The incomparable Tim Keller, himself a pastor in Manhattan, offers some great advice to the young pastor. A taste:

Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a ‘country parson’ — namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word ‘consider.’ I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me . . .

. . . Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.

I have left out some meat in order to include the gist, so you should definitely go read the whole thing. Keller is touching on something huge here, this “disdain,” which really manifests itself in neglect and discrimination. This is on huge display in a Time Magazine article on the decline of rural churches. The magazine article talks about young pastors reluctant to go to a place where there’s no Starbucks, and even of older pastors and mentors telling these young guys they are too talented or too creative to pastor in small or rural towns. You know, because those places are wastes of time.

I can’t think of sentiments more antithetical to real ministry.

When I left a three year old church plant in suburban Nashville to assume the pastorate of a 200+ year-old church in rural New England, a close friend of mine said, “You’re going to kill your career.” He was just (sort of) joking, of course, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hear something like that. (I should mention that since making this move, my “career” — if by that one means writing/speaking opportunities — has actually increased, and I actually pastor a larger church here in rural Vermont than I did in suburban Nashville.) But I told him, flatly, “Good.” The day I begin thinking of ministry as a career is the day my ministry career begins to be a big fat pile of FAIL. By God’s grace, I am what I am and do what I do, and this means going where I’m called and hoping he increases, not me.

We’re supposed to decrease, you know?

I am glad more and more pastors are planting churches in the city. The cities need them, and more of them. I can’t think of a single church planter I know personally who is a selfishly ambitious flag-planter. (But I know the selfish flag-planters are out there.) Still, I’d love for more young guys to nail Starbucks and the corner pub and shopping malls and public transportation to the cross and go plant and pastor where you’re more likely to hear a cow moo than a car honk. Country folk are real folk. And they need the gospel too. A lot of evangelical churches in outlying areas are praying desperately that crop after crop of young pastors and aspiring church planters will grow up and show up.

As professionalization captured the evangelical pastorate, churches in small town America began drying up. It’s where old pastors go to retire. It’s where the untalented go to do second rate ministry. Even the one or two conferences recently about ministry in small town settings were led by megachurch pastors and were predicated on how to build a big church in a small town.

Does anyone see the connections between Jesus’ mustard seed ministry and ministry in marginalized America? You almost don’t even have to contextualize all that sower/soil, house-building, sheep and field stuff! It’s plug and play Gospels in rural America.

Is God really calling more people to the cities and suburbs than to the outlying areas? Or do we just think he is?

This is why I liked the 2nd to last paragraph of Keller’s post:

Young pastors should not turn up their noses at such places, where they may learn the full spectrum of ministry tasks and skills as they will not in a large church. Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career. Why not? Your early ministry experience will only prepare you for ‘bigger things,’ if you don’t aspire for anything bigger than investment in the lives of the people around you. Wherever you serve, put your roots down, become a member of the community and do your ministry with all your heart and might. If God opens the door to go somewhere else, fine and good. But don’t go to such places looking at them only as training grounds for ‘real ministry.’

Yes. Do not treat these mission fields like training wheels for “real” ministry. If that’s your perspective you shouldn’t be in ministry anywhere.

It’s true that God may call young pastors and planters into small towns and rural areas to prepare them and train them for ministries of Jabezian levels of “more territory.” But some he calls to come and stay. Many of us are praying you young guys are listening.

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Comments:


115 thoughts on “Rural Ministry is Not Second Rate”

  1. Jacob Riggs says:

    Thanks Jared. Needed this today as my wife and I pray about looking for our first church to pastor.

    1. Please, please do NOT look for a “first” church to pastor. That makes no sense than for a single man to look for a “first” wife to marry. Sure, some men may be led to move churches. But it shouldn’t be the norm. Churches shouldn’t be approached like temporary postings, climbing from one to another, always bigger and better paying. That’s death for the church. Look for one that you’re willing to give the rest of your life to, even if it’s in a small, out-of-the-way area with little potential for numerical growth.

      1. Jim U says:

        John, I don’t think Jacob was necessarily meaning that he was looking for his “first” church among many. Sometimes “first” just means he hasn’t been a pastor anywhere else. Just like someone buying their “first” house doesn’t necessarily mean there will be others later.

        1. I hope you’re right. But most single men don’t talk about looking for their “first wife”! :)

  2. Josh Miller says:

    Living in a rural area and pastoring a rural church will remind you very quickly that YOU cannot grow a church! I think some guys think any church will grow based on the strength of their personality and the power of their preaching and the purity of their theology. I did, at least. Three years in rural ministry has reminded of the genuine joy of just being faithful with the Word and loving men’s souls, whether people come or not.

    1. That’s admirable and truly great!

    2. Ethan says:

      “Three years in rural ministry has reminded of the genuine joy of just being faithful with the Word and loving men’s souls, whether people come or not.”

      Fantastic!

