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Jon Sanders: Let's ask God for the vision of how he wants to use your church to accomplish the mission that he's already defined for us in your time, in your town, in this space, and make it happen. And it'll be awesome.
Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I’m a small church pastor, and welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church?
My podcast guest today is John Sanders and the subject is rural church rescue. John is the founder of smalltownbigchurch.com and he's the co-host of EntrePastors Podcast. For years he was also the host of the Small Town, Big Church podcast, which you can still get in their archives. He's also the author of Rural Church Rescue, a Call to Restore Healthy Churches to Rural North America. In this conversation, John and I talk about how he used the principles that he learned in his previous experience as a firefighter to help churches better understand how to do ministry that matters. The parallels are vivid, they're helpful, and we even uncovered a couple of new ideas as we talked.
Don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question: Can this work in a small church?
Hey, John. So good to have you on the podcast today.
Jon Sanders: Karl, it is my pleasure to hang out with you, man. Thanks for the invite. I'm honored.
Karl Vaters: Oh, it's good to have you on with me because you've invited me onto yours a couple of times. I hope people have spent some time with you on your podcast. I'm just getting this thing started; you're the veteran, so hopefully we can get some good stuff out there today because you've got some really great material. You and I were at a conference recently and we were just two booths apart. So even between talks, we had a chance to chat. Although they put the two of us - our workshops - at exactly the same time, so neither one of us got to go to the other guy's workshops, which was the biggest disappointment, I think, for both of us of the entire conference.
Jon Sanders: Right. I have since sent a strongly worded letter to management, so hopefully that never happens again.
Karl Vaters: Oh, man. What I want to talk about today, at that conference, you gave me a copy of your book, Rural Church Rescue. Rural, it’s one of those weird words. Every time I say rural, I feel like Scooby doo, like rural, right? It’s a strange word. It's a wonderful place, but it's a strange word. All right. Rural church Rescue, a Call to Restore Healthy Churches to Rural North America. It's a short book, but you got a bunch of really good stuff in it.
I read the whole thing just a couple of days after you gave me and then thought, okay, we’ve got to have John on because I got to talk about… What I want to do is I want to take a handful of bullet points that you mentioned in here because it's so helpful if you're pastoring a rural church, if you're pastoring a small church in a suburban or urban setting, if you oversee other churches. If you're in church leadership in any way, don't think you have to be in a rural setting for this to be a value to, there's so much in it, and there's just a bunch of points.
So what I'd like to do is I want to walk through the book and kind of look at some of these points that you make, some of which people are going to go, Whoa, I can't believe we went there. Which is what I love about it. And then unpack some of it for us.
And it'll give people a sense of what the book is about, but also a sense of what they can do in their congregation, and some of the lessons they can learn. It starts with your story. You were a firefighter, right? How did you get from firefighter to what you’re doing today?
Jon Sanders: Well, the simple answer, I just blame God for that whole thing.
You know, I grew up in pastoral ministry. My dad was a pastor and I loved the experience, loved the church. But when I was in high school, I really started to think that it would be an awesome gig to be a firefighter, and so I pursued that even though in the back of my mind, I had this inkling that if I surrendered, God would probably use me in some form of, you know, pastoral ministry.
And so to be honest, I was really running from what I sensed was that calling and God was gracious and faithful. He let me have what I thought I wanted and it was awesome. I loved being a firefighter, but that calling never really left. It just continued to, you know, faithfully pursue me in my quiet moments.
And so I finally came to a point of surrender at a fairly young age. I think I was 23 years old, just a few years into my career as a firefighter. I just said, God, if you want me in ministry - believe me, I had a list of reasons why I thought God was making a big mistake - but I said, I'll go if you want me to go. And what God really got through to me in that moment was, Jon, I don't need you to bring anything to the table, I'm not looking for a pedigree, I just am looking for obedience, and where I find a yielded, surrendered heart, I can show the world what's possible with a supernatural God and a yielded servant. So are you willing to obey? That's really all I'm asking, Jon.
And so I surrendered and it's been an incredible story. We moved to a rural community in South Dakota, which is kind of unnecessary to put the qualifier on there. You know, everything in South Dakota is rural. But planted a church and have learned a lot of lessons about what it looks like to build a healthy church in a small, rural community.
So that's kind of my bio in a nutshell. Went from firefighting into ministry. And then the crazy twist, I guess I should add this t,o, a few years ago, about seven years ago now, I had an opportunity to go back into full-time firefighting in addition to being a pastor. So now we've got an established church in multiple rural communities and it is almost like God said, Jon, here it is, you gave this up to follow me and I'm giving it back. I write way cooler stories than you can, so here it is, if you want it. And so I'm back in the business, so to speak. I get to do both.
Karl Vaters: Oh, that’s great. And you also oversee Small Town, Big Church, you do a lot of work with other rural pastors from the book to conferences and so on, which we'll talk about at the end so people can find you and get more information from you.
