Stan Friedman is news editor for the Department of Communications.
Moving from Chicago to a rural community in California’s central valley can be a journey in cross-cultural experiences. In the city when acquaintances are introduced, they tend to limit their exchange to names and perhaps occupations. In the valley, the introduction nearly always includes a genealogy and geography lesson.
“Paul is the cousin of the Olsons whom you met last week and his sister is Sharon, who is married to Ted. Paul lives about a quarter mile south of the Alving place—well, it was the Alving place before they moved into town back in the fifties, and now the Petersons own it.” Introductions come with connections—to relatives, friends, the land, and to history—recognizing how strongly we are linked to each other.
Often seminary graduates cut their ministry teeth in small communities, says Brian Johnson, associate superintendent of the Midwest Conference. He laments that pastoring in rural churches is viewed as second-tier ministry, that it is where first-time ministers start off before they move on to “bigger and better things,” or for ministers who weren’t skilled enough to climb the ladder and “get out.”
Rural congregations can develop their own inferiority complex, says Mark Chapman, pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in LaBolt, South Dakota. “Rural shame is a concept that says we love it here, but why would anyone else ever want to come and live here?”
But Chapman and other pastors are adamant that despite the unique challenges, rural congregations are wonderful places of ministry.
Kelly Johnston, pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church in Wakefield, Nebraska, spoke a brief “word of witness” at the Midwinter Conference in February about her initial hesitancy at serving in Wakefield, a town of only 1,400 people, and of the hesitancy the congregation had in calling her as their interim pastor. They were concerned because they had never had a female pastor, and they feared that Johnston, who had grown up mostly in suburban settings, would be unable to adapt to their culture.
Johnston recognized that people in metro areas may have negative views of life in rural communities. She told the Midwinter gathering that just prior to moving from Chicago to Wakefield, she had told a friend of her plans. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the friend replied.
Johnston quickly realized, however, that “I was discovering how great small-town ministry can be, not because it’s easy, but because of its challenges. Because sin and brokenness are just as ugly in small places as they are in large places, and people need to know the transforming love and justice in rural areas just as much as they do in urban and suburban areas.”
Pastoring in rural communities does present unique challenges. Money is scarcer in the rural church, where average attendance is less than seventy-five. Pastors are often bi-vocational, supplementing their income by substitute teaching or helping with harvests. They worry about their pensions, which are based on their salaries.
Connecting with other Covenant colleagues can be a challenge for rural pastors. Unlike larger congregations, a small-church budget cannot always support the cost of attending conferences. One pastor said her round-trip ticket to the recent Midwinter Conference cost more than $700. She knew that had been a big sacrifice for her congregation of less than seventy people. Other pastors have to drive five hours to an airport or 125 miles to their district meeting.
If the distance from colleagues presents challenges, so also does being in continual close contact with the people in a minister’s community. Small-town life can be a fishbowl—which has pluses and minuses. One church member might complain if the parsonage yard isn’t well-maintained, but others may love coming over to help care for the lawn and garden.
Change can take so long that it stretches the patience of ministers who are used to serving in faster-paced environments. Soon after Steve Hoden started serving at Salem Covenant Church in Oakland, Nebraska, he encouraged the congregation to adopt a written annual budget. He had been taught in seminary and told by colleagues that such documents were important.
A decade later, the church, which was formed in 1877, still doesn’t have a written budget. “I realized after a couple of years that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says, laughing. “Why should they change? They were doing all right.”
Chapman contends that rural churches are not opposed to change, but are more likely to do so only when the need arises organically. He points to the church’s decision to install a ramp when a member needed the church to be more physically accessible.
The LaBolt congregation has been growing into a more regional church and is attracting new people. The church is in the process of constructing a new building. It was something that Chapman hadn’t planned on doing. “I didn’t come here to build a church; I came here to serve a congregation.”
Even if town and country pastors are eventually called to minister in larger settings, the rural church is a great place to learn important skills. A lot of them are solo ministers and must be generalists adept at numerous skills that aren’t necessarily required of staff pastors at larger congregations. To one extent or another, they often are the chaplain, preacher, teacher, counselor, evangelist, youth minister, Sunday-school teacher, and even janitor at times.
Pastors in rural areas also wind up being chaplains to the entire community, notes Richard Moore, pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church in Sloan, Iowa. “You walk with the all of the town members through everything,” he says.
Chapman notes that he was invited to give a prayer and talk last Veteran’s Day and no one objected to him reading Scripture. “I’ve developed personal relationships with the hospital staff, funeral directors, and principals. I played racquetball with the police chief,” he explains.
Those connections are part of what rural pastors appreciate most, and the intimacy that can leave them sometimes feeling like they live in a fishbowl also provides opportunity for relationships and evangelism that might not be possible elsewhere. “I’ve been in the home of every church member,” Chapman says.
Timothy Bhajjan, who has served Evangelical Covenant Church in Crookston, Minnesota, for two years, says he appreciates “that people in rural communities are authentic.” You can’t fake behavior over a long period of time, he says.
Russell Sizemore, who has served rural congregations for more than thirty years and is currently pastor of Brantford Evangelical Covenant Church in Clyde, Kansas, says he appreciates that rural ministry focuses on people rather than programs. Much of the ministry happens inter-generationally. Children, youth, and adults often serve alongside one another.
Pastors say they also value other opportunities not available to their colleagues in metro areas, though Sizemore says at least one of those advantages was initially disconcerting. “For a while, we couldn’t sleep at night because it was so quiet.”
It didn’t take long for Johnston to decide she wanted to stay as the church’s full-time pastor, and the congregation quickly had come to the same conclusion. Both had left open the possibility when she agreed to serve as the interim. She was voted into the position last fall.
Every Sunday now, she stands before the congregation and tells them that serving as their pastor is a privilege.
To see a video of Mark Chapman talking about ministering in rural area, click here.