One of the most intimidating things for a pastor who takes a position in a small-town setting is that you seem to be the only stranger in town. Everyone else knows everyone else, and you soon find out that they’re probably related, too. When we moved to Stephens, I think it was my fifth time I had ever crossed the state line into Arkansas. I was new. My family was new. And everyone who saw us around town knew we weren’t from around here.
Pastoral work can be lonely. It’s well-known by now how common depression and feelings of isolation can be for pastors (and pastors with moral failures usually do so partly because they live in isolation). This danger is especially present for a pastor of a church far away from his family and previous friendships. We should, of course, pursue friendship and fellowship with the people God has called us to love and reach, but there are other friendships that every small-town pastor needs to seek out. In this post, I will present five of these friendships that a pastor should pursue upon arriving in a new field of ministry.
1 – Someone new like you
My first Sunday in Stephens was October 31, 2010. It was also the first Sunday for two more pastors in my association, both with young families like mine. My wife and I met these couples at a Christmas dinner the association was giving for its pastors in early December. Although both of these comrades have now moved on to other places, it was good to have these friendships early on, as we were able to talk about getting to know our people, our church culture, and our new setting.
2 – Someone who has been around a while
One of the first things I had to do to acclimate myself to my new position was change my idea of urgency. The gospel is always urgent, of course, but my background was in youth ministry, a one-year internship, and as a church planter. In all of those settings, there is pressure to get things done within a small time-frame. But my church here is established (for more than a century), with members that have been here for decades. They aren’t graduating and moving on, so change does not have to be immediate–trying to make fast change is not wise. It’s important to able to learn and bounce ideas off of someone who understands the long game. I have been blessed with a friendship with a pastor who also came from a large Texas metro background, but had been in small-town Arkansas for more than a decade when we first started getting together. I am so grateful to God for this pastor’s wisdom and encouragement over the years.
3 – Someone with a family like yours
This relationship is less about advice and professional development as it is just about friendship. Pastors need friends who are also in ministry. Pastor’s wives need friends who are also married into ministry. And pastors’ kids need friends, too. This is a friend who will pray for you, genuinely love and care for you, whose wife will love and support your wife, and whose kids will be invited to your kids’ birthday parties. It’s a relationship of mutual encouragement and accountability. We have been abundantly blessed with two such families here, with one of these men becoming my best friend in the area. I don’t know how people can get through the ups and downs of ministry life without these types of friends. I would never make it.
4 – Someone in the denomination
I wrote about how important denominational connection is for small-town pastors in my last post. A friendship with a denominational leader, such as the director of your local association or someone who works for the state convention or a mission board, can connect you with resources you need or even didn’t know about, offer advice or stories from outside your immediate context, and even help you make the connections to build the friendships I have already mentioned. The relationships I have had with denominational leaders have helped open up opportunities for our church, like our Alaska missions, our poverty programs, and more.
5 – Someone younger or newer than you
I am hoping God guides me to a relationship like this one next. Now that I have been in here for about six years, I have more seniority than most pastors in the area. God gives us experience in order that we can invest in others.
Building these relationships has to be a priority or you won’t do it. It takes intentionality and it takes time. As a natural introvert, it was really awkward and scary to contact an established pastor in the area and ask him if he would be willing to meet once a month for lunch. It was equally intimidating to reach out and make the first steps toward building a friendship with these other pastors. It takes time out of your schedule to make the time to get together, especially in rural areas where nothing is close. But pursuing these relationships are some of the best things I have ever done for myself and my ministry, and they are some of God’s richest blessings.
In a small-town setting, you are likely to be alone–no secretary, no associate minister, no staff. We all need support to fulfill this calling, but it doesn’t happen automatically. We have to make the choice to reach out, be vulnerable, admit need, and then allow God to love you through his people.