  3. Love this article. I pastor a small church, and I have been very blessed by it.

    I, too, have felt the disdain – whether real or simply perceived – but I am growing in my concern for real, godly, evangelical churches to exist in rural areas. My parents live in north central Illinois, and there is only one church in a 45 mile radius that makes their alignment with the gospel coalition public. As far as we know, that’s also the only conservative evangelical church within a 45 mile radius.

    The town I grew up in is falling deeper into alcoholism and drug use and sexual deviancy. We need pastors to go to both the cities and the rural areas. The fields everywhere are white for harvest.

    1. Joe Horn says:

      Timothy-As a pastor in Central IL, I know there are more of us “Gospel Coalitiony” types out there than you realize. I’m in a town of about 6,000 and this article is for me.

  4. Ryan says:

    Hey mate, I’d be glad to nail public transportation to the cross if you’d buy me a car ;)

    In all seriousness, though, thanks for the article. As a young, recent Bible College grad myself, I’ve been thinking through this a fair bit. In doing so, I’ve become a lot more open to rural ministry, though I’d still rather not, for two reasons:

    First, I’d rather put off buying a car until I can get my debt paid off. That’s pretty important to me; as much as people bang on with asinine rubbish about how you’re not a “real man” until you’ve got your own car, I’d rather be wise with my finances, thank you very much.

    Second, I’m a musician, and being able to go out and play semi-regularly is a huge part of my ministry and is how I build relationships outside the church (I think that almost every time I’ve had the opportunity to share the Gospel, it’s been with another musician that I’ve been gigging with – it’s also been over a beer, but that’s a different conversation entirely, heh). To me, that’s a very important part of my calling and a very important part of pastoral ministry – what kind of pastor doesn’t have a ministry with non-believers? That’s like, our primary calling. And I just don’t see having many opportunities for that in a community that hasn’t got an established cultural scene – especially since I mainly play jazz, which isn’t exactly huge in your average country bar.

    But, definitely good thoughts, which have been mirroring some of my own reflections lately. Loved your response to the joke “This will kill your career.” It’s my considered opinion that if you see pastoral ministry as a career ladder to climb, you’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do – and picking up your Bible every once in a while probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

    1. Melody says:

      a car doesn’t mean debt unless you have rich taste, there are many of us that have never made car payments in rural areas.

      1. Ryan says:

        It’s not the debt from the car, it’s the gas/insurance payments that would be sucking up the money that should be going towards my school debt.

  5. Living in the Bible-belt South, there’s a lot of problems with the rural and small town churches here:
    1. many of them are pastored by men with no or very little theological education and approach the ministry (what they call “preaching”) like a hobby akin to fishing;
    2. racism is still an issue, with most churches being segregated;
    3. there are frankly, in my opinion, too many churches, most of them small and doing nothing (or very little) for evangelism;
    4. there is very little serious exposition of scripture;
    5. there is hardly ever any practice of meaningful membership (with most churches having members on their membership list who haven’t attended for decades);
    6. among Baptist and other churches of similar polity, pastors are frequently harassed out of their posts or just fired;
    7. not only is there no church discipline (even for the most heinous sins), there is an adamant hostility toward any.

    1. Anon says:

      I live in the South as well, and I fully agree with all of your statements. The Church in the Bible Belt would greatly benefit from the ministry of some young men fresh out of seminary with a passion for the gospel. But unfortunately, the vast majority of those young men want to head for the cities because they’ve been taught that cities are the only places where ministry really matters.

    2. Stephen says:

      Jared used the “broad brush” reply later down the thread, but I think it applies here, too. To address a couple points from my very meager experience in medium-sized city churches (+ knowledge of other churches via blogs and such):
      1. Many who pastor urban churches may have a piece of paper listing their educational qualifications, but that doesn’t mean they have put their acquired resources to adequate use or reflection, but instead treat the ministry as a profession akin to Motivational Speaking or Corporate Marketing.
      2. Racism is still an issue everywhere, and (sub)urban churches are often no more integrated than rural.
      3. There are, frankly, too many churches in the city that pop up to fill whatever “niche” they feel is not being met, poach a few members from other churches, and then do little real evangelism.
      4. I won’t link to the hundreds of examples of urban churches that serve very well as the antonym of “serious” preaching, but here’s a good start. http://pastorfashion.com/

      I could go on but I think my point is served. Bottom line, the problems of rural churches are hardly unique, though the issues may be magnified because of the lack of a nearly identical church around the corner.

      1. Hi,

        Yes, you’re right that similar problems exist in urban and suburban areas. I think I’d agree with you on all those points, except perhaps #3 as I’ve known integrated suburban churches without a problem.

        The difference is: in most urban areas there is probably some kind of healthy church alternative, populations of young (and older) people who may want a healthy church. In my rural, small-town area, there are a lot of churches, sometimes right next to each other, but they rarely differ significantly, expect, perhaps by race or denomination.

