City Slicker or Country Boy

Can someone who grows up in the city successfully pastor in a rural community?

Some can’t. I know of examples where the person from the city just couldn’t fit it. Sometimes the new pastor just can’t relate to what is happening – or not happening – in the rural community he now lives in.

Here are some thing that can make it difficult for a city slicker to become a country boy:

  • Less conveniences: No mall, few options for shopping, only one movie at the local theater, etc.
  • Less privacy: Even though I don’t know everyone, everyone knows who “the pastor” is. And people like to talk – even about the new pastor.
  • Less driven: Sometimes rural people, rural churches, are more used to thinking long term and so changes may happen slower in a rural church.

Sometimes the differences between the city church and a smaller rural church are too big for the city slicker to figure it out. I followed one pastor who only lasted about two years in the rural town before heading back to the city. When I joined the denomination I’m part of, the District Superintendent came to my smaller Bible School looking for young men from rural backgrounds who would be willing to pastor in rural communities. He saw the difficulty that pastors from the city were having in some rural places.

But it doesn’t have to be impossible. If you come into a new community and a new church, you need to come with a desire to learn and to fit in.

Here are some things you can do to figure it out and to fit in:

  • Be willing to learn. Ask questions. Let people know that you know you don’t know. If you don’t know anything about farming or about logging, ask questions and show interest. Listen.
  • Get involved in the community. Attend the local sports events. Go to the community dinners. Have a lot of coffees in the local coffee shop.
  • Ask about the history of the community. Are there some “big moments” that people talk about? Sometimes its the last flood or a big storm or a local guy who made it to the “big leagues”.
  • Buy locally as much as possible. If the local people see you in their stores and in their restaurants, they will notice and be more accepting of you.

Rural ministry may be difficult for those who come from urban places, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are called to a rural church, come with a willingness to learn and listen and you may just have the best ministry ever.

P.S. Just to be clear, after 15 years of rural ministry, I know I would have a hard time to do ministry in the city. I came to this realization as I dropped off my daughter in downtown Vancouver this summer. She is attending Vancouver Film School and lives very close to the center of the city. I would have to do a lot of learning and listening myself.

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Pastoral Longevity #3: You Need a Soft Heart and a Tough Skin

Most of what we do is very public. Pastors lead meetings, pray at functions, preach sermons, plan church activities.

Many of the things we do are seen by many people who automatically, and often subconsciously, evaluate everything we do. I do the same thing. I am quick to judge what I see and experience. It’s natural. Without even thinking about it we decide if we like what is happening or we don’t like it. And most of the time it isn’t an issue to think about, but sometimes there are people who think they need to let us know what they think.

I believe that a pastor needs to have a soft heart and a tough skin in order to minister to the same people for a long period of time. The tough skin is necessary to let things bounce off us as people make their comments – or as you hear the whispers. There will always be things that people don’t like. It may be how you led a meeting or how you preached your sermon. It may even be what you didn’t do – if you didn’t do something they thought was your job.

As pastors, we need a soft heart. We need to find ways to forgive people. We even need to find ways to apologize when we realize we were at fault. We need to be able to love even those who don’t approve of everything we do. The reality is that over time, probably just about everybody in our congregation will have come across something they didn’t like about how we did or did not do something.

If we want a long fruitful ministry with the same congregation will need to have a soft heart and a tough skin.

Pastoral Longevity #1: Begin with No End in Mind

I just had a conversation with a friend who is looking at moving to a new church. He has two possibilities that really appeal to him. At our recent Rural Church Pastors Network gatherings ( http://www.ruralchurchpastorsnetwork.com ), I talked with a few pastors who were just in the process of saying goodbye to their church. On the other hand, there were a few that had been in their church for 5 and 12 and even 17 years!

In our Canadian church culture it is assumed that pastors will not stay around very long. We marvel at how someone can stay such a long time at one church – especially if it is a small rural church. I want to address this issue over the next while. Before I go on, I want to be clear, I have only been in my present church for 5 years and the longest I’ve served anywhere was just over 7 years. But my desire is to pursue long term ministry in the same church.