So what you've done with the book, which I love, is you take basically the lessons from firefighting, and you apply it to the church. When you call the EMT’s, when you call the firefighters to come to your house, there are certain things you expect from them, and there's real parallels to the church. And what I love about this parallel particularly is there's a lot of people who have been very adept at taking business principles or like a business model and say, Hey, here's how it would work in the church, and I'm always iffy about that because, well, the premise for a business model is to make money. And while there might be one or two lessons we can learn, there's huge red flags about trying to take business models and impose them on the church. It just doesn't work. It's not designed to do that. But firefighters, their job is to rescue and save people, not to make money. So the parallels are so much more direct. And I love the idea of taking wisdom from a totally different field of study and a totally different experience and comparing it to where we are. That's where the new ideas, the synergy of two great ideas come together. If the only thing I'm researching is other church leaders, then I'm only going to discover what other church leaders have already discovered. But if I can pull it in from another field of practice, we might discover something new that nobody's seen before by comparing and contrasting the two. And I think you've done some of that in this, which I really love. So you're starting salvo - I'm going to call it this. Even before you get to chapter one in the intro, you propose on pages, VI and VII.
Jon Sanders: Not how you're supposed to do it, right?
Karl Vaters: That's how you call it, right? On pages, obviously, Roman numeral six and seven.
What would the response be… You say, What would be the response in a town if the fire department in your town closed, and yet, you said, but churches close constantly and no one cares. And that to me sets the tone for the entire book. Let's talk about that a little, because that's really true, right?
If the fire department and the town closed, people would be upset and justifiably so. Yet the church closes and nobody notices. What is it that we're missing in the church that we are not vital to the life of the town as we ought to be?
Jon Sanders: Well, you just said it, it's the community recognizes that the fire department offers value to the community, that they are directly in a place to help and serve in times of greatest need.
And so because of that, anytime they recommend shutting down a fire station to make room in a city budget or municipality, you know, there's uproar about it. But when churches close their doors, the community just kind of yawns and goes on about their business. Because in so many cases, the church has just drifted into the backdrop of irrelevance. Like, yeah, I guess there's a building there with the steeple and stained glass, but we don't really know what they do, they don't make much of an impact.
And it's kind of funny, Karl, I had a friend of mine who's a firefighter that is not a believer at all, and he read the book and he's like, Jon, this is such a great book, every firefighter should read this book. I was like, you realize this book's not for firefighters, right, this book is for the church.
A little bit of a backstory, Karl. When God called me into ministry, I really sensed that he was saying, Hey, look, you're still a firefighter, you're just going to be fighting an eternal fire and responding to different sorts of needs. So that made sense to me. And then when I got into the pastoring world and started to really work with many churches and pastors across the country because of my podcast and just the growing network, what I started to realize is if there is - and there really is - a lot of similarity in our mission, obviously one is eternal, one is just more physical in nature, but I started to see a lot of parallels. I came to this conclusion: If the average local fire department operated like the average local church, we would fire the fire department, we wouldn't tolerate it. But in the church world, we just call it church and we've just come to accept the fact that we're okay being off mission in many cases and maybe not really being about the core business that we're supposed to be about, and it's just church life. So that's really what I'm unpacking in the book, trying to make those parallels.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. I don't know that this is particularly explored in the book, but as you're talking, what occurred to me was with the fire department, you don't even have to have been directly affected by the fire department to recognize it’s value. But with the church, it's like, well, I don't go to that church so I don't care. Nobody goes, Well, that fire department has never helped me so I don't care if they shut down.
Jon Sanders: That's good.
Karl Vaters: Even if you've never been directly affected by it, you recognize its essential role that it plays in the community.
Jon Sanders: Hey, you and I should write the next… Like, redo the next newest version and then put your name on it. That's good. And then we'll sell more copies too. So let’s do that.
Karl Vaters: Hey, inspired by you. And it didn't occur to me while reading it, it just occurred to me while you were saying that. There was something you said that sparked that little thought.
But that's really the idea, right? The church not only should be understood to be essential to the people who go to it and who are served by it, but we should be having such an impact on the community that our value to the community is recognized even by people who don't attend our church, they just simply see that church matters here, look at what they're doing. But how far are we from that reality most of the time. So we've got a big gap to fill. So again, I love the idea. What you do is you set up this goal by comparing it with the fire department that I looked at and went, you know, you're right. That is a measurable, and I believe attainable goal because if the fire department could do it, why can't the church, which has eternal value, be seen in the same kind of way. And then you start offering some really practical ways to get there, which obviously we can't cover in a podcast.
So that's why people, you’ve got to read the book. We'll go through a little bit of it. You do talk about, then, some major similarities between the fire department and the church. I'm just going to highlight a couple of them that I really loved as I went through.
Page 15. “One thing that sets the fire service apart from so many other organizations in the world today is that its members are crystal clear on what their purpose and calling is.” But later on you say, “It seems somewhere along the way, many in the church have failed to remember why the church exists in the first place.”
So the fire department is really clear and remains clear on their mission, but the church we seem to… we suffer from mission drift. So what is it about the fire department that helps them not suffer from mission drift that maybe we can learn in the church?
Jon Sanders: Well, I just will tell you, they have a very clear mission statement, and it's not that these words are necessarily written on the wall.
