The last night of our 2 1/2 day conference was coming to an end. I was feeling pretty good that we had pulled off our first Multiply Vineyard Small Town USA church planting conference. Our two presenters did a fantastic job giving the nuts and bolts of planting and doing multisite in a rural context. It wasn’t just theory—they had done it in central Illinois and northern Wisconsin. It went well, but I wondered if it really had impacted the attendees. I would soon get my answer.
A couple in their early 40s came up to me with tears in their eyes. “Thank you so much for putting this together. This is the first church planting conference where we felt understood,” the husband said. They went on to tell me they were planters and pastors in Wisconsin.
Not long after that couple got into their van for the 10 1/2 hour drive back home, another couple from Missouri approached me. They too had tears in their eyes. “This is the first church planting training where we felt understood,” the husband said. “We went to other trainings where we were told we should take a team of 50 from our home church to plant in our town. Our home church only has 75 people and there aren’t 50 jobs in the town we’re moving to.”
Planters in rural America are often misunderstood at best and ignored at worst. Here are five things small town planters wish their denominational leaders understood.
1. We would love to come to your meetings, but Bi-Vos don’t get paid to attend.
While many pastors attend seminary thinking they will be fully funded pastors, the reality is many pastors are bi-vocational. It is difficult to get an accurate number on how many pastors are bi-vo as only recently have denominations begun to survey their churches about the topic. And if bi-vos don’t have time to attend your meetings, they probably don’t have time to fill out your survey. Just how many churches are pastored by bi-vos? I have seen numbers from 28 percent to 50 percent and beyond.
The point is that bi-vos care about their denominational cluster meetings but they are busy working a mainstream job in order to fund their ministry. Why not consider raising funds to pay a bi-vo to come to your yearly conference? Or do what I have been told the American Baptists do: have your multi-day conference, but make sure content that applies to small town churches is on Saturday so pastors don’t have to miss work.
2. Our flock may exceed your favorite megachurch’s attendance.
A small town pastor’s yearly survey doesn’t look impressive in the age where we publicize the largest and fastest growing churches. But small town pastors know their flock is not who shows up on Sundays. Their flock includes the mayor who attends another church four or five times a year. It includes the rough-around-the-edges mechanic who fixes the pastor’s car. It includes the clerk at the local mom and pop grocery store. Small town pastors perform these folk’s weddings, do funerals for their loved ones, dedicate their babies, and give counsel to people who may never step foot in their church building. It is safe to assume that in many small towns, the pastor’s flock is the population of that town.
3. It would be nice to put one of us on stage.
When small town pastors do make it to their denomination’s yearly conference, they rarely if ever see someone like them on stage. While a denomination’s average church size may hover around 100, their pastors will hear presenters whose average church size is ten times that. Imagine how encouraging it would be if a rural pastor walked into a conference and listened to a pastor from rural Indiana whose church hosts the only food pantry and recovery service in town and averages 96 people each Sunday!
4. Find some metrics that celebrate small town churches.
Most small town pastors I know love the large churches in their denominations. They rejoice with their fellow pastors and planters who see rapid growth. They even tear up when they hear of hundreds even thousands of first-time decisions coming from a single church. They celebrate as their denominational leaders present these stories at meetings. But they also wish they picked some metrics that celebrated small town church accomplishments too.
What metrics could be used to celebrate churches in villages and towns? How about the number of first-time commitments vs. average Sunday attendance. In a recent meeting I witnessed a church of 100 being celebrated because they had 104 first-time decisions the previous year. Denominations could also celebrate small rural churches who are extremely generous to their denomination’s mission fund.
Another metric could be largest percentage of average Sunday attendance vs. town population. I know several churches of 300 in towns of 3000. Percentage wise, that would be like a church of 220,000 in Houston. Now that’s a megachurch by any standard!
5. We would love for you to visit us sometime.
I recently had a conversation with a pastor friend who is planting a church in our town. He recounted how he never hears from his denomination’s planting coordinator but he sees plenty of pictures of him having lunch with pastors of big or fast growing churches. My friend is a great pastor who loves his people and serves as a chaplain for our law enforcement personnel. He has sacrificed much to plant this church and has yet to take any pay from his church.
Small town pastors want to know they matter. Speaking at their church or even just a simple visit lets them know that you care not only about what they do, but about them. In 2016, Vineyard’s national director Phil Strout spent three days at our Small Town USA conference. He only spoke at one session, but was present at all sessions and all meals. Our team of speakers did a great job, but we all agreed that what made the most impact was our movement’s top leader spending time with pastors and planters from small churches and small towns. His presence communicated that their calling—and indeed they themselves—mattered to our tribe.
These are five things that I have observed small town pastors wished their denominations knew. What would you add? Feel free to tweet your comments to @SmTwnVineyard.
At age 26, Joel and Kristi Seymour planted the Lancaster Vineyard Church in Lancaster, OH. Nineteen years later, Joel still pastors the church. He leads a local neighboring initiative bringing together public, private, and social sectors of the city together in order to increase the peace of the city. He serves as an Area Leader for Vineyard USA and leads the Small Town USA specialty group for Multiply Vineyard.