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?


12 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.


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