Small town, small church

When you accommodate your needs, you can make small-town small-church ministry a satisfying, growth-enhancing experience.

Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

It was late November when we moved into our first parsonage, located only 12 miles south of the Manitoba border. Snow had already surrounded it and was drifted high against the front door so unlike the west coast we had just left. We shoveled the door clear and brought in our belongings. Newlyweds that we were, even with everything moved in the house was bare.

We were in for some tremendous changes. The area in which our new home was located offered Carmen, my wife, virtually no opportunities in her field of training. We had exchanged a socially rich environment of family and college friends for a church in which the 20 active members were all more than 60 years old, and city life for life in a small town 100 miles from anything even resembling a city. And the nearest pastor of our own faith was that same 100 snow-covered, windswept miles away.

The dynamic, intellectually active college that had been home gave way to a place where people were almost fearful of new ideas. Stimulating Sabbath school class discussions were replaced by classes that, no matter what the lesson topic, unfailingly deteriorated into speculations about Billy Graham's or Paul Harvey's imminent conversion to Adventism. In place of the richness of a college church liturgy, we had a worship service where the pastor not only gave the sermon but played the piano and collected the offering.

Despite all of that, we were excited about ministry. After all, the Lord had called us here; He must have something in mind for us.

One Saturday night a couple months after our arrival, Carmen and I were sit ting at the folding table where we ate in our very bare kitchen. A blizzard roared outside, and all the streets were blocked. "Say," Carmen said, "do you remember the Sabbath we spent in Seattle with Charles and Becky?"

"Yeah. Funny you should mention it. You know what I was just thinking about? Listening to the pipe organ in the college church."

A few minutes and a few memories later tears were running down our cheeks as we suddenly realized how alone we were and how greatly what we were doing differed from the dreams of pastoring that we'd cherished during our college years. That wasn't our last lonely night in ministry in a small town, but it was the worst. Gradually we learned what we needed to do in order to maintain emotional health and intellectual and spiritual growth in a setting where ministry was needed but was not always rewarding.

During the early part of this century agriculture, mining, and other land-based industries were thriving, and rural areas attracted a rich mix of people. Towns and churches grew over night. As the land-based industries have become less labor-dependent, many small towns have experienced a slow decline. Every year a few more businesses on Main Street are boarded up, and a few more of the town's young people and retired people pack up and move to the city.

As a consequence, people in declining small towns become protective of their way of life. "If we can't get ahead, at least we can ho Id onto things as they've always been." Change becomes difficult. People's church affiliations, for instance, be come set in concrete even if those people never actually darken the doors of the churches of which they are members. Too often pastors find both closed minds and closed hearts.

Small-town churches, too, become self-protective. Often they haven't seen new members in years and the long time members hold at a distance those who do join. Consequently, these churches do not benefit from the new ideas that a turnover of membership brings. Often small churches seem to have the motto "We've always done it this way, and we always will." To members of such churches even the smallest changes appear to be compromises of the old standards and they may express hostility toward pastors who suggest otherwise.

With no successful outreach, church life stagnates. Trivial jealousies lead to deep divisions. And so the pastor of a small-town small church often finds a group of Christians struggling against change and against one another, and at tempting to ward off what is a very real possibility the death of the church.

Maintain your motivation

Those who pastor in these circumstances face different problems than do those who pastor urban and suburban churches, where the clergy run them selves ragged trying to keep ahead of their parishes' responsibilities and trying to help them fulfill their potential. Rather than the stress of a too-fast life, the small town small-church pastor must often face the question What do I do today?

The problem is not that there's nothing to do in the small-town small church a pastor can always find some thing to do. It's just that doing it seldom brings much of an immediate reward. The church is small and certainly needs to grow. But the town is small too, and its barriers to change batter back one's at tempts at evangelism. In the seminary the pastor was trained to study hard and preach good sermons. But it becomes apparent that the time spent studying doesn't impress the members; they find a simple Bible study as satisfying as a sermon that took days to prepare. Church administration? Some. But the church patriarchs and matriarchs make sure the pastor knows who really leads the church. Visitation? The pastor visited everyone in the parish plus all of those on its fringes in the course of three weeks. How often can one go back without be coming a pest?

Sadly, many small-town small church pastorates are care-taking ministries. There's always work to do; but real progress is painfully slow. Many of the needs those in such pastorates spend their days meeting would seem trivial in the wider, more aggressive world. At the end of the day the pastors come home, having done much work but feeling they've achieved very little certainly nothing recognized in wider circles as marking success. When they've knocked themselves out to give their best, they see little lasting difference in the church and often hear no praise for a job well done. Ministry that produces so few tangible results threatens the pastor's motivation.