It's just every member is crystal clear on the purpose of our organization and why we are here. You ask any firefighter, go into any fire station and just say, what is your job, why are you here? And without blinking an eye, they'll say we're here to save lives and protect property. At the heart of the fire service, that is what we are about. You're not going to get that clear of an answer if you ask the average church member or even pastor in many cases, why are you here? Well, we're not really sure, we have a lot of programs, we have a lot of busy-ness and activity. You know, everything we do in the fire service is built around that critical mission of at a moment's notice we are ready to respond. And we do other things, like there's a lot of other training and inspections and other stuff we do that are a part of our complete package, if you will. But at any moment, we have to be ready to do what is our ultimate job, and that is to save lives and protect property. And in the church often we are just not that clear. We have drifted so far from the simple. And Jesus was clear, let's be clear on that, right? He left us with very clear marching orders that it is about saving people from an eternal separation from God and hell. It is about getting the good news of Jesus Christ to every person in the world. And we get to join him in that, but sadly, along the way, we've lost sight of that mission.
And I think it's one of the major reasons that we see churches that are unhealthy. They need to come back to recognizing what the mission is all about.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. What I love about what you just stated, if you were to ask the average non firefighter, what is the mission of the fire department, I guarantee you 9 out of 10 would say, To put out fires, but that's not the mission statement you said. It was to save lives and protect property. Which is really interesting because the fire department has not listened to the community around it and changed their mission to go, Oh, they think we're supposed to put out fires, that's what we'll do. But I think the church in a lot of ways, Jesus has given us a clear mission, but if you ask the average, non-Christian what the church is there for, they would probably state something very different from Jesus' mission. And sometimes we adapt and change to their expectation of what the church is supposed to be. You're there to perform weddings, you're there to do funerals, you're there to provide whatever, right? But Jesus' mission is very clear and we can't be diverted by other people's opinions of what they think we should be, we’ve got to stay clear on what Jesus told us we're going to be, which is again what the fire department does. From what you're telling me, there's not a firefighter in the world that would go, Oh, my job is to put out fires. No, our job is to save lives and protect property. Those are correlated missions, but they're not the same. And having the right mission, even a slight mission drift over to we're here to put out fires, would really change the dynamic of the entire fire department, wouldn't it?
Jon Sanders: Absolutely. Because the thing is when we understand the real mission, putting out fires may be part of that mission, but it may require a completely different focus or we may show up in a very different way, depending on what the need is. And so you're right. That's why I started with that. If we don't understand our mission, nothing else really matters after that. We have to come back to this simple…. And the good news is it is simple. This isn't, like, complex stuff. That's why the book isn't that thick. It's very simple. We have to come back to that simple message of we have a mission. We don't get the privilege of defining what our mission is, Jesus has given it to us. Our only option is in choice. Are we going to be obedient in executing that mission.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. You then move, I think really well, from the eternal mission that God gave us to specific visions that each congregation is going to have and how important it is to come up with a compelling vision.
Page 36, you say, “I believe a compelling vision will combat the feeling of insignificance that so many small town pastors and churches struggle with.” And then later on you say, “When you come to the realization that God has a big vision, even for your small town or rural church, your focus will shift from wishing you could move to a bigger place to actively pursuing all the God-sized possibilities.”
And I love this sentence: “You will begin to dream of ways to reach your community rather than escape it.” Let's talk about that. So the mission, obviously Jesus has given us is the same for all churches. But then there's a very specific vision, a manner in which we will fulfill that mission that is different from one church to another, from one town to another, and the importance of understanding what that vision is. And then I love, it will completely shift from, I want to get to a bigger church. I want to get to a bigger place, to how much can God do through this vision in this place, and being content with where you are without being comfortable and without settling, but knowing this is where God called me and there's a great mission to do here. Talk about that shift of mindset that takes place.
Jon Sanders: I get so lit up with this, Karl. And by the way, this was really the inspiration behind the name of my podcast, Small Town, Big Church. And I've been challenged on that before by different pastors going, We don't want to have a big church in a small town, you know, and it’s like, well, I'm not really teaching you how to have a big church - I'm not trying to tell you how to grow a mega church in your town of 1,200 people. But what I'm saying is we serve a God who is not disappointed in that number, 1,200, that's on the little green population sign at the edge of your city. Jesus does not look at your town and go, Man, that's a bummer, I wish more people live there.
And yet, so often in ministry… And this coincides so much with your message and your platform. So often in ministry, pastors feel insignificant because of the size of the church they are leading or the size of the community that they've been called to serve. And they start to believe this narrative that says, Man, God does big things in big places, but I must be in the minor leagues, and furthermore, I look forward to getting out of here someday, I look forward to graduating to a bigger place where God can do bigger things. And I've just come to fully reject that notion to say, God's not disappointed with the size of the church you're in, the size of the community you're in. He loves every single one of those souls represented on that green population sign. And he's a big God that wants to do eternally significant things. So my challenge to pastors - and this is where it really gets fun... And by the way, I think this is where small churches have an advantage over large churches - we can be creative. Not that large churches can't be creative, but it's a lot harder to turn around a large ship versus just a small, little jet ski. And in small churches and small communities, we can be so creative in how we execute that mission. We can be very specific, very unique, and respond in creative ways to the needs in our community. And I'm telling you, there is no limit to the things that God can do in a small town. I believe he's looking for leaders that will believe Hm for that, and will ask him for a vision for their community instead of asking Him, Lord, get me out of here, put me in a bigger place where there's bigger things happening.
