6 tips for entering the world of rural ministry

July 1st, 2020

It’s moving season for United Methodist clergy. Countless pastors are headed to new appointments, with many of those entering into the small-membership rural church for the first time. There are a lot of myths about rural communities. So, for all of those pastors who are entering into rural ministry, I wanted to offer some friendly advice — the sort of stuff I wish I had known when I started out.

1. Don’t assume everyone is a farmer.

The largest myth about rural ministry is the assumption that everyone in the community is spending their days tilling, planting and harvesting fields. It’s an easy assumption to make: when you drive through a rural area, you pass a lot of open fields. Someone has to be minding the farm. 

In reality, there are fewer farmers than ever, and the farms that produce most of our food are owned by an increasingly smaller number of large corporations. Most of these are concentrated in the Midwest. More and more, farmers are hobbyists, who either produce crops to sell at local farmers markets, or to use for their own families. 

When you’re tempted to make that Wendell Berry quote the central component of your sermon, remember that a large number of your parishioners might be working in manufacturing plants, for-profit prisons, in eco-tourism or for the government. It’s good to think about pastoral theology and the land, but also help your congregants think about how to be disciples in those other industries, too. 

2. You are not just a chaplain.

I often hear that a rural church just needs a pastor who “will love these people.” It’s become a joke of sorts that district superintendents introduce rural appointments to pastors by asking, “How do you feel about visiting people?” 

You are not just a chaplain. You are the pastor and the chief missional officer of your church. Providing excellent pastoral care is important, but it shouldn’t be the only outcome of your time in the rural parish. The rural church is a fertile ground for innovation and mission. Let yourself dream.

3. Lead with relationships. (Everything is pastoral care.)

While you are not just a chaplain, leadership in small congregations primarily happens through relationships. In small rural churches, social memory runs deep. There’s a reason that the chairs are arranged the way they are, that paraments can’t be altered and that people want to do things a certain way. 

Spend time listening to people and their stories. Pay attention to what is happening underneath. Help them to give a voice to their concerns and their values. The grandmother who doesn’t want the church to grow? She might just be afraid of losing that community where her kids were raised. The person who is too involved in every decision? They’re taking care of their sick parents, and the church is the only stable place they know. Understand these deeper values, and help people know they don’t necessarily have to give up those essentials for change to happen.

Once you realize that every action is pastoral care, you can actually do a lot of work together. Remember two points, though. First, while you are not just a chaplain, one of the gifts of the small church is the opportunity to treat everyone as a whole person. What happens outside of church gets brought into the church, and you get to help people through both. Second, decisions can’t be made unilaterally. You will often need to be a coach, rather than an executive. 

4. Younger isn't always the answer.

At some point, especially if you are a youngish pastor, someone will say that they want the church to be younger. They’ll point back to the children’s classroom and reminisce about when their grandchildren (who are now your age) used to fill that room to a capacity that would warrant a citation from the fire marshal.

There are plenty of rural communities that are seeing a boost of young families moving back to the area, lured by affordable property and easy commutes. Just as common, though, are the rural communities attracting retirees, even as the young people move away. Those retirees are often looking for a second vocation and have skills to lend to your congregation. The church is a natural place for them to be welcomed into the community. 

Look at the demographics of your community, and see who is actually around before committing to attract younger people, families or retirees. Data can’t make disciples, but it can help you in your own planning.

5. Get to know the nonprofits.

At some point, you will want to launch a mission. Most commonly, the churches my center works with are launching feeding ministries, giving away school supplies and after-school tutoring programs. While all of these are great programs, it’s always good to spend time thinking about how to best use your resources in the community. 

To help with that, spend time getting to know the nonprofits in the area, and not just the other churches. Talk to the head of the library, the school principal and the county health department. If there’s a hospital, meet with them about the needs they see in the community. Offer your church as a partner, whether it’s just the use of your space, a few volunteers or something more. 

6. Design your own metrics.

If you’re a United Methodist, you report a number of metrics each year already. These are lagging metrics, designed to be a quick snapshot for someone in a regional office to glance at later and notice trends. The truth is, you can’t do much to change them once you report them. 

More to the point, a lot of them are not all that helpful to small, rural churches. Is studying average worship attendance in a declining community really going to open up a new strategy? Or will focusing on youth in a retirement community lead to new disciples? Probably not. 

That does not mean that you can’t become a more vital church, or that you shouldn’t measure outcomes. Spend time with your congregants thinking about what they actually want to improve. Find and set metrics to help you achieve that. Hold your congregation accountable to those goals. 

As you enter the world of the small, rural church, remember that rural communities can have vibrant, innovative and deeply enriching ministries. Rural churches are places where people ask serious questions, explore their faith and seek to live it out in meaningful ways. It’s a gift to serve in the rural parish. 

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