Recently, I had the joy of ministering to a church in a community in southern Minnesota whose posted population was 1322. The village is on a secondary road that runs north to south and is located about forty miles from the third largest city in Minnesota—Rochester. Rochester itself boasts a population of less than 160,000 so it’s a major urban center with a good base that sustains the surrounding towns and villages, but its long drive makes it impractical for the rural people in the town where I preached to attend church there. The town itself has four churches—Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic plus a Baptist church. This paucity of churches is not surprising given the town’s size. There are two other Baptist churches within twenty miles. Without the local church, people who wish this type of evangelical ministry would have a half hour drive on good days or longer during bad weather. The town is the county seat, a county with just over 21,000 people. The church is not large, with perhaps forty there the Sunday I spoke, but there was a good number of children present, plus a nice mix of adults across the ages. It may be a smalltown church, but recently, they took fifteen teenagers to camp and about the same number to children’s camp.
The brother who has been there for the last six years was converted about a dozen years ago at a similar rural church across the state. His wife trusted Christ soon after her husband when she witnessed the change in his life. Though he had no undergraduate education, he came to seminary as a special student, giving up a well-paying job, relocating his family to the seminary town. During seminary, he also had a well-paying job that allowed him to drive late model vehicles. Yet after graduation, he quit that job to accept this rural pastorate.
Spending Sunday with him reminded me of the great ministry opportunities in rural settings. These small towns can be good places to live and raise a family. While the congregations may not always be able to financially compensate their pastor with a living wage (I heard from another former student last week who is having to take a side job to help pay the bills after a year at his new church to allow his wife to quit working to care for their growing family), but the side benefits may include the occasional side of beef or half a hog (or in the case of my Alaskan friend, fresh salmon) or produce from a parishioner’s garden.
Rural pastoring can be challenging and rewarding, but it is a vital part of Christian ministry. Those brothers and sisters who choose to labor in these small communities reach many who would not otherwise be reached. Yet many brothers are fearful of smalltown ministry. They think that ministry opportunities will be limited, fellowship will be hard to come by and rural churches will often be ingrown and difficult to pastor. They fear being stuck in a place where they will have a hard time living and few opportunities for growth and development. They are concerned they will have insufficient funds to adequately care for their families.
Having served in a rural ministry in Canada—our first ministry was among the Ojibwe people in a place that had maybe 2500 people among the three or four small communities that were in close proximity—we found that life in that setting was deeply rewarding. We were able to get to know people on a very personal level that you might not attain in a city ministry. For example, our mail service was at a small Co-op store seven miles away, where you had to go to pick up the mail. Mail was usually up by 1 PM, so there would be a flood of people there to get their mail. It gave us regular opportunities to interact with many area residents. In fact, that Co-op was one of three very small stores in the community where you could buy milk, bread, Pampers, etc. Major shopping needs would require an hour to travel to a larger town or two and a half hours to an urban center. Our second ministry was in a community of about 15,000 while our final pastoral ministry was in a city with a population in excess of 100,000 and another 75,000 in the surrounding county. Of these three ministries, the rural ministry has a special place in our hearts.
Our first two children were born while we lived there, and we learn much about life while living and ministering among our small community of neighbors. They were like family to us, inviting us into their homes, to their weddings or funerals and to their community celebrations. Once a neighbor borrowed a 5-ton truck that I had to pull himself out of the snow. When the RCMP questioned me about this, I asked, “Did he put it back when he was finished?” “What’s the problem then?” It was just a different life but one we enjoyed immensely.
One of our closest neighbors was a fisherman on Lake Winnipeg who had a license to catch walleye and jack (northern pike) during the three fishing seasons, spring, fall and winter. They commercial fished in the winter, using nets that were skillfully set under the ice. A board of about six feet in length was inserted through a hole drilled with an auger. A line was tied to the board and a metal device was attached to the board that would allow the fisherman to pull the line and release it, causing the board to scoot along the bottom of the ice. When the board had travelled about 100 yards (you could either see the brightly colored board or hear it as it moved), the fisherman would bore another hole, insert a hook and catch the line and extract the jigger. I occasionally went with him on these cold days to help and I was rewarded with fresh walleye to eat. In fact, he used our freezer to store walleye fillets that he prepared for sale and always told us to help ourselves! We had fish all winter long. Once he brought me some white fish which I subsequently tried my hand at smoking. They were pretty good.
Then there was the wild rice and moose meat which our neighbors regularly shared with us. Anytime we needed meat for a guest, our neighbors shared with us. In more temperate climates, the sharing might be corn, tomatoes, pork, chicken, or beef. One friend who lived in a rural area had a farmer who would load his corn planter with sweet corn which might be the three or four outside rows of a field—just for the preacher! Our neighbors and especially our church family made sure we were cared for. Help with our children, help with our vehicles, help with our wood needs, help with understanding the community, they were always available to help us.
Now I have painted a pretty rosy picture of rural ministry, and some might say what about the problems? Unable to pay the bills? I took outside work, sometimes as a drywaller later driving a school bus and working on an ambulance. My ambulance was another great opportunity to get to know the town people. In addition to emergency work, we participated in parades, did standby at the rodeo, assisted in the small hospital when they needed additional “hands.” I received on-the-job training and became an EMT. The consequence of this was the occasional request to do a funeral. I once carried an older man in my ambulance whom I’d never met. Sadly, he died shortly after he entered the hospital. The person, not a family member, who arranged his funeral, asked me to officiate, since I was the only minister he had any recent contact with! It was a great opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of people that I might not have had the occasion to under different circumstances.
Sure, rural ministry has its challenges. Churches sometimes have families interconnected by birth or through marriage. Patience, love and wisdom will be needed to minister in these circumstances, Surely, someone needs to care for these people! The relative isolation from ministry colleagues may be difficult. The salary may be challenging, and outside work may be necessary. However, none of these things should discourage a man from answering God’s call to serve him in a place like this. I know of one man who sought for ministry but seemed pretty selective in what he would take. Consequently, he never was called to a pulpit. He seemed unwilling to consider rural ministry, despite being a new graduate. Too bad really. Many churches would have been glad to have him, and he might have had a good ministry. Rural ministry is an important place to serve. May God raise up men who will fill these pulpits for the glory of God and the evangelism of small towns world-wide.