What if God wants to do something big right there in that town. And what if he's calling you to stay. I'm not mad, I do believe sometimes God genuinely leads pastors away from one ministry to another. But to be very transparent, Karl, I think a lot of times God gets blamed for moving pastors out of one place to another. When He hasn't really told them to go yet. You know, what if He's calling you there to stay and put down roots and make an impact. So as you can tell, I get kind of wound up on this one, but this is good news, not bad news. God wants to reach your community.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. I've often wondered how things would change if every time a pastor says, I believe God is leading me away, they were required to answer exactly how did God show you that. It's like we closed the door to any debate, Well, it's just the Lord leading me. And you can't argue with God telling you. But exactly how did God tell you? How did He speak, what is He saying to actually do. Actually break that down for me. And I think in most circumstances they wouldn't be able to break it down because it really isn't. It's simply their discomfort. And I don't think anybody's lying - Well, not anybody... I think most of us… Most of us when we say that aren't lying about it, we really believe it's God leading. But if we were to actually pursue it, we'd begin to find it's really our own discomfort, it's our own ego. It's our own dissatisfaction that we have internalized and reinterpreted as God's will. And I think a whole lot of the time it's not. And so what you end up with is you have all these rural churches that have a succession of pastors in short terms, and there's no way these churches can have the kind of impact on their community that God wants them to have when they're constantly changing leaders, because nobody can stick around long enough to go deep.
And it's not about, you can’t stick around long enough for the church to be massive, it's that you can't stick around long enough for the church to go deeper, to disciple people, to have generational depth, to have the kind of impact, as we talked about earlier, that even the people who don't attend the church recognize the value of the church. That won't happen when they're changing pastors every two years.
Jon Sanders: Yep. It's a double-sided coin because often there are some things… You know, we all know of those churches that have that profile of chewing up and spitting out every pastor that they get, and there's some responsibility on that side and some leadership structure stuff and all of that. But that is part of my message to pastors is it's not all on the churches. When they're getting a new leader every two or three years, because the pastor comes in and then he's gone… And in some cases they don't even have much control over that, some of these pastors. But that's part of what I think needs to be changed in the model, because I believe… I just think it could be so much healthier. And keep in mind, that's the ultimate point of the message of this book is how to restore healthy churches.
I think healthy churches need some longevity from their leadership and the pastors that are there for a lifetime, or there for some years to really put down roots and be a part of the community and be a part of that church family. And I just think we see healthy things happen when we get that. And that requires believing that God actually is doing something significant there. We all want to be a part of something that matters. And that's the message. Your small community does matter. Your small church does matter. It matters to God, and eternity hangs in the balance for every one of those people in your community.
So let's ask God for the vision of how He wants to use your church to accomplish the mission that He's already defined for us in your time, in your town, in this space, and make it happen. And it'll be awesome.
Karl Vaters: I love it. Obviously it's not that everybody needs to stay forever. There are seasons where the Lord transitions us quickly.
The first few years of my pastoring, we went through two fairly short term pastorates. But our goal needs to be to find a place where the Lord can use us for a very long extended period of time. For us, even part of our motivation earlier on was we want our kids to grow up in a single place where they can look back at it and go, That's home, so that they had that sense of stability, and that was in addition to us wanting to go deep into a place. But it had multiple reasons why staying long mattered. We went through two short-term pastorates that we thought would be long-term and it turned out they weren't. One because it was a place that chewed up pastors and spit them out, and I was one of the line that they spit out. And the one we're at now that I've been at for almost 29 years now, they had the same reputation of chewing up pastors and spitting them out, and it turned out it wasn't the church's fault, it was the pastors who just got restless and left. I've experienced both of those circumstances and they are both very, very real.
Again, we're talking about digging down and then you talk about… I love that you then transitioned from this idea of mission of vision of permanence, but then you also say, page 42, “While you should be stubborn about the vision itself, I challenge you to be quite flexible with your plan of how it's actually accomplished.”
And I love this because there's a lot of pastors who seem to have a hard time with… If they can even embrace the word adapt, they're convinced that that means they're going to water down their vision at some point. Because if you're adapting on the color of the carpet, eventually you're going to adapt on your principles, ?
Jon Sanders: Right. Compromise.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that dreaded word, compromise, right? But what you're in fact saying, and I believe too, is that when you really firmly, completely understand and establish Christ's mission and your vision, that then requires adaptation in the plan and in the technology. And again, you give us an example of that as a metaphor from the fire department, right? They show up, they've got their stuff, they know what they're doing, but they've got to be very creative on the fly because they're going to face a situation that they've never faced before at virtually every call, right?
Jon Sanders: Yeah, absolutely. And we cannot afford to get married to the methodology. Imagine if in today's modern fire service, we still saw, you know, local fire departments that were forming bucket brigades and pulling steam engines. We would think this is ridiculous. That's not too far off in the church world. Why? Because, well, we like doing it this way, we've always done it this way. And even to use a little bit more targeted metaphor, I would say, even on a scene in today's world with all of the technology we have, we still have to adapt.
