In Search of Rural Ministry Rock Stars

If this is your calling, please contact me.

80% of Americans live in or near cities. But most want to live in the country.

Rural churches are challenging for pastors – especially if you want to be near a Target or a Trader Joe’s.  In Kathleen Norris’ classic Dakota, she noted that McDonald’s wouldn’t come to Lemmon, South Dakota because the population – hovering around 1000 – was simply too small.  Believe me, Starbucks has perfected their calculations about where to open a new store.  They don’t do rural.

If you are married, it will probably be hard for your spouse to find a job.  If you have children, the schools will not offer the same enrichment opportunities as a suburban school.  If you are single, dating will be tricky.

I lived in the lovely rural village of Schaghticoke, NY for the first five years of my professional ministry.  It was a wonderful experience, but it was also profoundly lonely.  I was 28 years old on the day of my installation and I stayed for five years.

And yet, the stories are better in a rural church.  There will be interesting billboards, colorful county fairs, and perhaps a Bigfoot sighting.  The people will be extraordinarily smart in ways that most people are not very smart.  They will care for each other and for their pastor.  Most of them will be related to each other.

As the graph above shows and the accompanying Washington Post article attests, many people like the idea of moving to a rural community.  But the jobs are not there.  Most of the mills and factories have moved out of small towns, and the farming industry is not what it once was.  Many rural communities have few children because – after high school – many young people move to where the jobs or colleges are, and they never return.

Opioid addiction and teenage pregnancy continue to be rampant in rural areas.  One rural resident explained that “there isn’t much to do to distract the kids around here.”  Drugs and sex have long been ready distractions in every kind of community.

So who will follow God’s call to serve small rural congregations?  We need entrepreneurial leaders who connect well with a wide variety of people and personalities.  Rural pastors need more flexibility than big city or suburban pastors.  They need to be okay with not being paid well.  (Even at a minimum salary, they might earn more than anyone else in their community.)  They need hobbies that don’t require theater tickets, bowling alleys, or gourmet restaurants.

Most of all, they will need to love God’s people deeply.

What would it take for you to seek a call in a rural community?


13 responses to “In Search of Rural Ministry Rock Stars

  1. This is my calling. I love it.

    No one could have told me how much I would love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am from rural Appalachia and, after seminary (in a city), I plan to return to the rural to begin ordained ministry. I hope my experiences of the rural and the city will work together to enhance my work.


  3. How are we equipping this type of leader?


    • Great question. Most seminarians seem to come from larger towns and cities and have never lived in rural areas (although there are some who hail from rural areas. See Rachel’s comment.) The ongoing challenge for seminaries is: how to teach future professional pastors all they need to know in the subjects of Old and New Testament, Church History, Worship, Theology, Christian Education, Ethics, and Practical Ministry (Preaching, Pastoral Care, etc.) while also teaching contextual ministry.

      All pastors need to learn how to transition a congregation from 20th (or 19th) Century ministry into 21st Century ministry, i.e. cultural shifting. The rural culture is different from urban/suburban culture but the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom is something few professional pastors know how to do. So – to answer your question: we are probably not equipping our leaders to be Post-Christendom pastors. But we can. I’m trying to do this in Charlotte Presbytery alongside excellent leaders who indeed know how (or want to learn how) to do this.


  4. Kathleen McKenzie

    My church is in a rural area, but near to smaller cities (I live in one), so all the amenities are there. But, so are all the rewards and challenges of rural church ministry that you describe above. I love it!


  5. Kathleen McKenzie

    Adding to both my response and the comment above regarding preparation, I feel that being second career (social work) which entails having had lots of experience as well as training beyond seminary has been tremendously helpful.


  6. Jessica Paulsen

    I love rural ministry and have always felt my call was and is to small town, small church ministry. I spent 5 1/2 years in the upper peninsula of Michigan and am now in a small town in Iowa. What you say at the end is most accurate–you need to have a deep and abiding love for the people. Thanks for speaking to this truth–to my truth.


  7. we also need to contemplate funding. i serve a rural-ish church in upstate ny, and will i get rich doing it? nope. is it lonely? yes. do i love it? i do. but money is so hard. my benefits are a huge chunk of our budget. not more than my salary, but really, not that much less either. it’s tough. and the answer can’t be ‘oh, just be ok making less money pastor!’ it’s just me and a dog and i live paycheck to paycheck and wouldn’t be able to be in this call if i had dependents or if the church didn’t have a manse. also, not to stereotype all small or rural churches everywhere, but, i know loads of queer pastors and even some women, who would never be given a second look by a rural church.


  8. Jan….
    Thank you for this! It is a huge issue in my region of Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia and a bit of Ohio. I served a rural congregation for my first 8 years of ministry and it was a gift that has carried me through all of my ministries–for so many reasons that you mention. The opportunity to be in communities that gather around yearly celebrations and live closer to the land than many urban and suburban folks was something that I could not have envisioned for myself. I learned about ministry, people and common sense smarts for life. What capped the experience and is a heads up perhaps to presbyteries, was the amazing colleagues who were serving in similar places throughout the presbytery. We got ourselves together for work and play and our connections were vital. Many of us are still connected. It is a different day, I know, but I am not sure that the opportunities of small town and rural ministry are as easy to see at first glance as those in larger and more urban areas.