        1. Stephen says:

          I agree, the lack of choice in less populated areas (or in the case of outside the Southeast/Texas/California, less ‘Christian’ areas in general) makes the bad churches seem all that worse.

          I think it would be interesting for Barna or Stetzer to look at how different rural and urban churches are, demographically (relative to their surrounding population – i.e., how integrated are we really?) and theologically. I have a suspicion that the human condition is the same everywhere and we view the other side as greener sometimes because we have selection bias.

  6. Lynsey says:

    i’m so deeply encouraged by this and found heart crying “YES! YES!” while reading through this.

    we recently moved to a small town in Texas with the population of 250 people. as we’ve began visiting churches in the area (we are moving from an Acts 29 church in a larger city) our hearts are very burdened for gospel-centered churches in rural communities with solid teaching.

    the first church that we visited had 20 in attendance. our family (my husband, myself, and our 4 girls) was the only family. and we were the youngest by about 20 years. i can’t fully express to you the longing that is there in the elderly community for young families who love the Lord to join alongside them.

    we are seeking the Lord and asking for direction. we could drive 30 to 45 minutes to church for a bigger and more of a variety in membership. but, we desire to be closely connected with those around us.

    thanks for posting this.

    1. AlexW.Lovely says:

      Lynsey,

      I want to encourage you in your search and encourage/incline you to consider attending one of those churches with many people 20 years older than you, (which it sounds like you are considering). I can imagine many things far worse than young children having 20 godly grad parents looking out for them and my wife and I having 20 godly older wiser believers to look to as examples in the faith. I fully affirm and am encouraged by your want to find a local church with whom you can be closely connected with.

      God Bless,
      Alex L.

      1. Emily says:

        Agree!! Agree!!!! I’m a 23 year old grad student in a rural town in Oregon, and the best decision I’ve made is to go to a church walking distance from my home and school. I’m the youngest in my small group by about 30 years and in some cases up to 60 years :-D I have been SO blessed by their wisdom, life experience, love and care for me. And, I hope that my addition of energy and walking with God thru major life decisions gives something to them (they tell me it does). (And I LOVE seeing people from church every time I go for a walk, to the grocery store, or to get my morning coffee.)

  7. Jon Sanders says:

    Great post! I am one of those guys that God called…NOT to the big, sexy urban/metropolitan areas…but to the obscure, unnoticed and exotic mission field of rural South Dakota! (Actually, pretty much ALL of South Dakota is rural!) Anyway, I just want to make the point that there is no such thing as “small ministry” or a “small church”. We serve a limitless God who loves to work in obscurity and do amazing things through regular, ordinary people. When I arrived in our community 8 years ago, I planned on staying for a lifetime, unless God said otherwise. I have watched the revolving door of leadership in so many other rural churches around me and the result is that the people do not trust or follow their pastor…nor does he/she (the pastor) bring any fresh vision from the Lord as to what He longs to do in their community. From the beginning I have asked God to do something so incredible in our region through our church that only He could take the glory for it. Early in the process God gave me a huge vision for reaching out not just in our own community, but beyond into many other rural towns across South Dakota (and beyond!) through a multi-site strategy. All I’m saying is that if you’ll allow Him, God wants to do great things in small places. I often correct our people if I hear them refer to our church as a “small church”. I tell them that we are just a “young church” but we’re in the process of growing. God doesn’t build small churches! You can follow our story at http://www.therescuechurch.org And if your rural community is in need of a healthy church we’d love to be a part of the solution!

    One last thing: A resource I’d highly recommend to any rural pastor is a book called “Transforming Church in Rural America” by Shannon O’Dell.

    God Bless

  8. Bill says:

    “Nail Starbucks to the cross”… great line, and so true. Not only that but the whole article nailed the shallowness, superficiality, and arrogance of preachers… hopefully to the cross as well.

    Pastoring in a rural east Texas town, I only get Starbucks when I go visit the “big city” (of about 97,000 – ours is 1400) about an hour away… but that’s of little consequence. The conveniences of more urban and suburban cities are such small things to live for and to make decisions by.

    The real issue (for some, i know some are called to the city – even the suburbs- the article balances that out well), however, is the pride and arrogance in the hearts of young pastors. I can say that because I am one (though a little less “young” than when I started). Nobody is too “talented” or “gifted” to serve in a small church. We are called to serve God in all faithfulness whether we preach to 20 or 20,000. Serving in obscurity is wonderful for the soul… my church members don’t read my blog or care about SBC controversy or encounter much of the new age or postmodern mindset, but they have other challenges and besetting sins that the gospel must combat in their lives. They need a gospel preacher just as much as the suburbanite.

    The greater call to today’s pastors is to faithfully contend for the gospel, to die to self daily in the building of God’s kingdom and not our own. We cannot be like the Pharisees of whom Jesus said that they could not know the glory of God because they were too intent on the glory of man. Instead, let us be like those in Heb 11 who are looking for a city established by God.

