If you’ve binge watched too many Hallmark Channel Christmas movies in your lifetime, there’s a very real chance your view of the small, rural American town is one of picturesque landscapes, heart-warming familial experiences, lifelong friendships, and svelte, brawny men with flannel shirts and movie star smiles. Or if you experience middle America only by driving through it and tasting the lunch special at a quaint diner from time or two, it’s easy to have an overly romanticized understanding of these places.
I once had such an image in my mind, both of the small town and its church. I spent the first five years of my life in a tiny mountain town. What I remember is picking berries & shelling peas with my best friend, an elderly neighbor lady I called Mamie, or eating that tough Czech widow’s homemade strudel. We took evening walks to the creek where my brother and I skipped rocks, then fed horses in the pasture on the way home. We collected eggs from the barn (and lobbed them at each other) and got our butts throttled for holding spear throwing practice in Mamie’s cabbage patch. That woman loved her sauerkraut and tolerated no such boyish vegetable massacres.
Attending seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I would read Wendell Berry and reflect on the importance of local places, putting down roots, and having lifelong communal bonds. It’s all so dreamy when you’re reading about pastoral landscapes from an air-conditioned coffee shop in a city that affords you virtually every luxury imaginable. And so, I longed for the headwaters of my Western rural origins.
Some years later, I found myself pastoring in a small town of less than 2,000 souls. A place not unlike my boyhood township. Mostly comprised of miners, oil & gas workers, Forest Service employees, third generation ranchers, or any number of small business owners with a storefront on main street, that minuscule mountain town has something like a dozen churches—a telling indication that more lies beneath the surface of those friendly greetings and passersby waving from their vehicles.
After a few years of pastoring, I realized that there are particular challenges to places like this. Pastoring is hard anywhere, but being a pastor in a small rural place brings special blends of difficulty to overcome: bone-crushing loneliness, fruitless toil in the wastelands of obscurity, and heart-rending betrayals that are magnified in the close confines of small communities.
There are also real blessings and lessons to be gleaned from agrarian ways of life, like the fact that so many of these farmers and ranchers work on the more refreshing pace of seasons, breeding cycles, and hours of daylight, not a factory time clock.
With this article, which might turn into a series, I want to address different facets of life as a small-town pastor and, in large part, to encourage my brothers whose hands are still at the plow in places like those. I’ll be sharing my insights as well as several critical strategies for thriving in sparsely populated local contexts. This article will serve as an introduction of some of those issues. I also think it will be beneficial to any pastor who takes his work seriously since many of the main principles are the same.
Ernest Shackleton, the great Antarctic explorer, once allegedly put out an advertisement when he was seeking a crew that said, “Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return is doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
Pay & Money
Sounds a lot like pastoring in a small-town church. First, you generally don’t get paid very well. Bi-vocational ministry is common and can be a good thing, but financial strain creates real stress for family. Smaller churches have far less people and, as a result, can’t afford much.
You also get judged differently about the money you do spend. In many cases, if you do purchase a used vehicle with 100,000 miles on it, people start wondering why they’re paying you so extravagantly. These are the kinds of towns where diaconal boards—many of which are comprised of well-to-do business owners—live by the Hypocritical Oath: “We’ll keep him poor and God will keep him humble.”
Stagnant vs. Stability
Second, because small towns have less people and jobs to attract new people, they tend to be places with higher rates of stagnation. That’s not always a bad thing, since low levels of people filtering through can mean long-term stability. But it means that if the core group more or less sucks, the prospects of change in a positive direction are very unlikely.
There’s usually a base of “locals,” often comprised of businessmen and landowners who hold a substantial percentage of power, with a relatively transient fringe who works for them. The land and business owners can tend to think they are above the law of church discipline because they make up a good percentage of its funding.
Because there’s not much transience, church demographics tend to remain fairly constant. The locals plus a transient mix of day laborers, neither of which rises or falls very drastically. Again, this can mean stability if those are godly people, but as I often found, it can also result in being stuck with hard hearted folks whose vested interest is in maintaining the status quo.
You’re unlikely to have many visitors and church growth is either glacial, usually when its in the positive direction, or comes in bursts, usually when families are leaving. This is why, when you do have a visitor or new family, small churches struggle to contain their elation. New faces are rare.
Resistance to Change
Third, and accompanying this stagnation, there’s often a settled disposition of resistance to change. It’s one of the key characteristics of almost any small town. “We’ve always done things this way and always will.” This is especially true when the majority population is 55 and older.
In many ways, the town prided itself on never changing. That’s not so problematic when you’re talking about refusing to allow fast food joints or Walmart in your municipality in order to protect the overall atmosphere of the place, but it is a problem when people refuse to be sanctified by the truth of God’s word or respond to discipline. Sanctification is, at heart, about change.
