For most of his ministry, my husband has pastored rural churches. He feels called to serve smaller churches, to “remind them . . . to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1 nkjv). Pastoring in a rural community is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, we have experienced some of the best cooking you could ever imagine, and some wonderful hospitality. When we moved into one community, we were given a pounding to help us begin housekeeping; on move-in day, church members came to our door with a meal and a few pies.
We have received lots of love and support from rural churches, the kind of love that is hard to find anywhere else. Pastoring in a rural community is not without its challenges, however. Many preachers, especially those who have not been in ministry very long, arrive at a church with the idea of doing new and innovative things to attract new people. Sometimes those desires can be well received by the congregation, and sometimes not. My parents visited one church we served, and a lady told my mother that they like to keep their church small—that is the way they want it. It is unfortunate that sometimes older members do not understand that bringing new people into the church is the only way their beloved church will survive after they have passed on. And if new people are going to come to your church and stay, the church must be attractive to them.
In our experience, when some people tell you they love and appreciate you, they truly mean it. But there are times when families have been in the church and community for generations, and their feeling toward you is “we were here when you got here, and we will be here when you leave.” They see themselves as permanent and you as temporary. Their love is conditional—it lasts as long as you are doing what they want you to do, and you had better believe they are watching. Those who have lived in the community a long time tend to stick together as well. If there is an issue in the church, and these members are put into a position of making a choice between the pastor and a long-time member of the church and community, they will side together whether or not they agree with each other.
That is not to say all rural churches are stuck and will not allow things to move forward. It does mean, though, that pastors do not need to go in and make changes immediately. Settle in and observe how the church is accustomed to doing things. Learn your congregants’ names and get to know them. They need time to connect with you and your family and to discover for themselves that you can be trusted. Once you have earned their trust, you may begin to suggest where improvements can be made. That is not to say you will be able to get approval for everything you think needs to be done. Be patient. When people have been raised in one church and haven’t been anywhere else, they don’t realize there are better ways to do things.
A retired minister once told us, “Sometimes you have to stay long enough to outgrow the pond.” In other words, as people pass on, and other people come into your congregation, the face of the church changes and so does the opportunity to try new things.
Pastoring in a rural community can be a rewarding experience. It takes love, acceptance, and a lot of patience at times. Help your congregation to understand that while you are working to love and accept them, they have a responsibility to love and accept you too. But most of all, be faithful to preach the Word.
Maleah Bell is a freelance editor and pastor’s wife. She and her husband make their home in Middle Tennessee.