclesiastical ladder of success (which is seen as a large urban church). It was a place to gain experience when one is first starting ministry (or a place to ride off into the sunset at the end of one’s career) to gain some experience before moving on to a higher profile ministry. As a result, rural churches learned not to trust the pastoral office. Pastors would come in with a big splash only to move on at the first opportunity.
Consequently, they felt used rather than loved. While they looked to the pastor for biblical instruction, they did not see him as the true shepherd and caretaker of the church. He was the “hired gun” and ecclesiastical mercenary. For leadership they looked to the local individual who provided continuity and leadership through the church. The local individual, rather than the pastor, became the tribal chief and powerbroker of the church. As a result, when decisions are made, people look to the local leader rather than the pastor for guidance and direction. However, these individuals are often viewed as a threat rather than an asset to the local pastor. Pastors failed to recognize that leadership is not a position but a privilege that is earned. After seven years of serving in the church, it was only after I bought property to build a house that people began to trust in my leadership. After we purchased the property, one long-time member mentioned, “Well, I guess you are going to stay.” It was only then that trust began.
Rural churches need pastors dedicated to the ministry of the church. They do not see the rural church as a steppingstone but as a place to live and connect with people. They do not have a roving eye looking for a more alluring mistress (i.e., a church with more recognition, more salary, more opportunities). Dedicated pastors are committed to the long haul, recognizing that trust can only be earned with time, commitment, and personal sacrifice. This takes years and sometimes even decades. But we are not called to success but to be a shepherd of God’s flock. The value and significance of our ministry are not measured by the number of people we serve but by the appointment to the ministry itself. God values each person and every church. This value is seen in His placement of shepherds to oversee the flock. To view the size of the church as the indicator of success and significance is to distort the nature of the gospel and the value that God has for every person. A church of five is no lessor of value in the eyes of God than a church of 5000, for God does not look at numbers; He looks at individuals. If Christ valued each person enough to die for them, we should value them enough to be a faithful shepherd to them. If we are not committed to serving the church for the long term, we are not worthy to serve them in the short term.
Rural areas need pastors who love them.
Tied with being dedicated to the ministry is the importance of loving the people in the church. As we see through the pages of scripture, love is not measured by what we give but by what we are willing to sacrifice. It is one thing to give our time and energy to minister to people; it is quite another to be ready to sacrifice our careers, dreams, goals, and financial security to serve and minister to people. Here again, we must look to Christ as our standard. In John 10:11, Christ sets the bar when He states that as the Good shepherd, He lays down His life for the sheep.” It is easy to see our role as a career rather than a calling and the church as an organization rather than a group of people we are responsible for nurturing. However, when we glance at the life and writings of Paul, we see a different perspective. Throughout his writings, Paul expressed a deep love for the people he served. Even towards the church at Corinth, which caused Paul considerable pain, Paul expressed his deep love for them (2 Corinthians 2:4). Although he was deeply grieved because of their sin, his love for them prevented him from turning his back upon them. While most people would have washed their hands of such a dysfunctional church, Paul devoted himself even more to their service and growth. When writing to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes that he had a love and devotion for them compared to a mother’s love for a child (1 Thess. 2:7-8). Because of this, he not only preached the gospel to them but gave of his life as well. He daily felt the pressure of his concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28). He devoted himself to pray for them (Eph. 1:15-16, 3:14; Col. 1:3). Paul’s whole ministry was not driven by a desire for success but rather a willingness to sacrifice himself for the growth and wellbeing of the church. This kind of love and commitment, every church, whether small or large, rural or urban, deserves from those who serve as a shepherd. The congregation may not agree with the direction we desire to take the church, but they should never question our love for them. This is communicated in our words and actions throughout our whole life and ministry.
Rural areas need pastors who understand the rural culture.
Concerning the view of government in rural communities, Wuthnow writes, “Rural communities’ views of Washington usually emerge in two competing narratives: one the one hand, the government ignores us and doesn’t do anything to help with our problems, and, on the other hand, the government constantly intrudes in our lives without understanding us and thus makes our problems worship.” (p. 9). He goes on to state, “It’s also that in order to fix problems, you have to know the local situation (the moral order). You have to deal with people by knowing their needs and their situation, not imposing one-size-fits-all agenda, which they figure reflects the government’s urban interests more than theirs.” (p. 9).
What is said of the rural attitude of the government could equally be said of the rural church’s attitude of denominations, seminaries, and, tragically, even of pastors who come to serve the church. The failure to understand the rural culture and the attempt to promote our vision for the church can cause congregations harm rather than effective ministry. When we try to impose our agenda rather than first listen and understand their needs, situation, and perspective, we will undermine our ministry, discourage the people, and damage the church.
