The modest expectations of a rural pastor

October 10th, 2021

We almost didn’t get the two-point charge in Zebulon County. We almost got the two-point charge in Pearlsburg, Virginia. That one made Zebulon seem downright cosmopolitan. The house was down in a ditch from the road. There was a parsonage dog attached to the parsonage. Nobody knew where it came from or whose it was, but it was part of the deal. Mange and all, we had to care for it. The dishwasher hung out in the middle of the kitchen, with no crevice to put it in, like a permanent place to stub your toe (and most of the rest of you) at night in the dark, with nowhere to remove it to.

The basements of the churches smelled mustier than, well, most church basements. Jaylynn would’ve been their first female pastor. This would’ve been fine. Expected really, from our vantage. What was unexpected was that the district superintendent (“DS” in Methodist parlance, a group of whom is above the preacher and below the bishop and tries to mediate between the two) wanted to leave me in the car while introducing her to her new church. “If we all walk in and they see that you’re the man, they’ll assume you’re the pastor,” she said, apparently knowing of what she spoke as a woman pastor. OK, I’ll wait. So Jaylynn met her first charge with me sitting shotgun of the DS’s car outside, listening to Garth Brooks. For what seemed like forever. Why was I not with my wife for one of the most important moments in her career, her life even? Finally I decided this was ridiculous, and came in. The DS glared at me. As soon as she could say “This is Jaylynn” she hastened to add “your new pastor.”

All the cloak-and-dagger nonsense aside, the church members seemed fine with the female pastor (it was the female DS who seemed agitated over it all). “Let’s go around and introduce ourselves and say how we each serve in the church,” the DS said, harmlessly enough. “I come from a large family that lived by the sea,” she started. “We fished for fish one season and crabs the next. My mama ran a beauty parlor that twirled my hair up real high like this. . . .” She went on. For another ten minutes. We looked around at the other fifteen people who were to introduce themselves and did the math. Suddenly the first-female-preacher thing didn’t seem like such a big deal. Next was Lois. “I’m Lois, I been at this church forty years, I serve on this committee.”


DS: “Is that all, Lois?”

“Why, yes.”

“You don’t do anything more at this church than serve on this committee?”

“It’s a lot of work. I’m real busy.”

“Uh huh. Next?”

Why does the church put up with its leadership? Why did those laypeople put up with us pastors and DSs? We infiltrate their communities, barely understand them, speak down to them, literally, from that pulpit. DSs send crummy preachers or else take away good ones to bigger churches first chance they get. And yet when they show up they’re treated with respect bordering on reverence. Lois should have bawled that woman out, and had every right to. Instead they bear with us. Maybe there is a God.

Zebulon came along unexpectedly. They had a last-second retirement. Pastor Jacobs had stored up weeks of vacation without telling anybody. Now he was gone. He wasn’t waiting until annual conference, when Methodist ministers all swap on Moving Day, he was just gone in January. “He figured he had six months’ vacation stored up; he never took a vacation day while he was here,” one member told us.

The DS muttered, “I don’t remember anyone ever storing up vacation time in our church before. And I’m sure it’s not in the Discipline.”

Another layperson said, “Funny, I don’t remember him working much when he was here!” When we opened a phone bill to see if we owed a portion of it, since our move didn’t coincide perfectly with AT&T’s billing schedule, we sent it to Reverend Jacobs and got a furious note back. “I have never once not paid my bills on time!” As if we were bill collectors. Sorry, dude, chill out, mail ’em a check. It’s a marvel Methodist ministers speak to one another at all.



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Buelah-Rehobeth would pay a bit more than Pearlsburg, a few grand, which was a lot for us. We felt bad making a decision based on money, so we called around to other minister friends to ask what we should do. Surely it’d be the virtuous thing to take the job with less money. That’s what Jesus would want—have you seen what he says about money in the Gospels? And surely we should live in the town we liked less, right? We sacrifice, Jesus rewards us, that’s how it works, isn’t it?

