I’ll never forget the sunny day that Carole and I pulled into the parking lot of the Finchford Community Bible Church in Finchford, Iowa (population: 57) with all our possessions in the back of a small moving truck. About 30 smiling, friendly, and curious (“Oh! You like to fish!”) people helped us unload and settle into the parsonage. And they were calling me “Pastor Brian!”
As we settled into our new home, surrounded by boxes, and looking with gratitude at the table piled high with groceries, I wondered, What next? I knew that preaching, visiting, and leading were needed, but how exactly should I begin?
I would have done many things differently if I had started with the 34 years of Village Missionary and Executive Director experience I have now. I could have used the experience as a parent as well. However, it just doesn’t happen that way. But if you are about to start your own wonderful adventure (and it is wonderful) as a rural pastor, let me share a few things I’ve learned.
Village Missions strongly recommends that you not make any changes in the first year. You just don’t know enough about your context and you haven’t earned enough credibility to lead through changes. Don’t make them! But what do you do?
I strongly believe that your first year, and even following years, should be summarized by the word discovery. Discovery is the “act of finding something that had not been known before.” Launch on a discovery mission during your first year. Besides the normal routine of pastoral duties, you should seek to discover three areas.
The first area you need to discover is yourself. I found that my life as a rural pastor (Village Missionary) was quite different from my life in secular employment or as a student. Of course, that life laid the groundwork in areas such as work ethic, daily devotions, and my married life. But I needed to find a rhythm to pastoral life that encompassed the preparation needed for messages and life lived with people expecting your spiritual leadership.
Rural ministry places special demands on how you live life. Your private life in an urban or suburban setting may be separate from your public, pastoral life, but this is not so in a rural context.
People will know how you live. They will know what time you enter your study (if you have one). They will know if you have visited someone in the hospital. Word will get out about how you raise your kids. Your life will be under a microscope, but that’s okay, because theirs is too!
It’s a wonderful opportunity to be real in your walk with the Lord and discover what that means in your rural context. People were watching as my wife and I set up patterns of taking walks, mowing the lawn, growing a garden, keeping the house, maintaining a car, paying our bills, and even when we turned off the lights at night.
The second area to discover is the culture of your community. You would know this if you went to a jungle community, but you also need to know this if you go to a rural community. Dr. Glenn Daman states, “Attempting to build an effective church without a knowledge of the community is like trying to build a boat without understanding the waters it will ply. A boat built for inland waterways will be far different from one made to sail the ocean.” His book, Shepherding the Small Church, has a helpful chapter on understanding the community.
Wide variety exists between rural communities based on natural beauty, occupations, ethnic backgrounds, and history. A pastor needs not only a general idea of rural culture, but also specific understanding as to his area. Not only can differences exist within a state, but they can exist within a few miles!
For example, I soon discovered that the school district closed the only school in town (consolidation that often occurs in rural areas) some years before I arrived in Finchford. The hurt from that closure, although buried, was still there when I arrived. In addition, I needed to know even basic things like not scheduling meetings during harvest or planting times. The more I discovered about my culture, the more effective I was.
The third area involves spending that first year or more in discovery about your church. The history of your church will tell you something about how they will follow your leadership. For example, many rural churches have experienced the loss of a pastor who used the ministry in that church as a steppingstone.
If you serve such a church, it may take several more years than usual to earn their trust as they finally learn you are not there to use them. Rural churches have typical characteristics such as the importance of place and history (my grandfather sat in that pew) and specific characteristics within the local context. Again, Dr. Daman has a chapter on understanding your church and lists more references to help you assess your church culture.
I remember having a misconception when I arrived in Finchford that rural churches were staid and traditional. There may be some like that, but the church I served was wild! They liked to have fun and loved each other.
One of our oldest member’s nickname was “Hot Rod Granny” which she had on her license plate! They devised pranks like breaking into each other’s homes, short-sheeting the beds, putting Vaseline on the doorknobs, and even leaving life-sized dummies to scare the occupant. I won’t even tell you about the white elephant gifts! It was a privilege and a joy to serve as their pastor as I tried to keep pace with their love for life.
So, you’ll have much to do as a new rural pastor, but you won’t need to change a thing! That’s the Holy Spirit’s job anyway. Just discover yourself, your community, and your church. Such discovery will serve you well as you become a shepherd who knows the condition of his flock.