Ed: Talk to me about the Water Tower Network. Where does the name come from?
Bryan: It was born out of our passion to serve rural churches and the identifying trade in most small towns is the water tower. We decided to do rural pastors training, form cohorts of pastors and start the network so we bought a ranch and this has become our training ground.
Ed: Talk to me about your cohorts. What do you do if you're in a cohort?
Bryan: Pastors come in to Dallas every 60 days. They come in on a Monday night and we just connect relationally and have fun. A lot of these guys are in assignments where they struggle financially, so we try to take them to do things they would never splurge on. We want to let them know they're not alone. Tuesday is resourcing when we are focused on things that they need help with the most—budgeting, legal advice, preaching help.
Sometimes they can join us in person, and sometimes they attend via Skype. We give thousands of dollars worth of resources to them throughout the year—things like computer support and equipment, tech support, etc.
The first time we are together, we assess their needs and then we let the needs of each cohort be tailored so that we spend that year investing in what they need the most.
Ed: You're in a part of Texas that's slowly being eaten by Dallas, so it's not rural anymore. So where did this passion come from?
Bryan: I grew up in a rural church and my cousins and I were in a family church in a rural area. There was probably a gap between me as a little kid and the next person who was about 60 years old. In some ways, I resented it. So growing up, my heart turned from God. I didn't feel like I connected with church or understood the gospel fully.
So when I really met Jesus and had an encounter with him, I started preaching and it was all of these rural places that opened the door for me. My ministry started there, and the older I got, the more nostalgic I became about home. I owed a lot to the rural church that I despised.
I come from a small farm town littered with rural churches, and I realized that most of the churches in America are 200 or less and are in rural areas. I felt responsible in some ways to give back.
So now I pastor what would be considered a megachurch in a metropolitan setting. We have resources available and I see the rural church, the small town, as a part of the mission field. It's in Acts 1:8. It's a part of our mission strategy and it shaped my life.
Ed: It doesn't seem like that many people are passionate about rural America. I mean there may be a resurgence of it, but really people are talking about urban and suburban. What made people not pay attention to rural anymore, and why do we need to change that?
Bryan: I think rural has been synonymous with where older preachers go to die. It's where they turn them out to pasture. It's where the young seminarians trying to cut their teeth go to prove that they're worthy of something bigger. We've always viewed the rural place and the rural people as second class and yet it just doesn't make sense to me.
Those are my family, so I'm able to think about it in personal terms. Ironically, we don't see it that way when we're thinking about those who live in rural parts of Africa.
So we have men and women who are smart enough to be lawyers and doctors and choose to be missionaries. They go to serve the tribal populations in Africa and come back and tell their stories and we treat them like heroes. It's almost as if we elevate the soul of the rural African higher than we do the rancher in Wyoming and/or the farmer in rural Arkansas.
But a soul is a soul and that's my tribe. I owe a lot to that town and to those people. We've not looked at rural as a mission field. We haven't seen it through missiological lenses. We've looked at it as a training ground, not a mission field.
Ed: Tell me some of the things you do to celebrate rural pastors and why.
Bryan: We train the pastors and then one time during the year we ask them to come as a family, bring their spouses, bring their families. We want to surprise them. Every year it's a little different. We treat the couple, we treat the spouse, we treat the pastor, and then we will have a general gathering where, when they walk in the room, we want them to feel like they're soldiers that have just come home from a war.
We give them resources to go shopping. We want them to buy things that they would never splurge on. They have needs like diapers for their kids and paying bills and thus feel guilty spending anything on themselves.
My wife will often take the ladies to do things they don't get to do. We want them to have a moment when they feel valued because most of their lives they feel like second-class citizens serving in second-class areas.
Ed: What do pastors need to do to be part of the network?
Bryan: We have an application process they go through to get into a cohort; once they sign up, if they have the capacity, they get to Dallas and then once they're in Dallas, they pay for absolutely nothing. We pay for their lodging, food, and entertainment, and give them lots of resources.
So the only thing it costs them is to get to Dallas. We also have about 20-25 scholarships available to help cover travel costs. We have limited space in the cohorts so they may need to wait a year or two but we try to serve everyone as best we can.
Ed: What's the end goal?
Bryan: We want to dignify the place, the pastor, and the people who live in the rural community. I want the pastors in rural areas to feel they are a valuable part of the kingdom of God, and I want younger people who are making decisions about what to do with their lives to see that this is a legitimate place to serve the kingdom of God.