Long term ministry in one church, especially in a rural church, is of great value. If you have spent time in a rural town you know that unless you have been there 5 or even 10 years, people still see you as the new guy. It is as you spend time in that community that people begin to open up to you. They see how you live and act over time. They see how your children are raised. They see your commitment not just to the church but to the community. Some doors will not open until you have proven yourself over a number of years. My personal feeling is that at 4 years I am have just begun to get a feel for the people and the community and they are just beginning to open up to me.

So, pastoral longevity #1:

Begin with no end in mind.

Sometimes we treat our calling to a particular congregation like a project of some kind. If you are working on building a new garage in your backyard or are trying to run a marathon, you begin with the end in mind and figure out what you need to do to get there. When it comes to our pastoral tenure, I believe it should always be open ended.

Some pastors go into a local congregation with the thought: “I’ll plan to be her for about 5 years.” As soon as we go in with an expiration date in mind, we are already saying we are not here for the long haul and are only passing through. The people in your church and in your community will see that.

When we go in with the desire to be fully there until the time that God very clearly tells us it is time to move on, then we will begin to see our community as our own. We will care about the people inside and outside our congregation. We will be more likely thinking of how God’s kingdom can have long term impact.

If you can’t see your kids graduating from the local high school or are already thinking that you don’t want to grow old here, you may already be disengaging before you have even begun.

I believe that it is God who calls us to a local congregation. If it is God who calls us, then we should look for ways of honoring that call until we are clear that He is calling us somewhere else. Let’s not plan on leaving until we have accomplished all that God has wanted for us.

So here’s my first encouragement on pastoral longevity – it begins in our own minds: Begin with No End in Mind.

Change Something as Soon as You Arrive

“I’m not changing anything for a year” said the new pastor.

He was going with the advice that I have heard too. The old wisdom says don’t change anything until you have been around for at least one year. Some of the reasons are that you need to get to know people and need to build up a repoir or gain the respect of your new congregation.

Here’s my thoughts on that. Change something as soon as you can. People will allow you to do a few things they don’t like when you first show up. If you wait too long they will wonder why you didn’t make the change when you saw the need. Don’t just randomly change something. Don’t change something just to make changes, but make changes as you see the need.

If you are new, you are bringing new eyes to the church. You are bringing your experience and new ideas that the church may not have seen before. As you enter into your new role you will quickly make assessments about things you think could be better to accomplish what you believe needs to happen in the church and the community.

If you wait, there is a danger that you will miss some of the opportunities to make a few changes and quickly gain momentum while people are still excited about having a new pastor and leader in place. I don’t mean you make huge changes, those take total buy in of your leaders. What you do is change little things that will give momentum to the bigger changes down the road.

Change something as soon as you see the need and can do the change justice.

When You Say Goodbye, Say Goodbye.

Most pastors move from time to time. When you say goodbye, say goodbye.

Small town pastors – small church pastors can become really close to their smaller congregation. That is a very good thing – when you are there. But when you decide, or they decide for you, that it is time to move on, you need to know how to let go.

You are still friends with people in the church, that is understandable. But you are no longer their pastor! You need to step away from conversations about the new pastor or new direction the church may be going. You need to encourage people to go to the new pastor for their spiritual counseling and spiritual needs.

While it may be difficult to do, you need to find a way of removing yourself as their pastor even if you are still trying to maintain a friendship.

My personal suggestions:

1. If they are getting married, encourage them to ask their new pastor to perform the ceremony. Or at the least involve him in the ceremony even if they want the old pastor to come back to do the wedding.

2. If there is a funeral, encourage them to ask their new pastor to officiate. You may want to attend, great. You may want to be involved in the ceremony, fine. If they insist you do the ceremony, make sure you communicate this with the new pastor and find a way for him to be part of the funeral in a meaningful way as he is this families pastor!

3. Steer away from making comments or suggestions on the new vision or ministries of the church. Say only positive things or nothing at all.

It is for the church’s best interest if they bond with their new shepherd as quickly as possible. They need to learn to love and trust him like they did you!

If you say goodbye, say goodbye!