Fourth, pastors don’t get to see much short-term fruit.
Low pay and small prospects for growth—both numerically and in the mature life of the body—means the fruit of your labors are often invisible, under the surface, or years from materializing. You have to get comfortable shepherding the stones, toiling away in a desert wilderness, and trying not to get discouraged about the whole thing. And many times, after years of pastoral care, folks will walk away while inflicting serious relational damage. It can be excruciatingly heartbreaking work.
You’ll preach your heart out and, following the service, a deacon’s wife will remind you that you went two minutes over the time she has deemed is acceptable. You’ll work to put together a men’s night and two people will show up, you being one of them.
Brawling women in the church, and men who seek to emulate them, will engage in turf warfare, passive aggressiveness, gossip, and inserting themselves into business which is most clearly not their own. And it will all be so much nastier because they’re from here, think they own the place, and will have you banished if you step out of line. Church ladies with grand aspirations of being mafiosos.
Alone in the Desert
Fifth, there’s real loneliness.
You will experience all of this with few to no local friends. Yes, some people will treat you with incredible kindness, but as Spurgeon once said, the higher in rank you rise, the fewer companions you will have. This is true of the pastoral office and magnified in sparsely populated areas. Few people, if any, will share your theological interests, passions for cultural transformation, or love for studying the Scriptures. You will feel like Frodo as you bear the weight of the ministry alone, just as he did the ring.
Churches in these towns also tend to have strained relationships with the pastorate in general, often for good reason. First of all, the types of people generally attracted to small churches that promise little pay or opportunity for career advancement are either young pastors who need to get experience, men whose competency levels are subpar, men who are lazy, or a combination of each. Good pastors are out there, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Likewise, if a young man does prove his salt, the minute his skills come into prime form—somewhere between years 2 to 5—he’s applying to serve anywhere else. Because so many churches deal with either inexperienced or incompetent candidates on a regular basis, they can tend to develop adversarial attitudes toward the pulpit. This sours the church, deters qualified men, and perpetuates a cycle of dysfunctional churches.
All that to say, pastoring in a small town can be wrought with landmines, for both churches and pastors. It’s a tough environment. By the way, the man I’ve seen best suited to this type of small town work is often the man who’s from that place, has roots there, and doesn’t despise it.
A Degree from the School of Hard Knocks
Pastoral work in a small town is hard, often excruciating work. Instead of pretending all the impact was positive, I’m going to do us all a favor and let you in on a little secret: I still struggle with bitterness about that time in my life. It’s been two years and I’m still repenting and forgiving people who don’t want to be forgiven. While I do regard small town pastoral ministry as probably the best training I’ve received, it’s also left its scars. Skipping over any pain it has caused me and my family would be dishonest.
That said, I learned at least a couple metric tons of wisdom.
First, delaying discipline changes nothing.
People constantly told me to “play the long game with people,” by which they meant, don’t address glaringly obvious sins right away. Win people. Invest in them. Earn their trust. Then, one day, you’ll be in prime position to confront their sins.
“If you confront him now,” other elders would tell me, “he’ll just blow up and leave.”
What I found was that this simply doesn’t work. Stage 3 or 4 cancer doesn’t get better with time. Cut it out now. If things don’t work out and they fire you, you probably saved yourself several more years of prolonged misery. I learned a good lesson from an older, wiser pastor: “Preach and shepherd relentlessly. And always keep a fresh copy of your resume in your desk drawer.” The point is, you can’t pastor in fear—of people leaving or you losing your job. Fear God, not men.
Second, church discipline is bloody warfare.
Church discipline gets bloody and messy and is essentially street fighter-style mortal combat—I don’t care what they tell you in your seminary classes. I once had an elder belligerently yell at me for an hour straight after I confronted his sin. His wife had come to me for help, the husband turned on her for seeking my help, then she turned on me, too.
They also turned their children, who were my friends and lived in different parts of the country, against me. Nasty text messages, Facebook unfriending and all. It was an old school shunning. Relational carnage.
When I asked why they did it, the wife said, with a smirk on her face, “I guess if you mess with one of us, you mess with the whole family.” Welcome to the mafia. This is what discipline is like. And in a small town, you can’t go to the grocery or post office without bumping into these people. They show up in your office and they write nasty letters. They come to worship just to make snide “prayer requests.” Let’s just say it gets real awkward.
Third, networking is everything.
I think I would have died if I hadn’t built relationships with other pastors in other places. Small town ministry is incredibly lonely and isolating, and the best thing you can do is form friendships with other pastors by using online tools like social media. Go to conferences, get to know other men in other towns, pray for each other, and communicate regularly.