We called a mentor of ours to ask what he thought. His wife answered. This might even be better. She was a pastor’s spouse, daughter of a pastor, granddaughter of another. She’d set us right.

“Let me get this straight. You’re hesitating not to take that job because it’s more money?”

“Yeah. Isn’t that what we were taught we should do in seminary? Doesn’t less money mean more faithfulness?”

“Why’s that again?”

“Well, it’s not very much like Jesus is it?”


“You’d be crazy not to take that job. Crazy. You hear me? Crazy!” All the pathos of a pastor’s wife, a pastor’s daughter and granddaughter spilled out. “You’ll make less money your whole career! You’ll have to wait another appointment just to move up to an appointment that’s as high paying as the one you’d be turning down! Do you want to be like my grandmother who tried to dry diapers in a parsonage without heat and had them freeze on the line, do you?!” 

We mentioned another older pastor whom we’d admired. We’d imagined asking him: What would Pastor Samuel do? “What would Jesus do” is entirely too ephemeral—it has no connection to our actual lives. It does very little good to try to choose which car to buy with that bracelet slogan. It suggests Jesus’s absence—as though we have to conjure his spirit for a new day. But Christ is alive, risen, going before us, present in his saints. It makes perfect sense to ask what a saint like Pastor Samuel would do—for in such a one Jesus is presently working.

But our interlocutor would have none of it. “What? Have you seen his beach house?”

Apparently even a saint, or at least this one, doesn’t simply give everything away.

That settled that. And it taught us something important. We had a sort of noblesse oblige approach to salary and our own happiness as a family. Surely Jesus wants us to be unhappy, we said, in effect—what else could he mean by asking us to take up our crosses? But another swath of the gospel was missing. Surely Jesus also wants us to thrive, to live life abundantly, to practice ministry in ways that brought us joy and so enabled others to find joy through our ministry. God’s people occasionally do wind up martyrs, or bearing significant crosses through life in their ministries. We would do some of that. But the ancient church discouraged people from seeking out martyrdom when they could avoid it. It does no one any good to seek to be slightly less happy for Jesus’ sake. Others will do that ministry joyfully. Not you.

So, just married, we packed the moving truck ourselves and set out for Zebulon County. The parsonage wasn’t much then, if it ever had been. But the house was a miracle in the eyes of such as us who were used to apartment life. Three bedrooms, wood floors, great exterior windows, basement with an office we called the PE teacher’s office (steel cabinets, bad fluorescent lighting, just like back in elementary school), more room than we knew what to do with. How would we fill it all?

Obviously not with church people’s help.

We’d heard if you moved cheaply you could pocket the difference. Just starting out as a family, this would’ve been a real help. Except apparently the conference had changed that policy. They just hadn’t told us newbies. There was no incentive now not to hire the World’s Most Expensive Movers and pay them lavishly. We showed up with a moving truck expecting an army of volunteers to help us move in. There was no one. We couldn’t even get the door open. We’d heard wrong.

Eventually some church people showed up with flowers. The ladies were slightly more dressed up than usual to meet the new pastor’s family. They hadn’t planned anything more strenuous than a cup of tea and the livening-up of our first flower arrangement. We rolled our eyes, and went back to chuffing over overstuffed boxes. Finally one woman girded up her loins and feigned enthusiasm, “Come on ladies,” and they soldiered some boxes into the house. Our fairly pitiful distress brought out their readiness to help—how could it not? One called her husband who took the top off my desk with a screwdriver and to get it in the house and dragged it in on a blanket (it stayed when we moved—no one could ever figure out how to get it back out). Others moved boxes, food, pictures. We were in. We had a house. A life.

In one way Methodists serve rural communities like this well. We send seminary-trained pastors and spare local churches long searches for a new minister. We keep such churches open longer than some other denominations would, and give them more stability than many nondenominational or independent outfits have. It’s hard to imagine how an independent congregation of some sort could have found Jaylynn and me, credentialed us, sent us to a place like Zebulon, and paid us enough to stay there more than a few minutes. We speak of being a “connectional” church—not independent agents. That connection made all this possible.

