Some 2,129 people live in Hayward, Wisconsin. At least that's what the little green sign says coming into town, though it hasn't changed since the 2000 census. Our small Northwoods community isn't on the way to anywhere. It's a destination point. Locals say it's not the end of the earth, but if it weren't for the trees, you could see it from here!
Soon after arriving from southern California 20 years ago, I discovered that small town ministry includes some unique challenges.
I stepped into the men's room shortly before my first prayer meeting and discovered a drowned bat in the toilet. Alarmed, I ran out, grabbed a trustee, and brought him back into the restroom with me.
"What's that rodent doing in the toilet?" I asked.
"Looks like the 'dead-bat float' to me," he replied.
"Well, what are we going to DO about it?"
"No problem," he said, and simply flushed the little critter-—a burial at sea.
As we walked out together, he rolled his eyes, muttering something about "city slickers" while I shook my head in the dawning realization, "Toto, we're not in California any more."
For the first two years, our family felt like visitors on display. Somehow, even though we didn't know them, everyone seemed to know everything about us. They noticed and commented on what we did, where we went, what we drove, what we bought, and who we visited.
At first, I chafed under such scrutiny, but got used to it after a while. In a small town, everybody is connected to everyone else in some way or another. Such relational dynamics can pose significant ministry hurdles. For instance, you have to be careful what you say about anybody, because you can inadvertently be insulting a relative.
Shopping is limited. We have to drive a couple of hours for a pair of shoes. The selection of restaurants is limited. ("Well, honey, what will it be tonight, The Norske Nook or the Moose Caf?")
Cultural events and the fine arts are sparse, unless you consider chainsaw sculpture fine art. It's difficult to bring in special guest speakers and musicians. We live three hours from the airport.
A hospital visit requires a half day's drive, and going to Burger King is a major event. A while back we loaded our five children into the minivan for a trip to the "big city," Duluth, Minnesota. As we travelled, the kids broke into a rousing rendition of "Soon and Very Soon, We're Going to Burger King!"
There are times, especially on blue Mondays in February, when I really miss city life in California. However, on my better days, I realize there are tremendous advantages to being a country parson! Here are six of them.
1. Everybody knows everybody. Whenever new people come to church, they are warmly greeted and loved. Generally, our local visitors are not strangers, because somebody already knows them. This creates a natural follow-up process.
Research shows that the primary reason people first attend a church is because friends or relatives invite them. The small community is the perfect place for that to occur.
2. Word of mouth travels fast. If something exciting happens at a small town church, everybody is going to know about it. That's called free publicity!
We held a Christmas Eve service in Minong, the next hamlet, a half hour away. To our delight, over 100 people showed up. Someone asked, "How did you advertise?"
"It was easy!" I responded, "We just informed two people and asked them not to tell anybody!"