  9. Brian says:

    First time replying to a Gospel Coalition blog. Second year in the pastorate, in a small town of 368 called Jamestown, MO. I have a 1/4th of the high school in my living room every Wednesday night and am one of the most well known figures in the entire community. 28 years old, straight out of seminary. It’s a huge trust. If you read this, send a prayer up for me.

    You can’t ask for a better start to ministry than doing something like this. I have been stretched in every way imaginable, from doing counseling for young divorcing couples to teenagers with cutting habits, to doing funerals for people I have never met to doing the baccalaureate service for the high school graduation. Two services a Sunday, for the two churches that I pastor. (Multi-site isn’t a new model!)

    Even if the city is a sexy, edgy place to do ministry, the country is maybe just uncool enough to be Christian.

    Keller is a hero of mine and dead on.

    1. Emily says:

      “It’s a huge trust.”

      Mm, thank you for those words, Brian.

      I’m not a minister- just a 23 year old grad student who hangs out a lot with everyone from church- but I’ve been loving investing in a church which has lots of retirees, lots of young families, but not a lot of people of my demographic and availability-of-time. I’m suddenly the on-call baby-sitter and coffee-dating half the high school girls. You’re absolutely right… a HUGE trust… I am thankful.

    2. Andrew says:

      Brian-

      Praying for you and for the ministry of the Gospel in that area.

      In the best possible way, I envy your situation and admire your work.

      Grace to you! Fight on!

  10. Andy says:

    Thanks so much for this, Pastor Wilson. I’m a student at Southern Seminary and I just took on a pastorate in (very) rural Kentucky. Literally the first thing I hear when I get out of my car when I arrive is a “Moooo!”, haha. It has been wonderful. While it seems that planting a church in the city is the trend nowadays, there’s a huge need for younger, passionate, and bold men to be sent by God to small churches, especially men who are dedicated to ‘gospelicious’ ministry. This post has renewed my hope that my time at this church is worthwhile. Thanks again!

  11. In our achievement oriented culture we want the biggest church in the coolest city…we want to be first. He may give us that but in God’s economy the faithful rural pastor, all but forgotten, will be first on Judgement Day.

  12. Pastor Karen Crawford says:

    I was with the author, saying yes, until the very last sentence. The author wants young guys to listen? What about young women? I am a country pastor in Minnesota and I love ministry here, though I am from a suburban area on the East Coast where there are plenty of Starbucks. The rural parish is a wonderful opportunity for second career women like me. And I do not see this calling as a stepping stone, whereas most young men might stay in a small rural church 3 to 5 years and move on.

    1. A woman pastor is unBiblical. You are violating the expressed will of God by taking a position that He does NOT call women to take. Perhaps you ought to investigate, with your church, why you and they have ignored the Word of God.

    2. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Karen, putting it more delicately than Mr. Carpenter here :-), the reason I issued my call to men is because I believe the biblical role of pastor is limited to men.

  13. Eric says:

    Great post, Jared. I am a young guy and this was encouraging. My heart has really always been for the small church and the rural communities. I understand the push to go the cities (as that is where the majority of people are). However, those who live in our rural towns still need the Gospel. They still need discipleship. They still need someone to pour into their lives. I, too, pray that young guys are listening. I was very encouraged by this. Thank you very much.

  14. Bert says:

    We are missionaries serving in South Africa who recently began working in a rural, very remote area after 20+ years of urban ministry. We are working with farm workers (think migrant farm workers who don’t migrate). There are obvious differences but, perhaps not surprisingly, one big similarity – people tend to be people wherever they are – fallen but created in God’s image nonetheless. We do some things differently but many of the same principles hold.

  15. Courtney D says:

    thank you, thank you, thank you.

  16. Tim says:

    After a few years in a city church, I moved to a small rural church with my young family. My choice was among other things influenced by this article from Keller.
    And I must say these have been the 2 years where I learned the most as a young pastor. I sometime miss the urban setting, but I love what God has allowed to happen in this church and in my heart.

    Thanks for this article, and the useful reminder that “success” or a “career” is not what we aim for.

  17. David Ricard says:

    Those who look at rural or even suburban ministry as a “stepping stone” to something “more significant” may need to consider what God might do in that stepping stone community if His Word is faithfully preached by one person for many years.

    A pastor who plants himself in a community and stays there for decades becomes part of that community. Given time he and his love for that community and for Christ becomes known, even by those who never step foot in the churcch. Meanwhile, those who are “called” to more urban (200,000+) settings, frequently become faint voices in a sea of other voices.

    Though many seminary graduates imagine themselves as such, not many are “called” to be the Mohlers, MacArthurs, Sprouls, Devers, Duncans, Pipers, Lawsons, Carsons, Beggs, and such of this century. And though they do not see it when they graduate, there is a very thin line between an ambition that uses churches as stepping stones and pride.

