Making disciples

Pastors, Small Places Need You

Unlikely reflections from a small-town pastor's wife

December 23, 2020

This piece was originally featured as a guest piece on the NCD Blog.

A couple months ago, I attended the North Central District’s conference at Camp Shamineau. It’s the first of many of “firsts” for my new life. New to ministry as of last June, new to marriage, new to home-owning, new to small-town Minnesota after leaving my suburban St. Paul stomping grounds for the farming community of Windom, Minnesota.

Feeling new wind in my sails after the conference, I began to make better sense of what it means for God to call people to small-town ministry. Because, frankly, there is sense to be made.

To truly understand means setting aside what you think you know and seeing brokenness and beauty exactly as they are.

Coming from a metro area, I’ve had to wrestle with the misconceptions around entering ministry in a rural place. And I know I am not the only one who needs encouragement. To the pastors and pastors’ spouses hesitant to enter ministry in small places, or perhaps are already there, let me encourage you: small places need you.

Small places are worth being understood

Stephen Witmer, author of A Big Gospel in Small Places (previously reviewed on the EFCA Blog), clarifies this description of “small places” as the “forgotten” places “lacking influence” that are “smaller and more isolated.” These are the towns validated by their promise of Dilly Bar pit stops during road trips down country highways.

I had much more to learn about what we were really doing when we accepted the call to a church in one of these beautiful, broken places. I wondered what exactly was meaningful about small-town ministry. How could that possibly be worth our time?

If you’ve kept the prospect of small-town ministry at arm’s length, I encourage you to a simple mindset shift: small places are worth being understood.

The grace is that God, and only God, can move you to embrace a willingness to understand the places and people that seem far from your preferences.

To truly understand means setting aside what you think you know and seeing brokenness and beauty exactly as they are. In small places, cornfields are not a monotonous landscape—they catch the falling sweat of saints, grow the family of God and provide for the poor. Weather reminds us that we submit to the grace of God’s rain. The shopfronts of the town square may be half-empty, but the waitress at the local eatery knows your name and one day might know Jesus, too.

For the task of ministry in small places, you have to be willing to come, embrace it and stay for as long as God would have you. This sacrifice requires a constant laying down of some ideals of ministry—splashy programs, urban resources, full pastoral teams, your career ladder—and a growing willingness to enter into its culture. It’s not unlike Jesus’ embrace:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

After a couple of weeks of living in Windom, church ladies threw a charming open house for me complete with Folgers coffee and crust-less tuna sandwiches. They tenderly smiled, “So, how do you like it here?” What they were really asking was, How long are you really going to be here?

A pastor I met at the NCD conference put it this way: “Small-town people see themselves as ‘here-to-stay’ and the pastor as transient, whereas urban folks see the people as transient and the pastor as ‘here to stay.’” The reckoning of a pastor’s eagerness to commit to rural ministry can be compounded by the pressure of locals wondering the same thing.

The grace is that God, and only God, can move you to embrace a willingness to understand the places and people that seem far from your preferences. Or are, quite literally, far away. This is nothing new to ministry, and nothing new to how God sees us:

“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Ephesians 2:17-18

Small places need eager, patient leaders and spouses willing to accept God’s call to rural ministry. And if God makes it clear that He is not calling you there, lean in to attitudes that seek to understand small places and affirm the leaders who go there.

Small places give us gospel clarity

[I]t is God alone who makes His people become like Jesus.

I remember the night we accepted the call to come to our church. We candidated fully intending to come, my husband especially eager since his upbringing on a third-generation dairy farm gave him a heart for rural ministry. Yet a split vote was likely. We were engaged at the time, young enough to be the children (and grandchildren) of most of the church members, and my husband was just finishing seminary after getting licensed in the EFCA.

But it was a nearly unanimous call. It was all so counterintuitive and glorious. This is the kind of thing only God can do, I told myself.

Consider the possibility that entering small-town ministry will pull you into a setting rich with opportunities for saying “Only God can do this.”