The first step in effective rural ministry is not developing a vision but listening to the people and understanding their culture. This begins by recognizing that rural people are not enamored with grand ideas for, in their world, sustainability more than growth is the measure of health. This is often where denominational leaders fail. They try to place urban standards and measurements on rural churches where success and growth are measured by numbers and programs. This often conflicts with the rural perspective, where success is measured by relationships and influence is determined by family connections. But not only must we learn the culture and structures of the church, but we must also become a student of the community. We need to learn the rituals, symbols, and stories and the norms and values that infiltrate and undergird community activities and experiences (Wuthnow, p. 28). As pastors, we need to understand that “moral communities consist of a geographic space, a population that considers itself to be part of this community, extensive social interaction within this population, an institutional structure comprised of formal and informal leadership, a sense of boundedness that separates insiders from outsiders, stories and rituals that affirm the nature of this boundedness, and everyday practices that verbally and behaviorally reinforce common norms about persons’ obligations to themselves, their neighbors, and the community” (Wuthnow, p. 43). This does not happen overnight and often takes years to develop.
Rural areas need pastors who understand rural problems.
In every benchmark, rural America is facing a crisis. In an age of urbanization, rural people struggle to maintain their identity, culture, and livelihood. But the problems go far beyond the urban-Rural divide. Rural communities are facing struggles that undermine the very foundation of the community. People often have nostalgic, romantic views of rural America as a place where life is slow, people are friendly, and people hold fast to traditional values. While this is partially true, it also conceals the struggles and problems that plague rural areas. Rural America has rightfully been called “the new ghetto.” Plagued by chronic unemployment and poverty, the onslaught of drug addiction, the deterioration of the necessary infrastructures (roads, health care, schools, etc.), and the continued exodus of young people, rural communities are a white picket fence that is decaying, and propped up by shaky supports. Unfortunately, these realities are often overlooked by politicians and denominational leaders.
The rural communities not only need pastors who are theologically trained, but they also need leaders who are equipped to engage the community in addressing these new realities. Because rural communities are often isolated from the resources to address the crisis facing rural communities (especially the opioid crisis), they turn to the pastor for help. But often we are not trained in dealing with these life issues. Denominations and educational institutions need to help prepare pastors for rural ministry and equip them to deal with these challenges. To offer the hope of the Gospel, we also need to provide hope for the individual struggling with the hidden battle of opioid addiction. We need to understand the challenges and struggles of poverty and become advocates for them in accessing state and national resources to help them rise above the chronic poverty that entraps them.
Rural areas need pastors who are involved.
In ministry, it is easy to become isolated in our office and become disengaged from the community at large. However, respect in the community is not granted but earned through community involvement and volunteerism. As a pastor, we need to become involved within the community so that they see us as a part of the community. While each pastor will find their niche within the activities and life of the community, we need to look for those opportunities. It may be volunteering as a coach for the local sports clubs. It may involve becoming part of a community drug prevention program. It may mean becoming a member of the local fire department or serving as a chaplain for the local police department. Within the rural communities, there is no end to the possible opportunities. What is essential is not so much where we become involved, but that we become involved. People need to know us and see us to have an influence.
Rural areas need pastors who have a sense of mission.
Throughout the pages of scripture, we see woven the mission of God of bringing His Kingdom reality present within the world. While the Kingdom of God has a future aspect (fully and physically realized at the return of Christ), there is a present spiritual reality as well. This comes when people surrender to God’s sovereign rule within their life. This is our great commission. To take the Gospel message of God’s Kingdom and proclaim it to the world. Pastors who see the rural church only as a steppingstone to bigger and better things, pastors who see the rural church only as a temporary stop on their career journey, will never see the mission of God in the rural context. The church’s mission is not just for urban people and large congregations. It is a mission that encompasses the totality of the world. It embraces all people in all locations, from the high-rise buildings in the central city to the small unincorporated communities at the end of a gravel road. Rural communities need pastors who see God’s universal mission being directed to the small community they serve. We will take the Gospel to the entire world, not just to the masses and populated urban centers. The call to serve a rural church must be seen as just that—a divine calling to bring God’s Kingdom to the nooks and crannies of the forgotten places. Ministry is never about a career, success, and status. It is a calling to obscurity so that Christ may be elevated in people’s lives. If we do not see rural communities as essential in God’s redemptive mission, then the recent fad of renewed interest in rural ministry will remain just that—a fad that quickly and quietly fades back into the forgotten pages of denominational lists. To sustain the new focus on rural ministry, we must see it as a calling and essential mission of the church.
Glenn Daman is the author of five books on rural ministry: Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, Developing Leaders in the Small Church, When Shepherds Weep and the Forgotten Church.