    True, there is nothing wrong with urban ministry. Many are called
    by God to serve him there. However, might I suggest that wherever God might “call” a pastor to serve, he should seriously consider taking root and serving those for whom Christ died, in that location for decades, not months?

    1. Thanks for that. That’s good and encouraging.

  18. Tony says:

    This article has also been influential in my life. I have been a pastor at a rural church plant for just over a year now and read this article when I was considering this big step. I also listened to this sermon (http://www.sbts.edu/resources/chapel/gods-open-call/) from Southern’s chapel by Kevin Smith.

    The article was helpful, especially coming from Keller, but how does this jive with the whole “plant in cities because they are more strategic” thinking (of which Keller has been a loud voice)? The two messages are conflicting to me…is Keller just advocating “getting your feet wet” before you move to the big time? I know he briefly addresses this a bit in the article, but it still seems a bit confusing.

  19. Richard Smith says:

    The rural church is a great place to learn to love difficult people. I was in LA (lower Alabama) for 4 years and learn how to minister to people and love them even if they were a problem. I left there 12 years ago and came to a larger town of 65,0000 but with a small town feel in Southwest Ga.I still go back to that small town to bury people (many who told me they voted against my coming). It was the gospel lived out in front of those dear folks that made a differnce in my life and after a time in theirs. Young men do not be afraid to go rural it may be the best growing experience of your life.

    1. If they are “difficult” in that they are in unrepentant sin, then the Biblical thing to do would be to practice church discipline. And no matter how patiently a pastor in a rural church tried to do that, the result would usually be the same: he would be fired.

  20. Alan Gomer says:

    I loved the article and this perspective. I am such a young guy who is finishing the M. Div. this summer and praying about vocational ministry. I have split my time in life living in rural and urban/suburban settings. While working full-time in an urban setting through seminary, my family and I have spent the last 1.5 years in a semi-rural church as I have taken part in a pastoral internship. I love the church and am desirous to serve as a pastor-teacher in any setting.
    So if a church, in any setting, is looking for a young man willing to serve faithfully for the rest of his life, I would love to talk.

  21. To put it bluntly, I’m not sure if someone can pastor in an established church in the rural South (or anywhere in the US) and be faithful to the Word of God without being fired. Old wineskins don’t want new wine. We need more rural church planting. But if you go to an established, rural church and are faithful to the Word, then don’t unpack.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      John, this is a broad brush. Old wineskins aren’t any more prevalent in rural areas than urban. You can find plenty of self-focused, gospel-deficient congregations in urban and suburban areas.

      1. The second part is true. I don’t believe your first statement (“Old wineskins aren’t any more prevalent in rural areas than urban”)is true. One can’t find many other- or God-focused, gospel-centered congregations in rural areas, in my opinion.

        All of the incidents, I know of, of an older, declining congregation being reformed (Dever, Piper, Chandler) have in common: an urban area, nearby universities, high educational levels, rapid change, etc., combined with the extra-ordinary giftedness and blessedness of the men leading them. A young pastor trying to implement reform in most established rural churches today will likely be unemployed in a short time.

    2. Philip says:

      John – you have been terribly restrictive and are adding to the stereotype of “country churches” in your comments about established rural congregations. I have been pastoring a small church in a town of 800 for almost two years. I came from a city church of 2000 so to say there was difficulty in the transition would be an understatement.

      I did not come in like a bull in a china shop. I took notes, built trust, loved the people, preached the Word and we are seeing tremendous results. It has taken time, change is happening, and there aren’t any country folk with torches and pitchforks on my front porch (happens to the the parsonage).

      Our bags are unpacked and we hope to stay here for a while.

      1. Hi Philip,

        Good for you! :) But please see my comments to Steve Schenewerk below.

        I also pastor a church in a rural area. I came here over 5 years ago; I didn’t come in like a “bull in a china shop” either but tried to follow Dever’s advice, etc. I was fired in less than a year. But I was blessed to have the core group from the church — which included all the musicians and most of the Sunday School and youth leaders — come out with me. So we sought the Lord about planting a new church and we did. I’ve stayed in a small town area because those faithful people needed a faithful church and they couldn’t find one if they had to look among the other churches here that we know of. But our being integrated, committed to the whole counsel of God and the doctrines of grace and active evangelistically distinguishes us in this area.

  22. James says:

    Another perspective:

    I graduated from a well-known seminary in Kentucky in the spring of 2010 at the age of 32 and have been actively seeking a pastorate since January 2010 but have not been placed by the Lord with a church yet. I read the article by Keller a long time ago and as a result have been contacting churches in rural as well as urban areas from coast to coast (including Alaska, Hawaii and Canada). I have been sending resumes out for bi-vocational as well as full time positions. I write all of this to make the point that I am by no means limiting my searches to full time positions in urban areas like some people certainly do (ie those the article is addressed too.) These people surely exist and probably should broaden the parameters of where the Lord is calling them to serve.

