I was brought up in a city of 60,000 and my first congregation was in Atlanta, GA. I loved the church people there, but after numerous attempts we made little headway making friendships with those outside our little communion. Yes, the air at that time was pretty stiff with racial strife, but that didn’t seem to be the real hindrance. Big city life just left people with very little time for the deep relationships that I felt my ministry should be built upon. So in those early years, I really struggled in a fast-paced urban setting.
My second congregation was in a small town in Arkansas where people were very likely to stop you on the street and ask you how you liked your supper the night before since they knew that sister Mary had sent over some of her special tomatoes. To my great surprise and relief, all that transparency suited me just fine. Suddenly, my whole outlook on ministry changed. These people, in contrast to those I had previously tried to minister to, didn't care if I knew all about them as long as they could know all about me. Transparency and honesty became the keys to ministry both in and outside the walls of the church. For the first time in my young ministry, I began to see deep relationships being built between myself within my congregation and also outside. It was exciting!
The experience described above was repeated in several more congregations. Then in 1996, the Lord did something truly amazing to top it all off. He opened a door to one of the churches in the Midwest in the middle of rural Iowa. There I was, a former city and Southern boy, plunked right down in the middle of a German/Dutch village of 51 people who later told me they could not understand a word I said for six months. But the lessons of honesty, transparency and deep relationships overcame whatever hindrances were there from the start. Our family, congregation and classis had 12 wonderful years together ministering to that entire area. That genuinely rural pastorate was by far the best one I served in over 40 plus years of ministry.
In small-town and especially in rural America, you not only serve your congregation, you serve the whole county you're in and sometimes beyond. Because rural people are so tied together and families are scattered here and there, every pastor ends up pastoring everybody. Your pastoring is done along the paths of everyday living on Main St., along the fence row, down at the grain elevator, while helping to throw hay and in completely informal times where it really counts. As these strong relationships are forged you realize that as much as you have been able to influence and help others, they’ve also helped to change you.
Do you struggle to relate to your congregation on a personal level? Have you felt unfulfilled with the depth of relationships you have established? God gives different personalities and gifts to fit a wide variety of settings. If you haven’t found you niche, consider rural or small church ministry. You might be surprised to find just what you’re looking for there.