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At the beginning of any ministry, the countless tasks are all so new, and sometimes all so confusing. How do you sort the necessary from the merely urgent? And especially entering a small, rural church, where should you focus your efforts? A young man recently posed these questions to David Hansen, who pastors two rural churches in Montana. LEADERSHIP received a copy of David's response, and we felt it offered insight even for experienced pastors.
We are rejoicing with you about your impending call. You asked if I'd put on paper some of my thoughts about starting a new ministry in a small church. I've been at my present call almost seven years. Since I have two very different churches, my experiences have been experienced twice. But I am young at this pastoral thing, so I present these ideas with some reticence. Nevertheless, here they are.
1. Spend the first year learning what the church does well. After all, it has survived; there must be a reason. Find that reason. Learning is an attitude as much as anything. Are you going there as their savior? Or are you going there to find out what the Spirit has been up to?
Small churches have gifts like individual Christians do. You will find they have a "corporate personality." The Holy Spirit uses this personality; that is the church's gift. Build on the personality.
Many pastors come to small churches and never look for or find their church's gift. Instead, they spend their few years there (they can't last long) doing everything to subvert it, trying to make the church into something it is not. They spend their time "whipping" the people for what they aren't. Such pastors are only whipping themselves. Instead, discover your church's gift-what it does well-and build on it.
Besides, the people will whip themselves. They will come and say:
"O pastor, we really need a better Sunday school."
"O pastor, we really need a better youth group."
"O pastor, we really need a bus ministry."
And on and on. Ignore them, or, at the most, say, "Great! Will you start it?"
Over the years here, we have lost some people in both churches because we don't have the right program. But let them go; the Spirit has to create the programs.
I have one great advantage in serving two small churches: I get to see how little I have to do with a church's development. I've been here almost seven years, and things have gone well. Both churches have grown very slowly, but surely. Yet they are different. If you looked at the Florence church, which has a great Sunday school program, you'd say, "Boy, that Dave Hansen really knows how to organize a Sunday school!" If you looked at the Victor church, which has no Sunday school except a little adult Bible study, you'd say, "Boy, that Dave Hansen sure can't organize a Sunday school!" Have I done anything different in each church? No. They are just different churches.
But do you know what? The kids in the Victor church, without Sunday school and without a youth group, are doing as well or better with the Lord as the kids in the Florence church with all of its programs. The Spirit has a different plan for each church. In the Victor church the key word is "family." The whole church, made up of all kinds of crazy people, is one big family. The kids have aunts and uncles everywhere. They don't need to be separated into a youth group. In Florence we have a fine youth group, and that seems to be the Spirit's plan there.
You get the point. That doesn't mean you can't bring change-far from it! But I have found the best changes I have introduced always seemed to build, in some way, on what God was doing before, on what the church did well.
2. Concentrate on the fundamentals. Do these three things, and you can't miss:
First, minister the Word of God. Be faithful as a preacher and Bible teacher; be a student of the Word and of theology.
And whatever else you do, start a midweek morning ladies' Bible study, where you informally but faithfully go through a Bible text. In Florence I haven't done it, because they already have lots of ladies' Bible studies going. So I teach a men's Bible study early in the morning, before work. We have about five guys that get together once a week from 6:20 to 7:20 A.M. at a local cafe.
In Victor we have a ladies' Bible study, although a few men come. I call it "Pastor's Bible Study." We started with just a handful, but now it is a large group-fifteen to twenty. We have a blast together. Nothing is planned; I don't prepare. I start by reading a short "call to worship" from the Psalms, praying, and then reading the text (one older woman has the knack of knowing where we left off). I comment on the first verses and let the members of the study chime in with their ideas. Whenever I think we're getting off the course, I say, "Let's get back to the text." I read the next verse and comment, and the discussion begins again. I always end with a prayer within five minutes of the hour; they never have to worry about it going too long.
It takes time to develop a good chemistry in a Bible study-in my experience, at least a year, usually two, of uneasiness until the group develops an identity and a flow. When it happens, it is good.
Second, pray for them. Take time out. Have your prayer lists. Sometimes leave your office and take long walks during your working hours, because prayer is your work. It is your prime work. Several times a year, go by yourself to the mountains and spend the whole day walking and praying for your people.
I usually do it when there is some good fly fishing to be had, and yes, I take my fly rod! It helps me not take myself so seriously. Just go off and enjoy God's presence; talk to him about your ministry, your family, your people.
Pray every day, too. There is absolutely no ministry without prayer! But prayer is the most innocent part of the ministry. It is not a squeaky wheel; God knows you'll have plenty of those. Force yourself to break away from the grind and pray.
Third, be their friend. This is one of the most important things to keep telling yourself over and over: "Jesus was a friend to sinners." You must be, too. All of your calling, all of your "people work," can be boiled down to friendship. Forget the professional role. In a small rural church, be their friend, through good times and bad.
And for goodness sakes, use the telephone for pastoral calling. Many old ministers have told me, "If I had it to do over again, I'd use the telephone a lot more." Calling at the door is important, but a phone is a wonderful way to contact people; sometimes they like that a lot better than a visit. About once a week I sit by the phone, prayer list in hand, and call assorted people on it. I say, "I was praying for you this morning, and I thought I'd just call to see how you were doing."
Well, I'm a million miles from having the ministry figured out, and a billion miles from being a good pastor, but these things have helped me a lot.
Working on another side of the same vineyard, I am . . .
The Florence-Carlton Community Church
and Victor Federated Church
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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