We show up, we know what the ultimate mission is, but if something's not working, we have to make decisions on the fly and be willing to change. Again, because we know what the mission is. It's don't get too married to the methodology. We might actually have to change that in order to save someone's life.
We might normally approach a situation this way, but because of these variables, we have to do it differently. And by the way, we don't have time on-scene to sit and have a makeshift business meeting and let everyone vote and table it for another 30 days in committee, we need leaders to make decisions, and then we need to follow that leadership and execute. Because why, there's lives hanging in the balance.
So I know that sounds very dramatic, but that's very real. That's the fire service every day. In the church, how much greater is our mission? We're talking eternity. We're not just talking physical life and death, we're talking eternal life. And so it just drives me nuts when I see these churches that have just clinched onto a methodology that might've worked great in the seventies or eighties. Their desired future is their past. They want to take us back to that. So yeah, the vision, uncompromising, unapologetic, but the way we carry out that vision, we must be willing… Karl, if the last year and a half has taught us anything, it's that we, you know, we are living in very dynamic uncertain times and the church cannot afford to just sit back and constantly be lagging behind the culture in terms of changing. We need to be right on the cutting edge of it, adapting our methods in order to reach people for the cause of Christ.
Karl Vaters: And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.
This metaphor of the firefighters, a parallel to the church, is so important here, because again, back to the vision statement. If your calling is to save lives and protect property, and you show up with an idea that you're going to be having… Maybe you get a call, the roof is on fire, so you go there and you've got an expectation of what you're going to do when you get there, but when you get there, it turns out it’s not the roof that was on fire, it's the water heater that exploded, then you have to adapt your expectation. In order to make sure you are saving lives and protecting property, in order to stay true to that mission, you have to adapt your method when the situation on the ground changes.
Jon Sanders: Absolutely. Have you ever thought about being a firefighter? I think you get it, man. I think you could probably make it work
Karl Vaters: Well, I skipped right over that and jumped straight into the church stuff. Although you went back too, you’ve got both of them going now, which is really cool. But that's the case, right? In the church it's the same thing. We get this feeling that if I adapt my methods, that somehow I'm abandoning my mission. But in fact, the mission requires us to change our methods.
Jon Sanders: Absolutely.
Karl Vaters: We've got to do it. And then going from that to the last principle out of the book, and there's so much more in it that people can pick up and read. Maybe two-thirds of the way through, you talk about, Wouldn't it be ridiculous if the call went out and the fire truck pulled up and only one firefighter jumped out to fight the fire, and yet most churches do that. We have one pastor who feels like it's their job to do all the ministry of the church, and you've got a whole congregation who expect all of the ministry to be done for them by the person they hired to do that, which in fact is not at all the biblical model and doesn't work any more than it would work for a single firefighter to show up. So let's talk about that. How do we equip the workers for the mission? First of all, to understand that we're working as a team, we're not just paying a pastor to do the work for us. And then how, from a pastor’s standpoint, can we start helping a church that has maybe been passive and watching the pastor do everything, how do we start recruiting that team for the mission?
Jon Sanders: Well, I'll tell you what. I'm going to say something that may be hard to hear, but I'm going to run the ball right at pastors with this. This is a leadership issue. We can sit around and complain all day long about that model of church that has people sitting in the pews saying, Pastor, this is why we pay you a massive full-time $45,000 a year salary, you are the hired guy, you do the work, we'll come and watch. We can be mad about that. It is a leadership issue to be sure, Pastor. We have been called in Ephesians chapter four. The reason God has given leaders to the church is to equip the saints for works of service. So that starts by us as leaders going, I'm not doing all the work of the ministry, I refuse. Not because I'm above it, not because I'm too good to mow the lawn or clean toilets or oversee the nursery or be the choir director and all these other things we ask our small church pastors to do. It's not that I'm superior or above it; it's not my role. And by me stepping into that role, I'm allowing a whole bunch of other firefighters to sit back on the scene of this spiritually eternal fire that we're on and just watch me perform. And I can't do it all. The fire's getting out of hand and they're just sitting here watching me, and then criticizing the work that I'm doing and not doing. The biblical model is that we are equipping the team. Because we need all hands on deck. This mission is way bigger than just one guy leading a church. It is called a body in the New Testament, it's called a family and a fellowship. And we need everybody doing their part because, Guess what, Pastor, God has not wired you to be all of the parts of the body. You're just one. So we need other parts functioning around us.
And so I know there's pastors probably listening to this and that may sound overwhelming and discouraging, but Pastor, you can do this. God has made it possible for you to equip. That's the role you're in, you're in an equipping role.
So just quit. Quit doing it. You know, let the ball drop. Stop. You need to stop doing all the work of the ministry. And there are practical tools out there. I'd be more than happy to walk alongside of pastors and help them build out a team of staff. And again, right away rural church guys go, Well, I can't have a staff, they can't hardly afford me. I’m not talking about paying them. You can have staff that are serving at a very high level, completely at a volunteer level. I mean, we've done that, I've learned that from many other churches, it's very biblical. I'd be happy to help show you how to do that. But it's so possible for pastors to equip.
