The Ten Commandments of Rural Ministry
It may be a bit audacious to claim that we have actually uncovered the Ten Commandments of Rural Ministry or even to put these ideas on the same playing field as the real and original commandments. And there is no doubt that that there are other ideas that are worthy of making this list, perhaps some that are even more important. But each of these commandments are worth noting and remembering, both for those who are new to the ministry and those who are veterans of service in the rural context.
Commandment #1 – Know Your Context
It is not necessary for a pastor to come from a rural background in order to be successful or to lead a vital ministry. I have a very good friend who was a dairy farmer prior to his call to ministry. He is an outstanding pastor and a fine community leader and there is no doubt that he is ideally suited for service in his setting. But that is not a prerequisite. What is essential is that regardless of our community of origin, we need to become students of our context. Taking the time and making the effort to understand the people in your congregation, the problems they face, the struggles they deal with, and the victories that they celebrate, can be vital to your leadership. Churches are living, changing organisms and it is not enough to know everyone’s name. Sometimes it is far more important to go the extra step in understanding each of their stories and how they fit into the larger narrative of both the church and the community.
No matter how long you serve in a place, unless you were born there you will always be considered a newcomer. And that’s OK. Everyone in the church knows that and in fact, they often celebrate that you come into the community bringing new ideas and a breath of fresh air. But something else is quickly apparent – rural people can smell a fake a mile away. So no matter where you come from, be yourself. Be respectful and interested and open to learning who they are and what they do. Most people you come in contact with will want to make you feel at home and will often go out of their way to acclimate you to their surroundings. But no matter how much you learn, never tell a farmer his or her business. No matter how well you get to know your church members, never assume that you are one of the family. Allow them to be the experts in their fields of interest. And never act like you are anything but what you are – an immigrant in a new and fascinating land.
Commandment #3 – Understand the Connections
Small towns and rural communities are a web of interconnections where the lives of their residents often intersect in numerous and unexpected ways. It goes without saying that we are called to develop relationships with our church members. But it is essential to remember that when we interact with those who are in our care, we are often drawn into relationships with a far wider group of people. Families are far more than just parents, children and grandchildren. In a rural context the word “cousin” often takes on a much wider meaning. Our residents are far less transient and we are more likely to find families who have lived in the same area, even the same house, for multiple generations. Marriages and births and lifelong friendships, even past business associations, result in a patchwork assortment of connections that are usually assumed and seldom dissected. After 25 years, I still stumble upon relationships that surprise me, so I find it safer to just assume that everyone is related!
Commandment #4 – Become Part of the Community
No matter where we are called to serve, the most effective way to understand and relate to the needs, concerns, and lives of the people in our care is to live in their midst. This incarnational attitude is especially important for those of us engaged in rural ministry. But living in a community means far more than just inhabiting a house in the area. It means being engaged and involved. Effective rural pastors know how important it is to immerse themselves in the culture, shopping in the local stores, sending their children to the area schools, and caring about the same civic concerns that impact the lives of our members. When we accept a call or an appointment to a church, we should be “all in”, not just accepting a job, but making a commitment or an investment in a way of life. For an interesting look at this incarnational attitude about ministry, check out Ministering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter (Baker, 2003).
Commandment #5 – Accept Distances
Driving is a fact of life for anyone who lives in a small town or rural area. While many small towns have some amenities, we often have to travel some distance to get to our schools, stores, businesses, medical care and other basic needs of life. There are always children in the community who spend time on a school bus, both in the morning and in the afternoon. We try to frequent our local stores and businesses, but there are times when you need to buy specialized items in another place. And even when we are fortunate enough to have a local hospital, the more serious cases are often referred to the nearest urban center. The rural pastor will have to drive to make pastoral calls, attend meetings, do hospital visitation, and attend to the business of the church. And in joint parishes and multiple church settings, driving becomes an essential part of the work that we do. One church that I served was located in a town of 500 people, but my actual parish covered nearly 250 square miles. Of course, distances are relative, depending on where you live. But accepting this reality is essential to anyone who is called to our way of life.