  9. Jan, I grew up in a tiny rural church, and have served another for my entire public ministry. I love it, and I’m always glad to talk about this kind of ministry. John Vest did a May term class on rural evangelism, and he took his class on a tour. They stopped by to see me. I would love to develop ways for our small congregations to participate in educating aspiring teaching elders. When I was a little girl, I knew many students from Union in Richmond because we were in a parish of four churches with one pastor. We had a program then where students spent the summer in the field, then continued to come out during the school year. I was too little to realize the logistics behind it. I just know we loved our students.


  10. My husband and I have always served rural congregations. He is from a rural community. I am from Los Angeles. It took me a while to adapt but I value my relationships and ministry in rural areas. It has also cutdown on my wanting all those things that are not important.


  11. I was raised in a small rural congregation. When I finally followed the call to ordained ministry as a second career in my mid-30s, I knew I wanted to serve in small rural areas. The first day I drove onto the seminary campus, I met my future husband. He thought he was from a small community in Florida – it had 15,000. Texas rural communities are quite different. I grew up in a town of 3700 in north Texas. I was able to make a Texan out of my husband. Everyone on campus knew we wanted to go to a small rural congregation, somehow. When the head if a PNC called the seminary asking if they knew of anyone who might want to try a small hill country church, the lady that answered said, “Actually, I do!” We interviewed with that community as well as several others. After much prayer and discussions with mentors, we were called to a 1 and 1/2 position call, making us both 3/4 time. That was in 2001 (September 11th was our first day in town – an interesting way to begin your ministry). More than 17 years later, we are still in our first call! We are in a community of 1700 souls in a county of less than 2500. After the first year, we picked up another smaller church in the next county that we have essentially yoked with. We share a 1/4 time position there – whoever is preaching that week goes to an early sevice in the next county while the other one teaches Sunday school in our first call, then we worship together with the same one preaching and the other doing liturgy.

    Rural churches ebb and flow and we have been able to adapt and change as needed. The number 1 rule we have found in rural ministry is that folks just want you to be one of them, be interested in what they are doing, be willing to share in all aspects of their lives. They also wanted us active in the community at large. I was a former teacher/coach, so I got involved in youth sports and was a part of several different golfing groups. My husband learned to work goats and sheep and help on the ranches. We are often invited to fish/kayak/hunt with members or their extended families. After 6 years we were able to start a family and now have a 10 year old and a 12 year old.

    My husband saw the toll that our EMS workers suffered with no access to formal counseling, plus the shortage that caused insane work hours. So he got his EMT certificate and on his “day off” which never truly exists in a rural setting, he volunteers with the county EMS. Even when not on call, he is asked to come to bad wrecks and tragic incidents to help survivors and their families, as well as help the 1st responders process what they deal with. He later started riding on shifts with our sheriff’s deputies and DPS troopers and is now the chaplin for both the city police and the county sheriff’s office. He went to several trainings in incident command and was at forefront of the county’s response when we had tragic and deadly flooding hit our community this fall.

    After both the children started school, we were needing a bit of a raise, but wanted to stay here; meanwhile, the church was needing to cut some expenses, so I changed to a 1/4 at the church and my husband changed to full time. Then I was hired to teach at the local high school. After a couple of years, I was asked to coach basketball and tennis. We went to the session first, to get their feel because it meant I would rarely be able to attend session meetings and might be unavailable for some other events. They whole-heartedly backed the decision, seeing the new adventure as an extention of my ministry into the community. However, I made sure the
    superintendent and principle knew that I would have to leave for emergencies with congregants and miss classes for funerals or other events. Thankfully all sides agreed to the terms.

    For both my husband and me, the tweaks to our calls, the additions to our community service/2nd jobs have kept us changing and evolving so we have never felt stagnant. The real reason it has worked, though, is that we have had a healthy congregation the whole time that has been willing to adapt and change with us. They are never selfish, worrying about the number of hours we spend doing what job. While we are cautious not to abuse it, they never keep up with the number of weeks we are gone. With aging parents that live far away, we each have had to be gone quite a bit more recently. Their first reaction is always to tell us to take care of our families and ourselves.

    This ministry has been such a blessing. This church has a hisotry if long-term pastorates, so they understand what ministers need to be able to stay and to want to stay and they graciously try to provide it. Many friends who are working their way up the big steeple ladder wonder why we “don’t want to do better”, meaning why we don’t want to have bigger churches. For us, I am not sure how we could do much better! What we do is not for everyone, but it fits us and it fits our congregations, and we are ever so thankful for that PNC leader who called the seminary. After we accepted the call, he sent a huge boquet of flowers to the lady that answered the phone that day! Rural folks love to show their appreciation – to truly be appreciate for all the work you do, what can be much better than that?


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