And then when we're showing up to the emergency scene, guess what? We're showing up with a whole squad of workers that get off the truck and throw their hands into it. And the job gets done versus everyone sitting back watching one really tired, overworked guy try and do it by himself.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, that shift is hard to make. I know because I had to make it. I was going to say I did everything. That's not true. I and my wife, Shelly, did everything. And she was the first one to call time on that and go, Nope, when we go to this new church, I'm not doing that anymore, because we have little kids and this is hurting all of us. And so then I just took on all of her burden too, and burned myself out, and then realized, Wait a minute, the Bible actually says I'm not supposed to be doing it this way, maybe I should go back to what Jesus and the apostle Paul and the early church fathers did and said. And it actually works out better. And yes, making that shift to say, No. You said it, just quit. And that's what I did. I just went to everybody and I said, I'm just not doing this anymore. Then if it doesn't get done, it doesn't get done. And I'm not doing it to cast guilt. I'm the one who put it in this place. But if we want to do this, then somebody needs to pick it up because I'm not doing it anymore. And if nobody picks it up, then maybe it's not something we should be doing. And it was actually a wonderful way to simplify down to our core essentials, because we only did the stuff that we had people stepping up to work on. And I trained them, I helped them. I still stack chairs today. I'm in my sixties and yet I still stack the occasional chair, but I'm not responsible for the whole thing, I'm helping a team do it, so that they see me serving alongside them. But I'm doing it as an example to others who are serving rather than because nobody else will do it. And that's a big difference,
Jon Sanders: Very big distinction. And I'll just say this briefly, Karl, and as a matter of fact, I'll make a resource available to anyone in your audience that wants it. A few years ago, I put together a short little video course called, How to Hire Staff With No Budget, and I'd be glad to just give that to any of your listeners if they want it.
But one little story I'll share from that. When I hit that same point you talked about of just, I'm done being the guy or being a part of a very small group of people that are tired of doing everything, I called a come to Jesus meeting with our church membership at the time, I set the same meeting for three different times and dates and said, You have to be to one if you're part of our church membership. And you know how I led that meeting? It was not by pointing the finger and yelling. I led with an apology: I have failed in my leadership, I've allowed an atmosphere to be created where most of you get to sit back and watch a few of us do all of that. I'm sorry for that, I repent of that, and that's changing. And there's more to this, but basically in the back of the room, we've got a table with some clipboards, with multiple areas in our ministry that need teams of volunteers, nd my expectation, if you are a member of this church, is that your name will be on at least two of those teams, not seven of them, two. And guess how the people responded, Karl.
Karl Vaters: I'm going to guess that you got a handful of really enthusiastic volunteers and maybe even more than you expected.
Jon Sanders: It's even better than that. They overwhelmingly supported what we were doing. Like I got zero pushback. You know, I was sitting there with knees trembling, like thinking this was this big, controversial thing. It required me to stop doing all the work, apologize for my poor leadership, and give people very clear direction on where they could sign up and let them know they were expected to sign up, and it worked beautifully. And I've helped many other churches walk through a similar process and start building out a very healthy, organized team of volunteer staff leaders that oversee volunteer teams that carry very real weight.
That was a major shift in our ministry where I started to take real weight that was on my shoulders and start sharing that with other people, and other people were now carrying stuff and responsible for stuff that I no longer had to think about or look at. I had people doing it. And that has to happen, otherwise we will constantly be very limited if we're all sitting back expecting one person to do all the work.
Karl Vaters: I think in any church that isn't outright toxic, any church that's healthy or even relatively healthy, people want to help. And they want to be asked and they want the ask to be practical, doable, and teachable. Something they can learn, something that's going to make a difference that they can see, and something that they're capable of. If we can be very specific in those tasks. If it's, We need you to help more, that's not enough. We need these people in these times in these places, and this is when the training will be.
Jon Sanders: Yeah. Something else that we added to that too, was even a time limit. Like with our volunteer staff specifically, we gave them a 12-month commitment that we required or asked of them that gave him an off ramp. So they know that, you know, remember Marianne, she signed up for the nursery and no one has seen her again, like she's been gone in the nursery for the last 12 years. No, it's, We're going to give you a defined season of your serving from here to here. And so I unpack all of that in that course I mentioned, I'd be happy to share with your audience. So it's transformational.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. We will put that in the show notes and I really do encourage people to reach out for all these resources and to Jon if you're hearing some of this and you want to do it, and you're trying to figure out a way there. So this is all spectacular stuff, we could go on long. But nobody gets out of the room without having to face the dreaded gauntlet of lightning round questions.
Jon Sanders: Oh man, I hate lightning.
Karl Vaters: I know. Here you go.
Jon Sanders: Does that mean I have to answer quick?
Karl Vaters: No. I'm going to ask, give you lightning round, you're going to bring the thunder. Boom.
Jon Sanders: Boom. Not all thunder is big boom, so we'll see what happens.
Karl Vaters: Okay. First one, what are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?
Jon Sanders: Well, I'm not even going to touch the COVID stuff cause I stepped out of the lead pastor role right before that blew up because we could spend multiple podcasts just talking about that.