    In over two years of searching and contacting around 100 churches I have not yet found one that was willing or able to take a chance on a seminary grad who has never professionally pastored a church before even though he has done the things that pastors do in volunteer capacity.

    Willing or able are the key words.

    Many are not willing in the sense that they do not even consider resumes that have less than 5 years of experience and they say as much in the position postings. Many of these churches are rural positions with congregations of around 50. They are looking for people who can put on their resume that they held the official title of “pastor” somewhere.

    Sadly other churches are just not able. I have progressed in the interview process with two churches in particular that were small, bi-vocational and willing to have me but unable to realistically support my family even part time even with outside employment. In one case the salary, even with part-time outside employment, would have been $15,000 less than what I make now living paycheck to paycheck. These were particularly heart breaking situations to be in for both the churches and my family.

    I guess my point in all of this is that while there may not be enough young pastors/ seminary grads looking for positions in rural areas, many that are willing to go are not finding any opportunities for various reasons.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      James, your experience is not surprising.

      You may find this post of mine on the difficulty in replanting a “kindred spirit”: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2012/04/16/the-challenges-in-church-replanting-in-new-england/

      1. James says:

        Thanks for the link, it was encouraging. Like you I also do not believe a I am gifted or called to lead in a church plant althouogh I could see myself partnering with someome.

        You mentioned a pastor who works in a church and a dairy farm in order to make ends meet. I admire his determination and pray he has success. Unfortunately I am have come to realize that were I to work full time outside the church and pastor (ie 80+ hours) I would be in sin. I could not do it without completely neglecting my wife and 2 year old.

        Thanks again for your post.

        1. Nathan says:

          I know each person’s situation is different, but I recently accepted a pastoral position at a small church that cannot provide a lot in the way of salary but that has a parsonage. Perhaps looking for a smaller church that provides housing would be a good fit? At any rate, I am praying that God will continue to lead and direct you as you continue to seek to serve Him!

          1. James says:

            Thanks for your prayers!

            Unfortunately many do not have housing. That is a big contributor to the income disparity.

          2. The “parsonage” is often a scam. It’s an excuse for a church not to pay the pastor adequately, thinking that they’ve provided for his housing. But you get no equity, nothing to leave to your children, nothing to retire in; there are stories of pastors serving faithfully for decades, die, and their widow be told she and the kids have 30 days to vacate the parsonage, with no place to go.

          3. Jared C. Wilson says:

            John, anybody ever told you that you have the spiritual gift of discouragement?

          4. Hi Jared,

            No, you’d be the first although I guessed that some would take my comments here like that. But these are the facts. To write rosily about situations which are often far from rosy, isn’t helpful.

    2. Joe Horn says:

      James-Send me your resume. I’m a pastor in a small town and we are looking. Send it to:bullhorn6@gmail.com

  23. Thanks for the post. Skimming through the comments let me add my 2 cents- I have pastored small churches in rural communities since 1981. My second church pastorate was in Salem, OR- not truly a rural community. However, having been in a small town in southern Oregon for over 20 years let me say:
    1.You CAN pastor a small rural church and be faithful to the Word of God- John A seems to think its not possible- it is. It is not easy to lead people to create new wineskins, but it is possible and it is being done.
    2. When did pastoring become a ‘career’? I went into the ministry because God called me and I can only go where He sends and do what He assigns me to do.
    3. Finally, planting your life in a small or large community is not the point. Planting your life wherever you are IS the point. After 20 years in the same church, the same house, the same community I have become the longest tenured pastor of any evangelical church in my small town. I have been given opportunities to serve in places and ways for the city, the county, and even at state levels politically because of my tenure. On top of that God has allowed me the privilege of serving my regional denomination as president of the Northwest Baptist Convention this year (a volunteer position with significant opportunity to shape the future of ministry in the Northwest.)
    Thanks for the post.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Good for you! I hope that you’ve been — and will continue to be — blessed.

      But, I think the secular Northwest is different from the pseudo-Bible belt of the South. For example, being faithful to the Word would mean addressing the issue of race. In the rural South that will most likely still get you fired. And then there’s the 7 points I made above, such as the cultural religion that expects to be a “member” in good standing for decades even with no attendance. I believe a Biblically faithful pastor would have to address that. And, do you know what the result of trying to bring in meaningful membership membership will be: possibly a new career in substitute teaching.

      Also, forgive my cynicism but I’d have to ask whether we’re on exactly the same page about what it means to be “faithful”. From what I know of the Conservative Baptists, they aren’t so committed to meaningful membership either (as defined, say, by 9 Marks). See my 7 points above about the characteristics of the rural church. Being “faithful”, to me, is addressing those 7 problems, not just being nominally orthodox in theology.