Commandment #6 – Understand Life in a Fishbowl
There are few people more visible in rural communities than the local pastors. People know who you are, who your spouse is, who your children are, and even your dog’s name. If you long for anonymity, this is not the place for you. It is a given that there will be an article about you and your family in the local newspaper even before you arrive in town. And in this day and age, chances are likely that your picture has made the rounds on various social media and even the church web site. While this notoriety may seem a bit daunting at first, keep in mind that it is also a blessing. Instant recognition can be your entrée into many ministry situations and community functions. There is no need to explain who you are and why you are there, because most people are already aware of your presence. You are the ambassador for Christ in that place and even non-church members in most small communities recognize the significance of that role.
Commandment #7 – Practice Hospitality…and Accept It
Hospitality is the language of rural life and food is its currency. Whether on a pastoral call or participating in a church or community activity, you can usually count on food making an appearance. It is often said that the pace of life in rural areas is slower than in other places, but what I think that really means is that rural people know the value of visiting and the importance of making the time to do so. Rushing in and out of a social setting is not only bad manners, but it is also bad practice. Even when your schedule is busy and responsibilities are stacking up, it is important to remember that the person you are talking to right now needs to think that they are the most important priority you have at the moment.
Most church members will recognize the need to share hospitality with one another and especially with the pastor. And food is the way they express that. Having a meeting? Coffee and cookies go well with your work. Making a pastoral call? You will often be asked if you have time for “a little lunch”. Has someone died in your community? Few will come to the house empty handed. A successful rural pastor knows how to share hospitality with others in the community. But most important, you need to know how to accept hospitality from others as well. It is the rural way of showing that they value your presence.
Remember, if they offer you a doughnut, they are not asking if you are hungry.
Commandment #8 – School and Church are Still in a Relationship
Schools are central to the life of rural communities. Just like the presence of churches, hospitals and court houses, the existence of a school building in a community can mean the difference between a state of decline or an attitude of activity. Even in areas where the concept of separation of church and state has removed any remnant of church presence from the curricular or extracurricular programs of the school, the school itself still maintains an informal relationship with the Christian community. Because like the church, the school is an institution made up of people – teachers, students, staff, board members, parents and others. And in small towns and rural communities, many of those people are the same individuals who sit in your pews on Sunday morning.
A rural pastor who is interested in vital ministry will pay special attention to the school and its activities as a way of demonstrating interest in the lives our members and as a way of showing the community that we are available, approachable and accessible. That means attending sporting events, music concerts, plays, meetings, and other activities. Sometimes attending an occasional basketball game is enough to show a young member of your church that you care. Often going to a concert on a Tuesday night encourages the community to see the church as more than a Sunday morning activity. Volunteering to help a third grader learn to read, shows both the teacher and the young student that the pastor is one of us. I would go so far as to say that not only is the relationship between church and school important, it is essential.
Commandment #9 – Practice Self-Care
Who pastors the pastor? Even the most educated and theologically astute leaders need to realize that physical, spiritual, and mental self-care are essential to a successful sustained ministry. However, we are often notorious for providing attention to the needs of others while ignoring our own well-being. In an occupation where our meetings and gatherings frequently feature doughnuts, cookies and coffee, regular exercise and attention to diet and nutrition provide an important balance. While long working hours and evenings full of committee meetings and Bible studies make the pastorate anything but a 9 to 5 job, the need to take a regular day off and to provide adequate time for family life is an essential. And as educated church leaders we often fool ourselves into thinking that the use of scripture for sermon preparation can satisfy our spiritual hunger. A regular regimen of prayer, devotional reading and personal Bible study is a good start toward meeting this need. Even better is participation in a study or prayer group that does not require us to plan or lead the entire event and that provides accountability and support from a group of peers or friends from outside the congregation. The pastor, the governing board, and even the congregation should be committed to finding ways to meet these needs.
Commandment #10 – Embrace Technology
Technology has had a significant impact on the work and ministry of the rural pastor. Worship, visitation, sermon preparation, administration, even meetings have benefited from a wide array of new tools and options. PowerPoint and projectors are more than a novelty now and in many places have completely replaced the bulletin and printed hymnal. With a tablet and a smart phone the church has gone mobile, allowing the pastor to do administrative tasks on the go, and in some cases replacing the church office altogether. Google has become a verb, streamlining research for sermon preparation and bringing the seminary library to even the smallest rural community. Many
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