10 Suggestions for Successful Small Town Ministry

A young pastor recently asked me what ten things I would recommend when beginning a ministry in a small community.  I took some time to ponder his question, and decided to write this post in response.  My list is not exhaustive.  I could probably write a hundred thoughts.  But here are my initial ten:

1.  Think Big and Little.
Too many rural pastors suffer from myopia -- small vision.  "How can anything significant happen in a little place like this?"  However, it pays to remember that Jesus launched the greatest mission in human history from rural context.  If you have the right perspective, you can touch the world from the end of it!  Refuse to be small minded.

Do something special with what you have.  Go the extra mile and put some "wow" into it.  It doesn't take much more to make a huge difference.  Remember, in a small community, you don't have to be great to be spectacular.

Take a risk and do something big.  Plan a significant event and invite the whole community.  (A few ideas:  a dinner to honor veterans or rescue workers, a fun outreach for children, a hunting or fishing expo, a concert, the sky's the limit!)

On the other hand, don't discount the little connections along the way.  I recently listed my ten most significant ministry moments in 24 years of pastoring in the same community.  All of them were either one on one or with a small circle of friends.  The most significant moments happen through interpersonal relationships.  Spending an afternoon with a frightened family in a waiting room could very well be the most important use of your time.

2.  Think Long and Short
Rural folks are suspicious of flash in the pan preachers.  They are much more impressed with faithfulness for the long haul.  Ask yourself, "What kind of church would I love to pastor ten years from now?"  Then, start moving that direction -- one little step at a time.  Bring people along with you. As Phil Cooke says, "If you are one step ahead, you are their leader. If you are ten steps ahead, you are their target."

While mindful of the big picture, it is important to redeem the present moment.  Plan ahead to manage your time and energy well.  Make every day count for something.  If you pray and obey, God will send you to people who desperately need you.  Don't just sit in the office waiting for something to happen.  The view of the world is extremely limited from behind a desk.

3.  Pastor the Whole Community and the Individual
Don't think of yourself as the pastor of a congregation, but of the entire community.  Get out to where the people are.  Become friends with the mayor, superintendent of schools, postmaster sheriff, health workers, judge, funeral director, business leaders, and other pastors in town.  The whole place is your parish and you are there to serve them.

At the same time, make sure to keep track of your flock somehow.  Who is hurting and needs a special touch?  Who is discouraged?  Who needs a visit or a call?  Ask God.  He will send you to them.  Each person matters.

Schedule times to visit those who are sick and shut in.  If you don't put it on your calendar, it won't happen.  One visit to an elderly person in frail health brings a blessing of many layers, and impacts far more people than you will ever imagine.

4.  Pray and Do.
Take substantial time at the beginning of each day to hear from heaven and get your soul happy in Jesus.  When you seek God's face first, you will have grace as you face people through the day.  Demands from the ministry load will consume every waking moment, unless you are intentional about carving out solitude.  You must fight for these times alone with God.  Your life depends on it!

Ministry is rich and rewarding when we serve from the overflow.  It is grueling and frustrating when we serve from an empty tank.  Keep your tank full and you won't burn out.

Our love for God drives us to our knees -- and then His love compels us to get off our knees and out into the world to bring a blessing.  Prayer is not a substitue for going -- it is our motive to do so.

Have a bias for action.  Don't just sit around hashing.  Get something done.

5.  Disciple Through Evangelism
Your job is not to run church programs, but to disciple people.  However, many have a misconception about discipleship.  They believe "going deep" means turning inward.  That's the wrong approach.  If we deeply love Jesus, then we will love who He loves -- lost, broken, hurting people.

Deep people will go deep into the harvest field.  It requires sacrifical commitment to share God's love with others.  Otherwise, it's not deep -- just muddy.

6. Be Wise and Generous.  
When we demonstrate generosity, we show the heart of Jesus.  Be as generous as you can with your own life, maintaining a bias for "yes!"  When it comes to decisions, follow the rule of faith and generosity.

Of course, you must be wise in how you handle resources.  They need to see that you use common sense when it comes to financial matters.  Perhaps the best way to approach church budgeting is by following John Wesley's adage, "Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can."  Joy always accompanies generosity.

Do the minutes from your church board over the past six months reflect joyful generosity?  Do the people in your community consider your congregation a joyful, generous church?  If not, what is one small step you could take to challenge them in this direction?

7.  Lead by Sharing Leadership.
Pastoring a rural church is like herding cats.  My wife, Cathy, says the only way to herd cats is to get them chasing the same mouse!

The best way to lead in a small community is through consensus.   Let them own it!  You're not Moses, so they will be highly suspicious when you come down from the mountaintop with a new vision and direction for the church.  Shared leadership requires shared vision.  You are not the only one qualified to speak about what Christ wants for His church.   Give the people freedom to express what they sense from God.  Let them answer this question, "How does Jesus wish to fulfill His Great Commission through us in this community?  How can we multiply disciples?  How can we touch the whole community and make a difference with the love of Christ?"  Then get out of the way and let them dream!

8.  Plan Ahead and Be Available.
One secret to effective ministry is planning your major activities ahead of time.  Use a month (or maybe two) as the hub of your calendar, then plan your weekly and daily events backwards from there.  If you start with the day or week, you will never get around to what you hoped to accomplish next month.

However, in your planning, make sure to include plenty of margin for the unexpected divine appointments that arise.  These spontaneous surprises are not interruptions.  Consider them as gifts sent from God and embrace them without resentment.  You will find a blessing there,

If you plan your priorities with a breathable daily and weekly schedule, you will accomplish far more than you could ever imagine.

9.  Preach, Pray, Lead and Love Well.
And not necessarily in that order.  These four duties comprise a pastor's job description, and should be the measuring stick for all your activities.  Run everything through the grid.  Will this help me love more, lead better, pray deeper, or preach stronger?  Do whatever it takes to strengthen those four priorities.  Your overall ministry impact will be graded on how well you do them.

10.  Work Hard and Honor Sabbaths
Nobody succeeds in ministry without a strong work ethic.  If you waste time in trivial pursuits, the health of the whole church will suffer.  Give it 100% effort and commitment.  Do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Make sure you tackle the most important things first.  Many pastors keep busy with unimportant, low priority items.

A essential part of your work is to take time for personal sabbath.  Ministry work is never done, and if you are undisciplined, you will find yourself overworking and not pausing for necessary rest.  Build space into your weekly schedule for this.  There's a reason God commands it.  This is not just a "day off", but an extended time (24 hour) to rest, refresh your spirit, reconnect with God and loved ones, recreate, and replenish. For me, Sabbath starts around noon on Sunday (after church) and goes until around noon on Monday. Unless there is an emergency, I do not engage in household chores, ministry responsibilities, or anything that feels like work during this Sabbath break.  I've discoverd that I accomplish far more when I honor God (as well as myself and my family) by keep the Sabbath.

On the daily level, I've learned to build space between my scheduled responsibilities.  This gives me a chance to breath and allows my soul to catch up with me.

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