  24. taco says:

    Jared

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a layman working in a rural Church and it brings a lot of joy to me finally see some recognition of the need there is in rural America here on TGC. Three are so many Churches out here dying from no just a simply lack of being able to obtain a shepherd. Please drum this beat much more.

    1. Hi Taco,

      I don’t believe that there are church’s dying from lack of being able to get a pastor. See James’ comments above. There are seminary graduates looking for positions. They are dying because they don’t want to change. And, frankly, for many it’s better that they die as I believe there are too many established churches in the rural area. The rural areas need more church plants and more established churches closing. If they can give their buildings to a church plant as they close, that would be best.

  25. Paul Horne says:

    As a young guy starting seminary this month. I look forward to going wherever the Lord would have me. I wouldn’t mind being in a rural area because over that last several years the lord has put a love of being an outdoors man in my heart. And you can’t hunt whitetail or turkey in the city.

    Live Long, Pray Hard, Die Well!

  26. racheAl says:

    On a lighter note, some times those rural areas have a Starbucks. :)

    1. I’m more of a Dairy Queen guy myself!

      1. racheAl says:

        Actualy, Dairy Queen was my second thought on businesses that define small towns. Lol. The bigger the city the less likely it is to have a DQ. (Tis a shame. lol. Flip that blizzard!)

  27. Nathan says:

    I was deeply moved and encouraged by this article. I have recently graduated from seminary, and my wife, child and I are moving next week for me to pastor a small congregation(20-25 people)in a rural farming community in Illinois. This article came at the perfect time – thank you Mr. Wilson and Mr. Keller! I am overwhelmed by the privilege of serving Christ and His Church and am looking forward to investing my life in this church and in this town for as long as God sees fit.

  28. Les says:

    Thank you for this article. Small towns need to be evangelized. I grew up in a small town pop. 6000 and live in a slightly larger town of 36,000 and know that people are having a hard time finding good churches with good, solid, Bible-based preaching. I know elderly Christians who are looking for a new church after attending the same church for 40-50 years either because they are members of a dead mainline church or their once solid Baptist or Bible church has sold out to seekerism.

  29. James B. says:

    As a 30 something, rural pastor, I’m very grateful for this article. I know of very few guys I went to school with that would even consider doing ministry in the sticks. Rural pastors get a bad rap of being “uneducated” or unsuccessful because of their size and placement. Rural churches need good pastors too.

  30. Ken Prater says:

    After 22 years in a rural ministry at the same church my counsel to guys looking to pastor “small churches” goes something like this: 1)NEVER go to a small church that tells you they want a “young pastor” to help them grow UNLESS you both understand what that statement means. Our experience is that “growth” means the church will continue NOT that they will have to make room for the new people coming by letting go of their sacred cows; 2) Understand that trust is really important so build trust by working hard and staying as long as possible. It is a privilege shepherd lives over decades. We love our “rural ministry” which is to say we love the ministry -

  31. Andrew says:

    Hi everyone-

    I have been in ministry for 15 years at a church of 15,000 in a city of 300,000.

    I mean this sincerely: I envy the experience of the rural church pastors mentioned here. (maybe ‘admire’ is a better word)

    Large churches can be impersonal. Shepherding is quintessentially personal.

    I know families in our church who have never spent 1 full hour with a pastor; never had coffee with a pastor; never had a pastor at their home (or vice versa); never prayed together with a pastor; never have access to a pastor when needed.

    Somehow this isn’t right.

    Thank you rural pastors for the work you do. My family and I may be joining you soon.

  32. Jon Sanders says:

    As I have been following the comments on this post I’m noticing several young men who are desiring to serve God in a rural place, but as of yet have not found a church that will give them a shot. As the lead pastor of a growing multi-site church with a vision to plant campuses in rural communities throughout the Midwest and beyond, I just want to make it known to any young man with a heart for serving God that I’d be happy to visit with you about bringing you on our team. I couldn’t care less about a seminary degree or whether or not you’re “experienced”. (I had none of that when God called me out of a career in the fire service and into church planting.) I believe it is the job of the CHURCH to raise up, train, and release pastors, not a Bible college or seminary. So if you’re interested in having a serious conversation with a church that will give a young man who is passionate about serving the Lord a shot in rural ministry…please contact me. My email is jonsanders.therescuechurch@gmail.com. You can learn more about our vision to reach rural America at http://www.therescuechurch.org.

    1. Hi Jon,

      First, “multi-site church” is a contradiction in terms. “Church” means “assembly” and by definition an “assembly” can only be in one place at a time. It would make no sense to write of a “multi-site assembly.” I’d recommend you see Mark Dever’s and 9 Marks material about that.

      Second, I’d have reservations about a church that “couldn’t care less” about whether the spiritual leaders actually know anything about the Bible, theology, church history, etc. And churches are simply not equipped to give that kind of training.