Because small places are often under-resourced, it would be naïve to think rural measures of gospel-change are the same as that of urban areas. Our church’s lack of visibility in mainstream channels means that no one beyond our church membership may hear my husband’s sermons. Our worship team doesn’t have a drum set. “No, we actually don’t have a youth group,” I tell my suburban friends.

And when I heard other ministry couples share their COVID-19 coping strategies at the NCD conference, I felt a tinge of doubt: Are we doing enough? Could God really be at work here?

Living loved changes us. It’s our new identity.

Being in a rural area is a constant reminder that God does, in fact, change hearts in places where typical markers of ministry success seem absent. Discipleship has to first be the prayer that people’s eyes would be opened (Eph 1:18) to see Jesus. Yes, it can happen with professional worship teams, strategic capital campaigns and a blossoming pastoral staff. But disciple-making is always the work of God in small steps through our meek belief, the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might” (Eph 1:19).

Small places, then, are this glorious opportunity to reckon with the notion that it is God alone who makes His people become like Jesus. This becoming happens through incredibly small, back-to-the-basics forms.

My husband’s relationships with our church overseers have laid the groundwork for radical discipleship, one tractor ride and McMuffin breakfast at a time. I’ve celebrated normally tentative church members’ newfound eagerness to pray aloud. Most nights, my husband and I pray prayers like, “Thank you that you moved so-and-so to join Katie’s Bible study.”

One of my favorite moments so far: a retired woman biked to our house and knocked on our porch door to share with teary eyes how God, through my husband’s online sermon addressing racism, deeply convicted her.

This is when I see the gospel most clearly. And it takes even bigger prayers for a humbled spirit inside me that rejoices in these smallest of moments.

Small places are loved by Jesus

In our prayers for Christ-like love, God has surprised us with love completely uncalled for.

At our installation service last year, an NCD staff member charged us with a call to live “loved by Jesus.” He turned to the writings of the disciple John, who often referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Living loved changes us. It’s our new identity. It’s why we love ministry in the first place.

Small places, too, are loved by Jesus. When I look at the footprint of Jesus’ ministry, I see that it was podunk towns like Nazareth and Galilee where He spent his time and called ordinary fishermen to be His disciples. I believe Jesus loves these places. And if He loves them, then they are worth investing in for the long haul.

Perhaps you’ve been in rural ministry and felt God’s calling out of it. Or you’re on the cusp of a career change but have disregarded the possibility of ever going to a small town. I get it—it’s not for everyone. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m still finding my vocational niche. Driving in blizzard whiteouts to work certainly doesn’t win any points for me. Admittedly, it will take years of small discipleship victories for us to truly be seen as “belonging” to our community. And that’s okay.

To our ministry brothers and sisters specifically in small places: you are not alone.

Consider that rural places—and people—are loved by Jesus, and that Jesus can awake a love for them in you. Not because of anything they offer you, but because God loves them first. This is, once again, the gospel: the good Shepherd loves His sheep, knows each of their names and unashamedly devotes His life to theirs (John 10:11-18).

In our prayers for Christ-like love, God has surprised us with love completely uncalled for. A church member has freely supplied our frozen beef for the last 16 months. Another farmer has generously backed up his personal trailer and grain truck into our driveway to help clear the debris of multiple house renovations. And even when I have to tell yet another church lady, “I’m really not into crafts,” the hand-stamped card she delivers on my birthday reminds me that we’re really, really loved.

Jesus has softened me to say, “I love being here.” It’s the most true, unexpected reality I know. I’m glad that God’s idea for “all God’s people” (Eph 1:15) is better than any one southwest Minnesota farming community or inner-city church plant or Iron Range congregation. To our ministry brothers and sisters specifically in small places: you are not alone. Know that because of God’s transformation in our small place, we are praying for you like Paul does in his letter to the Ephesians:

“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph 1:15-16).

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