I didn’t set out in the beginning to be a small-town pastor. I grew up in the suburbs, and I expected that I would stay in that context throughout my life as I fulfilled my calling. The first time I was looking for a pastoral position, I did not even seriously consider any inquiries I received from churches outside of familiar settings.
As I reach seven years now as a pastor in small-town Arkansas, I have actually found that I might fit better out here than I did back in the suburbs. There are a lot of great churches in urban and suburban settings that raise up leaders with a missional passion for making disciples. Many of these leaders stay in church and demographic environments similar to where they grew up in the Lord. Others go overseas or elsewhere on the mission field. There is a dire need for some to commit to small-town and rural America.
If you are like I was, you might be hesitant to go to a small town, because you’re not sure that you are cut out to be in this context. But there are pastors enjoying their calling in small towns from all sorts of different backgrounds, and I have found that many of the traits that make someone well-suited for this ministry don’t have anything to do with where you come from.
Here are a few helpful traits for small town ministry that you maybe never thought of:
Proficiency in many things, rather than exceptional gifting in one area
Some pastors are great preachers. Others are great catalysts, who cast a vision and motivate people to execute a plan. Others are great administrators or excel at pastoral care or counseling. Large churches often have staff members who are exceptionally gifted in their areas of expertise and areas of ministry. Many of these ministers are shockingly bad outside of their lane of ministry.
A small church needs someone who can do all these things, even if he isn’t great at any of them. Their pastor needs to be able to preach a decent sermon, develop a direction for the church, be present for people in need, and lots of other tasks that would be delegated in a larger church. I have done tasks ranging from graphic design to tax forms to organizing a 5K to leading worship (in a pinch). I am not great at any one thing, but I can do a lot of different things, which suits me to the calling God has given me.
It doesn’t matter what the different abilities are as much as their breadth. God provides people to do what needs to be done in a church, but the pastor of a smaller church does well to be able to fill in where the need arises. Ministers can feel inferior when they look at the people who are the best at what they do, but it may be God is calling you to a place where the quantity of your abilities is even more important than the quality.
Adaptability to a slower pace
Many ministry books glorify the “Type A Personality,” the one with a plan who works hard until it is accomplished. Any successful minister must work hard, no doubt, but change occurs much more slowly in a small town setting. Someone who comes in full of plans and the inner drive to make everything happen all at once will be frustrated, and he will often be quicker to move on to bigger things once he has the opportunity. That’s not good for anyone, especially the church.
If you are someone who can settle in for the long haul, who listens well, who is content to make small changes and see what happens before moving to the next one, you are a better fit for a small town setting. Many young ministers are somewhat disillusioned by the corporate atmosphere of the urban megachurch. God may be calling you to come and leave the ladder-climbing behind and invest a decade in a few dozen of his beloved children.
Ability to live simply
If you pastor a country church of 75 or fewer people, you will not make much money. You might live in a parsonage. A ministry couple entering this type of situation is ideally already learned to live within their means, have little or no debt, and are able to set aside desires for many luxuries. Many pastors choose to be bivocational or rely on income from their wife. “Tent-making” has been idealized by many people, but in a country setting, these jobs can take you out of the town and limit your time with the people to whom you are called. The decision for a pastor or his wife to take an outside job should be weighed carefully against the costs, and motives should be carefully examined. The right types of outside work and the financial and relational benefits can be a great blessing to the pastoral work. The ability to be content and live simply with only a modest “full-time” salary is also a great blessing and brings great freedom for ministry in this setting.
Intrinsic motivation and the ability to direct yourself
Most small-town pastors will find themselves in one of two situations. For some churches, if you are there to preach and to fulfill your Sunday and Wednesday duties, you’ve met their expectations. Pastors in these situations need to have enough intrinsic motivation not to grow lazy. Other churches are full of members who have very specific expectations of what a pastor ought to be doing at all times. Pastors who don’t direct themselves can quickly fall into the role of running from place to place, trying to keep up with what people demand of them. Someone who can establish and execute their priorities when no one is watching can also hold the line when people are making unreasonable demands.
An outsider’s perspective and an insider’s heart
I think people assume that the person best suited to minister in a town is someone who grew up there and knows it best. That’s not always true. Jesus said that a prophet is not accepted in his own town, and I find that an outsider’s perspective is useful. People are often blind to the needs around them, blind to the brand of sin that infects a particular place, or believe that change is not possible. Someone from the outside doesn’t know any better and is more likely to take on the problems that insiders refuse to acknowledge or address.
But this only works if you adopt the insider’s heart. You have to love your town. This comes from looking for what you can love, rather than where you can cast judgment. It comes from learning to love the things about the town that the people love. It comes from learning the spiritual strongholds and growing in power in prayer to meet those challenges. It comes from choosing to stay.
There are many different ways for God to use you for his kingdom, and he uses people of all types with various gifts in small town settings. He likes to surprise us to let us know that he’s in charge rather than us. If you recognize yourself in these traits, maybe God is calling you (or confirming your call to) the small-town church.
If you are a veteran of small-town ministry, do you agree with this list? What other attributes did I not mention? Let me know in the comments.