Guilt accompanies the loss of motivation. "I'm being paid with people's hard-earned money, but what am I accomplishing? I'm not baptizing anyone. I'm not bringing about a great revival in the church. I'm not growing personally. Lately I don't seem to have met even the basic expectations of the church. I'm a failure." The perception that your ministry is failing will paralyze you particularly when church members or administrators who believe that heaping guilt on you will do you good reinforce this perception. The result: You do less, feel even guiltier, and so experience even greater paralysis.

How can you maintain motivation while pastoring small-town small churches?

1. Make a long-range plan and stick to it. People who plan get more done. As the old saying goes: "If you aim at nothing, you're sure to hit it." When small-church pastors aren't seeing the kind of progress that makes their work rewarding, they sometimes have to continue to do the Lord's work through sheer self-discipline. And nothing sustains discipline like good planning.

But even more important, having a plan and carrying it through is the best antidote to the paralysis guilt engenders. Finishing something that you've planned to do brings satisfaction and allows you to turn off that inner voice that seeks to paralyze you with its insistence that you should be out doing something. When you've made strong, legitimate plans for your ministry and you've seen those plans through, you can give yourself permission to relax, leaving the results to the Lord.

Small-town small-church pastors must learn to find their satisfaction not simply in the positive changes they see although they will rejoice for those but in the fact that they have faithfully done their work.

2. Take care of yourself. Often when I came home from a day of laboring in my rural parish and settled down with a good book, the thought came, Hey, isn't this kind of selfish of you? After all, you're being paid with tithe money. Shouldn't you be out ministering to ______?

The fact is that if you let guilt keep you from meeting your own mental and spiritual needs, not only will you suffer for it, but so will your family and ultimately your church. You can minister better when your own needs are met. As much as any one, and perhaps more than most, small town pastors need to devote time to their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health to relax, to read, to re-create, to spend time with their families, and to build themselves up professionally.

Intellectually-oriented pastors may have particular difficulty finding fulfillment in small-town small-church minis try. Such churches value changelessness in the world of ideas as highly as they do everywhere else. While books are always available, it takes more than reading to sustain the life of the mind in the absence of an intellectually active community of people. You can take steps toward fulfilling this need by making use of every opportunity to take classes and seminars that will challenge you intellectually. For us, doing so sometimes meant a bit of sacrifice to our schedule and budget, and occasionally even some sacrifice on the part of the church. But we believed that the Lord had a plan for our lives that went beyond His call to that small church. And as He takes us along the successive steps of His plan, He wants us in top shape not intellectually and emotionally depleted.

3. Make something happen—and enjoy your success. A farmer, a sensitive Christian who was a member of my church, once said to me, "I know it's tough to pastor here, but if you just keep hammerin', you'll break through somewhere."

I've thought of that often, particularly when it seemed like my ministry had come to a halt. His words encouraged me to believe that the Lord had something He wanted me to accomplish in my small church, that if I just kept hammerin', He'd help me to break through to some one in a way that would be rewarding. And He does. Never anything earthshaking. He just helps me to see that my ministry is having an effect. Perhaps a young person is encouraged to go to a Christian college, or someone's life is changed in some way by a sermon I preached, or a timely visit helps to re store a failing home. As I look back on my small-church ministry I can see that the Lord has been working through me—and that's rewarding.

However, it may be hard to assess your successes objectively when you're discouraged; you may have to get some help to see what you've accomplished. In one small church we pastored, the members spent most of their time praising the pas tor who'd just left. We were frustrated. It seemed nothing we did ever measured up to the ministry of that giant of a man. Not until some time later did a conversation with our predecessor lead to the rev elation that he had been as frustrated as we were by the church's constant praise of his predecessor. We were, in reality, doing no worse than he had done.

The point is that you're not necessarily a poor pastor just because your church isn't singing your praises. An objective assessment of your work by a sensitive administrator or fellow pastor may be much more positive than what your church is communicating, and it may help you not to take your church's problems personally.

4. Widen your field of mission. Your small church needs attention and usu ally it will take all it can get. But think of the needs in your larger community. Farmers are going broke and selling out. Are you ministering to them? Alcoholism is a major small-town problem. Can you do something to help? Homes are breaking up. Do you have something to say to families in trouble?

Often whole new worlds of rewarding ministry lie before pastors who are willing to reach beyond the needs of their small churches to those of their communities.

Find friends

To a large extent his or her church comprises the pastor's world. The people of the church are the people the pastor spends the most time with, the people the pastor knows the best, the people with whom the pastor shares many concerns. It's easy to assume, then, that with such a people-oriented life, the family in the parsonage is flush with friends.