I would just say this, Karl. It’s what we were talking about earlier, is we have seen this middle ground of the cultural Christianity is being burned up right now. The battle lines, if you will, are becoming more clearly defined. Our nation - for those of us that are living in the United States - our nation is radically, quickly becoming a post-Christian nation. And that's got the church, you know, freaking out in many levels, and it's changed a lot. Even I think about when we planted a church versus, you know, 15 years later, as we were planting a new campus, just in that 15 years, how much things had shifted in the culture that made it a lot more difficult using old methods of church planting to just go in and say, We're going to open up a storefront downtown, start a worship service, start preaching, and just expect people will come.
Those same things that worked 15 years earlier did not work 15 years later. Like, we are seeing change quickly in our culture where we're drifting away from some of those expectations that people show up to church on Sunday, that they think and act like Christians, even if they're not really Christians. That is changing at a rapid pace. And then that affects so many of the ways that we show up as a church. Some of the assumptions that we make and the strategies that we employ.
Karl Vaters: I'm absolutely convinced the pandemic, the shutdowns, and all of that didn't change anything, they simply accelerated and amplified the pace of change that was already in the air.
Jon Sanders: A hundred percent agree.
Karl Vaters: Faster and bigger. So number two, what free resource like an app or a website has helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?
Jon Sanders: Oh, I’m excited about this one. There's a lot of great tools. And this one isn't even theological. Can I just get really practical and not drop a seminary bomb?
Pastor, check out Calendly, or something like that, a scheduling tool. That's what Calendly is. I've used Appointlet, was where I started this. But here's the big idea. If you get your… Okay, I'll go even higher than this. Pastors often struggle with having healthy boundaries, right? Everyone is pulling at them and having access to their time. A scheduling tool helps you take control of your time. It lets you set the days of your, and the hours in your day, where you're going to be doing the things you need to do. And then when someone wants access to your schedule, you can simply give them a link and they get access to your calendar, but what they see is only the dates and times that you've made it allowable, essentially, for someone to interrupt your day. Now I get it, you're in pastoring, stuff happens. I do understand that. But when I switched to this tool, even when I was in the senior pastor role, it was so awesome. When someone would say, Jon, can I meet with you this week, to be able to say yes. Then give them a link, and then when they're scheduling themselves on my calendar, they don't recognize this is by design. They think Pastor Jon's available to me, which he is. But they don't just get to walk into my office in the middle of my sermon prep or podcast recording or whatever else I've got going on.
And by the way, those tools can link up with Zoom and they will automatically, you know, put it on your calendar. They'll create a Zoom link. So this is really practical. This isn't stuff you have your devotions with in the morning, but this has been like a time management hack that has been life-changing. I probably started using this about five years ago and it's just been incredible to help me with my boundaries, with setting my week, taking control of my calendar. So anybody that is busy, that has a lot of appointments, different types of appointments, get a scheduling tool. It'll help you in so many ways. So Calendly, go check it out.
Karl Vaters: We just started using Calendly too. We're still figuring it out, but so far we are real happy with it because like you say, it syncs with everything. So basically what you do is you designate, these are the times and days that I'm available and then you send that to them, and then they can plug in their spot. So if you don't work on Friday, because that's your day off before getting ready for Sunday, then you just simply don't make Friday available on your Calendly, but you make the times available that are, and then instead of constant emails back and forth. So we're still figuring it out, but so far loving it. So that's great.
Jon Sanders: I’ll say one other quick thing to that if I can, Karl. What that does, Pastor, is it shows the other person, whoever it is, that your time is valuable and that it's limited. When they click in and see that you only have one opening on Tuesday and one on Thursday, that sends a pretty powerful signal that, Oh, pastor doesn't just sit around and wait for me to walk in the office.
I literally one time had a guy show up, carrying his dog into my office. This is small town, rural church pastor stuff. But he sits down and I said, Hey, what are you doing? Oh, my dog has an appointment at the vet in two hours, and I don't have anything to do between now and then, so… And I just looked at him like, So you're not sitting here for two hours with your dog, I do have stuff to do. So yeah, Calendly, go get it.
Karl Vaters: And on the other side of it, I love it when I'm going to be on a podcast or somebody is going to schedule a meeting with me or whatever, and they send me a Calendly link because it gives me options as well. So it really works well on both sides.
Jon Sanders: Yeah, it’s a great tool, go get it.
Karl Vaters: Yep. Third, what's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?
Jon Sanders: Oh, this is so good, and I'll go way back to the beginning. One of the very first things I'll never forget an older pastor told me, Never be afraid of these words in ministry: I don't know. Sometimes I think pastors think we have to act like we know everything and have it all figured out. And especially in these times, oh my goodness. These are uncharted waters that pastors are leading in and I just think it’s a refreshing, liberating place of humility to be able to say, I don't know. We'll figure it out, we'll ask God, we'll seek wisdom, I don't know. And so as a young pastor, I latched on to that and I've used that advice again and again in ministry. I don't know, but we’ll figure it out.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, three of my favorite words in ministry. And what's really surprising and counterintuitive is it doesn't diminish their trust in you, but it actually increases their trust in you when you're… Because if you don't know and you pretend you know, they can tell you don’t know. So admitting it actually is an integrity boost. It really does help. It is great.
Final question. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?
