Approximately 60 million Americans, or about 19.3 percent of the U.S. population, live in rural areas. These communities are mainly served by smaller-member congregations. This is what writer Mark Clifton calls the “normative church” in his book Reclaiming Glory. The Hartford Institute of Religion Research puts the estimated number of Protestant Congregations in the United States at about 314,000. Of those congregations over 59 percent (177,000) average less than 100 people in worship. Of the approximately 56 million people who attend worship in America in these Protestant churches each week, nearly 9 million of them will worship in a rural church.
Yet, in my experience as a pastor and denominational servant since 1992, much of the leadership support through conferences, writing, and denominational programming and support is not provided with this reality in mind. Often pastors struggle to find content that helps them deal with the realities that they are faced with in their small town context.
Musician and theologian Michael Card, speaking about guitarist Phil Keaggy, once said that real genius doesn’t shut a learner or novice down, it inspires them. Yet, many pastors leaving conferences designed to help them go away feeling, “I could never do that.”
Leading in the smaller member congregation has unique challenges and blessings! My first pastorate was serving a country church in Sylvania. I was bi-vocational, working as a maintenance technician in a defense facility over an hour away. My wife and I were both city kids, more comfortable in a cul-de-sac than a farming community.
Yet, now decades later, the nurture and encouragement of that experience is undeniably foundational. Inexplicably, God has had us serve in either a rural or “rurban” setting for the last 28 years in ministry. “Rurban” is when you live in a subdivision but you are still within three miles of cows!
In smaller member churches the rhythm is usually slower. The unhurried pace has to be factored into shepherding. On the other hand, because of the closeness of the relationships, disruption is experienced with elevated intensity. Whether the leader is working through adaptive change, or handling relational crises, the energy ripples quickly through the tight knit church family.
Additionally, influence is categorized differently in smaller member churches. In my first church even though I was the pastor, I wasn’t really the pastor. I was the preacher. But the church had experienced a lot of turnover and the actual pastor was the deacon chairman.
Thankfully, he was godly and gifted in shepherding. Around 1993 he gave me a cassette tape of John Piper’s advent sermons. We talk about early adapters, but this godly deacon was listening to John Piper in 1993! He was a huge blessing to me. He was the first person that helped me understand that in the smaller member rural church, titles don’t mean that much.
Smaller member churches have unique struggles. Many rural towns are faced with difficult economic realities. Many rural churches are bi-vocational or multi-vocational. Either the pastor has to find an additional income stream or his wife has to work outside the home to make ends meet. Maybe they are both working. Because rural America – by definition – is going to provide limited bi-vocational opportunity, many smaller member churches are in major crisis mode any time there is pastor transition.
This speaks to some significant issues. First, this means that maintaining congregational harmony is extremely important (Ps. 133:1). If a congregation develops a reputation for being contentious in a declining or static population growth area, that is very difficult to recover from. It is worth the effort involved to learn how to disagree agreeably.
Again, because the relationships are so close and long-standing, often congregations are hesitant to correct behavior in members that is aberrant and unhelpful. But the alternative is to lose an aspect of community that is indispensable to vitality.
Second, a church can help ensure that the pastor is not restless in his ministry calling by loving him and his family and providing regular encouragement. Again, if it is true that any transition in a bi-vocational church is a significant crisis because of supply and demand, developing a healthy congregational life is a critical component in this.
Smaller member churches often are looking for young leaders who can energize the ministry. Sometimes the church leaders think that he will grow the church by osmosis by virtue of the fact that he has a young family. But if he meets with obstruction each time he tries to advance innovation, of course he will eventually hit the wall. His frustration will cause him to look for greener pastures.
If the crisis in transition for smaller member churches is not well managed, the church will probably eventually trade off something it shouldn’t in their desperation to find a pastor.
They will trade off character qualities the Bible assigns to a pastoral leader. They will turn to someone unqualified to serve as a pastor. They will trade off their missionary identity. They will settle for a chaplain who will make them comfortable, rather than a pastor who models for them the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Each congregation has historically unique connections in their denominational life that desperation will cause them to devalue.
The first auto-fill item under the Google search for “rural church” is “rural churches for sale.” That ought to be instructive for anyone who loves rural church ministry. It is increasingly obvious that this isn’t an easy calling, but that it is one that is worth doing well.