In previous posts, I have talked about the difficulties in being a small church pastor particularly in town and country settings. Just because there are difficulties, does not mean that I don't value this kind of ministry. In fact, I value it greatly and want to see town and country churches thrive and grow. I also want to see town and country pastors and their ministry taken seriously. I don't think this kind of ministry is for everyone. But it is for me. So, let me tell you why I think this is a great setting in which to do ministry.
1. In a small town, I can (in the spirit of John Wesley) consider the town my parish. I can be involved in the community and have a positive effect on the whole community. In a town our size (~1900), our 190 membership is 10% of the town! More realistically, our average attendance is about 6% of the town. In order to get that kind of percentage in a larger town of, say 100,000, a church would have to average 6000 in attendance. We can have a “mega-influence” without being a “mega-church.” When I go to football games, band concerts, park days, etc. my presence has a real impact.
The downside of this involvement is that it is hard to be anonymous. Any pastor who is uncomfortable living in a “fishbowl” should probably stay away from small town ministry. The gossips can get after you and it is difficult to avoid people who just don’t like you.
Overall, however, being a part of the community is a small town is a joy. I love going to the grocery store or the gas station or the pharmacy and actually knowing the people there. I love the sense of being a part of the whole community and not just a little snippet of it. I love being able to have lunch for the whole graduating class in one location. The connections and relationships that one is able to form in a small town are truly wonderful.
I would encourage small town pastors to take their towns as their parish. You may not be preaching to thousands, but if your church is the community center where kids come for their end-of-semester programs and graduating seniors come for senior lunch and everybody comes to vote, then when those unchurched folk need a pastor, they will think of you and your church as the community church.
Along the same lines, I would encourage small town pastors to get to know the local funeral director and volunteer to do funerals for people who were not church members. This is a ministry that touches the unchurched in a deep way. You will plant seeds that you will not see grow, but the kingdom will be enlarged.
2. As the pastor of a small church in a small town, I get to use a lot of different gifts for ministry. A small town/small church pastor has to be a generalist; we don’t have large staffs and most of the people who we work with are either volunteers or part-time staff. We have to write our sermons while dealing with hail-damaged roofs, broken toilets and attempted suicides. We might be visiting hospitals one day and leading a bible study the next. We don’t have an office manager, so when we go into the “big city” we pick up copy paper and ballpoint pens. We need to be good at worship, teaching, counseling, administration, evangelism, social outreach, youth and children’s ministry and if we can coach Little League or lead a Cub Scout Den then we do that as well. Some of us get on the town council or the school board. Many of us are members of Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions Club and provide leadership for those organizations. I have listened to pastors that don’t fit into small town ministry tell me that they are bored, or don’t have enough to do. I can’t imagine! In a small town, at a small church there is always something to do or people to talk to. There are always needs that aren’t being met because people do not have access to extensive social services. Ministry in a small town can be frustrating, but it is never boring!
3. Small churches are places where young people – children and youth – are not the “church of tomorrow” but the church of today. We provide real opportunities for involvement and ministry for young people, not because we are trying to be nice to them, but because we really need them. We can’t have VBS without youth helpers, we wouldn’t have a Praise Band if it weren’t composed of youth, our youth are generally our audio-visual people, and our youth contribute substantially to our committees. Even in churches where “we’ve never done it that way” is a mantra, youth or children can get away with making changes that the pastor or other adults could never make. Many small congregations are simply so happy to see the young people in church, that they let them get away with innovations that would otherwise not fly. Smart small church pastors know that inviting youth to be a significant part of any new activity can make the difference between older people griping or celebrating.
Of course, this only works if you actually have young people in your congregation.
4. Some small congregations have had a succession of student pastors or pastors straight out of seminary, so they are much more open than you might think to creative and innovative worship. This openness to creativity has its limits and permanent changes can be extremely difficult, but I have found that I can try a lot of things once. The ability to try new things occasionally helps to keep me from getting stale in my worship planning and preaching.
Most of the challenges in small town/small church ministry come from lack of resources, both people resources and financial resources. On the other hand, lack of obvious resources can provide a great incentive to helping people discover their gifts for ministry. And there is a deep sense of satisfaction in watching talents, gifts and leadership develop in people that would be passed over in a mega-church setting. What is needed from the pastor is a good deal of patience and investment in the lives of people – difficult if the conference is moving you every 3-4 years.
When a small town church is healthy and the pastor has a long enough tenure, small churches are excellent incubators of disciples. In a best-case scenario, a small church setting can be less threatening and more warmly supportive of people growing in their faith and discipleship than a large church. This is what we need to work for. We don’t have to work at doing ministry with the poor and marginalized because poor and rich, well-educated and uneducated, the town sheriff and the town drunk all worship together. In a small church, if we are doing it right, we can accept people as they are and love them into being who God created them to be.
Small town/small church settings have the potential for extraordinarily fulfilling and fruitful, hands-on ministry. Instead of looking to close small churches, we need to help them see their possibilities. Instead of telling pastors that they need to “do their time” or “pay their dues” in small churches and then will be moved “up” to a “better” appointment, we need to train and mentor pastors who see small town/small church ministry as a calling and a challenge. We need to make sure that small town/small church pastors have solid grounding in theology and preaching; every pastor should prepare and preach as if she were going to preach to 1500 instead of 50. Because small town/small church pastors are more likely to engage the community than pastors at large churches, they need to have excellent skills in evangelism and apologetics, ready to give an account of their faith at any time. And small town/small church pastors must be willing to live lives that embody the gospel and are above reproach.
It's a tall order. Small town/small church ministry is not place to stick incompetent pastors or pastors who are looking for an easy gig for the last few years before retirement, but a place to send those who are well-trained, well-formed in the faith and deeply committed to a highly relational long-term ministry.