Jon Sanders: Funniest or weirdest thing. Man, I'll just go to something really recent. We had a guy that had to be removed from our - this is small town, rural South Dakota, town of 2,300 people - we had to remove a guy. And it's one of those that you look back with a little bit like that could have been really creepy. This guy came into our service, dressed almost in a Halloween costume, sat on the front row, was filming me before the service began, had his phone pointed at me. Later we found out he was definitely on drugs, but as I started preaching… Well, during the worship part, during the music, he was very emotional. He was crying. We have a lot of law enforcement in our church so I had guys with eyes on him, but he was acting really strange and then very emotional during worship. But then when we started preaching, he started talking out loud, laughing. He was Facebook Live-ing me, and talking to his audience and laughing.
And I tried to do my best for a few minutes to just be like, you know, to ignore it, to kind of move to the other side and talk over it, hoping he would kind of quit. And eventually, you know, I don't know if you've ever had those moments on stage, but as a speaker, at some point you have to acknowledge it or people start thinking what's wrong with him, why isn't he doing something about this? And I've almost never in my pastoral career called anybody out from the stage ever. But I finally had to just say, Uh, sir, I'm going to have to ask you to put your phone down. But literally, at the time I was on the keys, you know, playing in our worship band, so I was up there before church standing at the keyboard and as he was filming me, I just had this thought, Like, I wonder what it feels like to get shot in the chest, because I feel like this could be one of those moments, you know, that you hear about. Like, I just had that really strange sense. And I even texted then our sheriff, and I just said, Hey, keep eyes on this guy up here.
Because we have actually had conversations about church security and, you know, taking some measures to not be one of those tragedies that ends up on the news, you know. And again, you think that that'll never happen in rural church life, but yet, man, here's this guy. So it wasn't really funny, and we were able to get him out and follow up on him.
Karl Vaters: But it qualifies as weird.
Jon Sanders: Weird for sure. Yeah, definitely weird. But I want to say something to the funny. This isn't like an event. But this is just a good word for pastors. Over the years, when I think of… We have had some of the greatest times of laughter in our church. I think of one very specific thing. Years ago, our staff did a Christmas series based around the movie Elf. We had a lot of fun with that Will Ferrell movie, Elf, and did some funny video stuff ahead of time. And we just laughed a ton as a staff. And I think that's important, especially in our heavy world with all the heavy stuff we deal with. There should be some level of joy. And by the way, that transfers to the fire service too. We laugh like you wouldn't believe sitting around the table as firefighters. The stories we tell, there's just a joy that comes with that serving. So I'd be hard pressed to find just one event that's funny, but man, we've laughed a lot as a team, as a staff, and it is fun doing the Lord's work. It can be heavy and we make it heavier than it needs to be, maybe at times, but there should be a lot of joy in it too.
Karl Vaters: Show me a church or show me a leadership team that doesn't laugh and I'll show you an unhealthy church and leadership team. It's essential. Hey, how can people find you online?
Jon Sanders: Smalltownbigchurch.com is my website. And if you go there, you should be able to find all the links to my social media and podcast and all that good stuff. And if you want to shoot me a message at all, email@example.com. I'll be happy to serve you in any way that I can. So thanks, Karl, so much for the opportunity to share with you today.
Karl Vaters: Absolutely. And pick up a Rural Church Rescue. There's so much more in there than what we talked about today. But Jon, you have been and continue to be a blessing to rural communities, to pastors that serve them all around the country and around the world, and I appreciate that. I appreciate our partnership, that we get to work together, and together be able to serve the church. And thanks for being with us today. Really appreciate your time.
Jon Sanders: My pleasure, all the best to you, Karl.
Karl Vaters: I really love the parallels between the roles of firefighter and pastor that Jon makes. While the overlap isn't total, of course, the lessons are so clear. The simple fact of a clear mission and vision, the need to adapt, and the necessity of training and working as a team. These principles alone are worth thinking, praying, and working at every single church. So can this work in a small church? Can some of the lifesaving principles used by the fire department help us as we pastor our congregations? The answer today is an obvious yes. Yes if we do a handful of things.
First of all, let's be clear on what the mission is and is not. Don't let the culture or the community change that mission, not even a little bit. Stay on the mission Jesus gave us.
Secondly, we need to recognize that while we're staying on that mission, that requires us often to adapt our methods. When the firefighters show up at a home, their job isn't to put up the fire, their job is to save lives and protect property, and sometimes the way they do that has to change in order to fulfill that mission. The message on that for the church is so wonderful and so clear.
Thirdly, don't do it alone. A firefighter cannot work by themselves and you, Pastor, cannot continue to carry the load by yourselves. We need to equip God's people.
And then finally, if we do these things, I really believe that we can be seen in our community as the essential element that God actually has called us to be. That even people outside our congregations will appreciate the value that our church is bringing to our community, that the message is so important. And even while we may be saying things that offend their sensibilities because we're coming from a Christian worldview and they don't live within a Christian worldview, they will also be compelled because of our love for one another, because of our priority of mission, because of the blessing that we're bringing into people's lives. And all of this for the glory of God.
If you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and help put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most, check out our Patreon link in the show notes. If you'd like a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at Christianitytoday.com/karlvaters. You can find the link in the show notes. This episode was produced and edited by Veronica Beaver. The original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of Joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.
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