Yet I wonder whether such churches don’t do the lion’s share of the work in our communion. We showed up, barely sure how to be married, and with no clue how to live in a community like theirs. And they moved our stuff in when they didn’t have to (in fact, it was their money going to the conference we should have been using to hire movers! Who should’ve given us the memo on that?!). They gave us a “pounding,” which I hadn’t heard of, but am glad now I have. It’s not a beating up but a pound of this, a pound of that, sugar and flour and all (which we weren’t even sure what to do with). They bore sermons they should never have had inflicted on them, and when we preached well they acted like the proudest grandparents of a baby who just pooped in the right place. And when we seasoned up, several years in, we were gone. By then we had a second kid coming, needed more money, and were ready for a place with some more entertainment and better schools. They knew it would happen, it happens with their own children, and they didn’t begrudge it a bit. The town where we lived was actually called Branch. We called the parsonage the Branch Ranch. It had a fake rock covering up the well in the front. This was important to know. I didn’t at first.

“Why am I not getting a water bill?” I asked one man. He fell out laughing. A friend from the city asked us why the rock looked so fake, when in the theater they make real-looking fake rocks all the time. I liked her response more. Our nearest neighbors were a country mile away. We could see them clearly enough, there at the top of the next hill. The hills roll gently there, so that animals stretching in the sunlight made silhouettes on adjoining hills. Whoever owned the hay field surrounding our house cut it a few times a year, then left the hay bails to rot. They’d have kept Monet busy. It looked like a driving range behind our house. A professional golfer could hit balls that would pose no danger to passersby, for there were none. We heard warnings of wild hogs out in the woods back that way. But we never saw any. Just bounding deer and rotting hay. A DS in Illinois told me that once he placed a city girl in a country appointment. She called the first night. “It’s too loud here,” she complained, “I can’t sleep.” “Loud? What do you mean?”

“I hear cows, owls, bugs, coyotes. Things are alive outside my window.”

She was used to elevated trains and car horns and crazy people screaming, but the screech owl was another thing entirely.

That was us, at the Branch Ranch. It was noisy, in the best sort of quiet way. I remember a three-piece-suited man standing up before a gathering of a few dozen of us ministers to explain why there was no reason we couldn’t retire as millionaires. Now we're talking! He was going to show us how, through our church’s successful pension program. Our eyes got big. We were in a church for this meeting—if he’d have held an altar call we’d have all gone forward and accepted the three-piece-suited man into our hearts as our Lord and Savior. It seems preposterous now, I know, after the stock market meltdowns. But at the time it was salve for our ears.

The small church teaches a different way with money, provision, ambition. It’s a place where you can make enough, if you’re frugal. You can’t get rich there, and you shouldn’t starve. You’ll make more than most people in the community, but not near as much as some. But it’s enough. An abundance really, over which one can thank God. One friend of mine, committed to the rural church, has promised himself to stay at our church’s minimum salary his whole career. He’d better demonstrate some incompetence if he expects them to leave him there. It’s about right to make enough, but not too much. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, quoting Exodus, that “the one who had much did not have too much, / and the one who had little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:15). Even more poignantly, Paul thanks the Philippians for their support of his ministry, “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18). I remember a smart undergraduate at Duke, a skeptic of religion, talking about watching the plate go by at his church. “That was the exploitation of religion, right there.” I take his point—either my ministerial faithfulness made their giving a gift, or my laziness would mean I was essentially on the take. Either way, I made one-fifth of what he did in his first job in finance.

We live in a world of unparalleled separation between rich and poor, in which the rich have more than ever, and the poor, well, as little as the poor have always had. As ordained ministers, we all have master’s degrees, and some of us have doctoral degrees, the works. And we will make much less money than people in most other professions with masters or doctoral degrees. And it will sting at times— just wait for that postcard about the private jaunt to Jamaica in your friend’s own plane.

And just so, perhaps, we’re a witness to the world that it’s important not to have too little, and not to have too much. And if we’re lucky, or blessed, our desire might even come in-line with this reality. Is it too much to ask for a grace that big?

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