For whatever reason, I’ve never really cared about being rich. I certainly like to have enough to pay the bills, and more is better than less, but money hasn’t ever been a big motivator for me. I think a lot of pastors are like that (or God brought us to that point), or else we would probably be doing something else. Outside of some of the health-and-wealth charlatans out there and a few others, it’s not money that serves as a snare to pastors. It’s the desire to be out front, to be known, to be famous and well-regarded.
For small-town pastors, that’s not going to happen. We are going to work in places where everyone in town might even seem to know too much about you, but where you are anonymous everywhere else. That should be OK with us. We are in the business of promoting Jesus, not ourselves. But sooner or later, every small-town pastor will have to wrestle with the bear of obscurity.
Sense of Loss
When I was early in youth ministry, I went to a convention where I was rooming with an older man who volunteered with the youth at his church. We didn’t know each other; we were paired by the convention so we could save money on the hotel. Each night, we would talk about what we learned that day. At the end of the week, for no reason I have ever figured out, he paused, cracked a half-smile and said, “You know, I think you’re going to be up on that stage one day.”
He meant it as an encouragement and blessing, but those words hang as a reminder of what I once dreamed I would be, a well-known and influential writer and speaker. Different pastors have different dreams, whether it’s speaking at conventions or leading a megachurch or starting a church-planting movement.
But those things are probably out of reach from Stephens, Arkansas, and most of the other small villages where we labor as small-town pastors in small churches. Whenever I go to a state convention, I am reminded that I will never be asked to speak. Part of what we let go to follow Jesus is our dreams. I am confident that what Jesus has for me is better than what I dreamed for myself, but it does not mean that there is no sense of loss.
Inferiority and Jealousy
Another thing we battle is envy and the cynicism that comes from anonymity. The enemy plants thoughts in our minds: “That guy’s no better than I am” or “Anyone could succeed in that environment… put him here and see what he’d do.” It’s a temptation to give in to those thoughts, to assume that the guy who is living the dream you had to abandon to fulfill your calling is being untrue to his.
We have no right to judge someone else’s servant. I know that, and so does everyone reading this post. But the enemy wants to make small-town pastors feel like failures just because of where they are, and one way we fend off feelings of failure is to diminish and tear down the success of others. It’s vital to learn to run our own course, fixing our eyes on Jesus rather than those in the spotlight.
Even if you never imagined yourself on a big stage, all pastors want some recognition, a little pat on the back. In a small-town environment, you often feel invisible within your state and certainly within your nation. You long for someone, somewhere, to see what you’re doing and affirm it.
This longing can lead to a situation where you are more concerned with being heard outside your context than within. Things like state and association work, blogging, website work, and even internet comments can become an unhealthy quest for people to notice you. I have examined my heart many times even when it comes to this blog. I know that my godly desire for people to value small-town ministry is mixed with a fleshly desire for people to value
After six years here in Stephens and about two decades in ministry of continual non-fame, I am mostly at peace with the obscurity of my calling, but I have learned that I must guard my heart against each of these things. The bear may be in hibernation now, but I will have to wrestle him again.
No matter what your context is as you read this post, know that God sees. He sees, and He cares deeply. He is pleased with every act of faithfulness. He is powerfully at work through each move of obedience, and God does not fail.