But the small-church experience can be very lonely. Not only are pastors and their families often far from friends and relatives, but the time they spend with parishioners doesn't necessarily translate into satisfying friendships. While pastors have a common spiritual agenda with their parishioners, they may differ greatly in age, cultural outlook, and education. Often the few years pastors stay in one locale are not enough to earn their acceptance by churches and communities that measure length of residence in generations.Church members may feel uncomfortable including a pastor in their everyday social life. And even in the small church where a pastor may find it possible to establish a close friendship with a member, such a friendship may be costly to the pastor's leadership particularly when the church has some built-in divisions and jealousies.

I think Carmen and I came to our first pastorate believing that when we were doing the Lord's work we wouldn't be bothered by loneliness. That wasn't the case, of course. The Lord designed all of us to need friends. We've found that it pays to make the extra effort to reach outside of our church circle for that sup port network.

During the first few years in ministry our preoccupation with our denominational and pastoral identity cramped our friendships with those outside of our church. Overly self-conscious about our role as the Adventist pastor's family, we felt that we had to hold friends outside the church circle at arm's length in order to maintain our distinctive beliefs and the standards of our position. And we tended to regard non-church acquaintances less as friends than as objects for evangelism.

But being perfect and unapproachable is a hard burden to carry. We needed real friendships. Not self-conscious friend ships friendly faces hiding ulterior motives but relationships in which we could reveal ourselves as real people in need of others. Often we found those outside our church circle more willing to see us as real people than our church members were. Ironically, it seems that it was when we dropped our guardedness and became more open and genuine that our friendships opened the way for witness about our faith.

We've found other pastors to be a particularly rich source of friendship and support. While some insist on seeing others as rivals, most feel the need of a sympathetic friend outside of their church circles as strongly as we do. I have been surprised to discover how much alike our ministries are. What pastors of all faiths have in common—vast areas of spiritual attitudes and understanding, of 'modes and methods of leadership—out-weighs by far the theological differences that separate them.

My friend Tim, a Methodist pastor, and I come from quite different theological traditions. But as we've talked I've discovered that Tim holds more of the deeper spiritual attitudes I value than do many colleagues whose theology is closer to my own. Consequently, Tim and I have shared deeply about our hopes and concerns for God's work.

Isolation isn't the Lord's will. Of the world? Never! In the world? With enthusiasm! Like it or not, we are part of the family of man. Encouraged by the example of a Saviour who "mingled with men as one who desired their good,"* we also must mingle with men and women and in our case, the good that comes from doing so will go both ways.

It will also pay you to make visiting and staying in touch with friends and relatives a high priority. In our first small church we felt that we ought never leave the parish. Not only did we think we always had to be at the beck and call of the members, but traveling seemed an expense we couldn't afford. Looking back, we realize that keeping in frequent touch with friends and family was some thing we should have found time and money for.

Match strengths and needs

We once found ourselves in a pastor ate where adapting drained our emotional energy. Because we believed that pastors worth their salt would fit well anywhere which once was conventional wisdom we questioned the genuineness of our call to the ministry. But our small-church ministry has taught us to differentiate between the challenges that are an intrinsic part of ministry and the frustrations that arise because the church's cultural expectations, educational backgrounds, and philosophies of ministry differ too extremely from those of the pastor. Such differences, by the way, do not necessarily indicate that the church's philosophy and vision are better or worse than those of the pastor; they may simply be different.

Certainly a dedicated pastor will minister with compassion and competence no matter what the setting. But it is not wrong to think in terms of matching a pastor's gifts, needs, and vision with those of the church. The Lord expects us to evaluate wisely our place of ministry in light of our talents, our needs, and the needs of our spouses and families. The desire to minister where the pastor and church match well is not necessarily an unholy ambition; it may be simply a recognition of God's plan to use churches and pastors to His greatest glory.

Be assured that the Lord is not unmindful of your desire to minister where you can find His work fulfilling. Nor is He unmindful of your desire to be where your spouse can develop a career, or where you or your family can find other opportunities you need. While you must not covet a place of status that the Lord alone can bestow, you need never be ashamed of asking God to put you on a track where you can grow to your full potential.

Never forget that you are in a small town small church because the Lord wants you there. If it has been a frustrating experience, take comfort in the knowledge that the Lord has had something for you to learn from that frustration something He could best teach you in that place. Your small-town small church is God's way of helping you to become the pastor He wants you to be.

* Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1942), p. 143.

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Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

January 1990

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