It’s also why I’ve come to love the ministry of Jared Sparks, who is essentially a pastor pastoring other pastors. If you haven’t, be sure to check out the Shepherd’s Crook. Not only does Jared produce a really encouraging podcast dealing with pastoral issues, he’s also available for counseling and hosts a pastor’s cohort for mutual encouragement and training.
Fourth, one true friend is better than 10,000 followers.
We live in a world that values massive followings. Celebrity apologists. Pastors with major book deals at well-known publishers. Seminary presidents. Heads of denominations. After all, if 100 million people follow you on Twitter, you must be an important person, right? Fortunately, Kim Kardashian’s social media pages have proven that this is a lie.
The truth is that small town ministry makes you reevaluate where you place worth—not in quantity, but in quality. Not in crowds, but in impact. And when you do meaningful work that goes largely unnoticed, it really forces you to ask why you do it in the first place. Because you really love it and find it meaningful, or because it gets you men’s praise?
Investing in one person’s life and making a meaningful difference has to mean more to you than getting famous. You most likely aren’t going to have tons of friends, church members, or godly people to interface with. This makes you value the ones you do have and cherish them all the more.
Fifth, you serve an audience of one.
I remember certain weeks preaching to ten people. Seriously. That’s all that showed up. And in that sermon, one elder fell asleep, another rubbed his head in apparent agony, while the man in the front row stared out the window for 45 straight minutes. I had prepared, preached my heart out, and then showed up to a mostly empty church. After the sermon, a woman informed me that she didn’t like one of the songs we’d sung and the sermon was too long.
Here’s my point: every Sunday that happened, I’d have to tell myself, “You preach for an audience of one.” It forces you to face, week in and week out, why you’re really in the pulpit. Would you preach the truth if no one listened? What’s your real motivation?
Sixth, learn the art of slow plodding.
Since I’ve written about this before, I won’t belabor the point. But preaching in a small town made me learn Psalm 126 by heart: “They that sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
There are going to be many days in which you will need to preach, teach, and counsel—to your own soul first and foremost—when you’re crushed, broken, bleeding, and have tears in your eyes. Keep sowing. Plant a fruit tree and wait ten years. Keep plodding.
Seventh, the Word is your life preserver.
What I found was that the greatest protection against despair and utter discouragement was being in the Word, studying and preaching, on a weekly basis. Every week I would feel like I simply couldn’t do it again. And then I’d delve into the next passage only to find that it was exactly what I needed. Miraculously, every week, there was more manna and more strength to press on.
Eighth, your wife is everything.
If your wife isn’t one of the most resiliently joyful, amazingly insightful, enduring fortresses of a woman who will ride into every single battle with you without getting bitter, get out. I’m serious. If there’s any sense in which she resents you, doesn’t want to be there, or isn’t cut out for some of the vilest treatment known to man, it’d be better to do something else, somewhere else. She’ll have her days when she wants to drink from the skulls of her enemies, no doubt. But she’s got to rebound and get back in the game quickly.
When I was in ministry, I told my wife everything. She knew every situation as well as I did. Every detail. She’s like a mother of Sparta; I trust her more than 100 wise men. She knew all the consequences of boldly confronting sin. And she still demanded that I do it. That’s what a Spartan woman is for.
And there was a lot of human garbage to go around in that situation. She took it like a champ. Again, unless your wife has the resolve of Samwise Gamgee and can virtually carry you up the mountain of doom when necessary, I would rethink a small-town ministry. If you have this kind of woman, let her know it every day.
Ninth, betrayals will rip your heart out.
When you pour into someone for years, walk with them through marital struggles, the backsliding of a child, sexual sins galore, and more, and then they maliciously walk away from the church leaving a wake of emotional trauma, it can be devastating. False accusations, gossip, slander, you name it, it will happen. And you feel it more in a small town church because everything is magnified in close proximity. It’s up close and personal.
First, this is an opportunity to practice the kind of radical forgiveness the gospel displays in 4K clarity. Second, it’s really hard to make progress in forgiveness until you’ve got some time and distance. It takes time. That’s OK. Keep entrusting this other person or people to God and pray that you wouldn’t become bitter. Get some distance.
Third, guard your wife against bitterness. Pray with and for her daily. Listen to sermons together. Read together. And exhort her, man. Many times, for whatever reason, the most helpful thing I ever said to my wife was, “Love, you cannot be embittered. It will destroy you.”
Last, and most important, remember our Lord, who was betrayed himself. He knows all about it. Cast your cares on him, for He loves you.