      Third, if you’re willing to help serious men — men so serious they were willing to dedicate a few years of their life to theological training first — to plant churches — not “campuses” — that would be a great thing.

      1. Jon Sanders says:

        Hey John,

        Thanks so much for your unsolicited, sage discouragement and spiritual “know-it-all-ness” that continues to flow throughout this thread! I never said I didn’t care if our spiritual leaders know anything about the Bible, theology, or church history, did I? And what Scripture would you use to support your claim that the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t capable of training the next generation of leaders? Where did Jesus’ disciples and the apostles attend seminary? I’ll tell you what…we’ll keep on being obedient to what God has called us to and allow Him to continue bringing people to Himself through what He’s doing through common, ordinary folks in rural South Dakota and you can go back to your self-appointed post as the “cold holy water” on everyone else’s thoughts and convictions!

        1. Hi Jon,

          First, you begin in a very insulting manner.

          Second, you said above you didn’t care if pastoral candidates had a theological education.

          Third, can you teach Greek? Or Church History?

          Fourth, you end in an insulting manner too. I’m sorry that you find truth discouraging.

  33. I hear several people using the “new wine in old wineskins” as a reason to plant instead of go to pastor an existing church…first, this isn’t the application of the scripture, and secondly it’s a veiled condemnation of people which is basically stating…”ministering to people who need a fresh dose of the Gospel is less important than being conflict free at ‘my’ church.”
    Sure…go plant your church…within 10 years when you leave someone will inherit your issues that you brought as a pastoral leader, your blindspots, your omissions…and then…they’ll say “I haven’t got time for that…let me plant my own church…” A little more compassionate humility is needed here…

    1. Hi Paul,

      The Lord Jesus spoke about the principle of new wine and wineskins in the context of His new revelation not fitting into the old traditions. I think the same principle applies to trying to bring new life into established, traditional churches.

      Second, the issue isn’t being “conflict free” but about whether the people in those established churches are willing to change according to the Word of God. Frequently, they are not and will adamantly resist any changes, to the point of firing the pastor who recommends them. This happens over and over again and very little is said about it because in evangelicalism today we only listen to and study the successes — which is like learning medicine by never studying the patients who died.

      True case: A church that a generation ago had the lead deacon physically prevent a black man from entering their building, fired a pastor who called for ministering to those of other races, has hundreds of people on their membership list who haven’t attended in decades, has no statement of faith or constitution and is accustomed to rude, disrespectful behavior at their members meetings, doesn’t practice church discipline for anything, has members who either walk out on the sermon or read books during it because they don’t believe the pastors doctrine, etc., (and this is one of the better “churches” in the area!); such a “church” isn’t going to suddenly reform because you give them a “fresh dose of the Gospel.” They’ve been rejecting the gospel for decades. And as for “compassion” — someone have some on any poor, sincere pastor who goes there having been lead astray by the naivete of bloggers who tell them they can turn it around; and, why not some “humility”, that maybe “I” am not so great a preacher that I’ll be able to do successfully what those previous pastors were unable to do?

      1. that’s all good and well if you’re trying to shoehorn in your ideology to fit with scripture, but in Christs actual example…He went to the synagogues, to the Temple worked within the framework…yes He was doing “A new thing” but He did it there. He didn’t come and establish Christianity per se…He came to redeem all people but started with the Jews. He didn’t go start a church, He ministered to the established church and within it.
        Our church is the exact example of what you are talking about. But with the opposite occurring. Our Pastor was led here on a split vote…and spent 10 years battling, and either outlasted his critics or loved them onto his side. Now he’s been here 20 years…which is 20 longer than most pastors even want to stay at most churches… it’s not going to happen over night but that doesn’t mean you say “forget ‘em” and move on does it?

        1. Yes, but Jesus was crucified for His efforts too!

          It’s good about your pastor and it’s good that you support him.

  34. R. Delaney says:

    Please note:

    John Carpenter is a pastor at a Reformed Baptist church in NC. For some reason though, he has a lot of time to spend proclaiming his views on (among other topics) church and the absolute necessity of local, formal church membership. He has poor bedside manor for a pastor, but he feels justified in shooting it straight because he is, after all, stating the “facts” and being faithful to the “truth”.

    With that warning in place, you know what to expect going forward.

    Carry on.

    Excellent post Jared

    1. Hi R. Delaney,

      Yes, I believe in the church. And I’ve probably been spending too much time on-line.

      1. R. Delaney says:

        John,

        I believe in the church too. The nature of being on-line is that there are no real human relationships. Therefore when you drop your bomb of truth it misses the target.

        There are other perspectives and positions derived from the Scriptures that don’t necessarily flow from your paradigm. So when you come in and state your position as “the truth” it comes off poorly at times. I believe you have the best of motives though. It’s just that you tend to weild your understanding of the truth like a club, rather than as a shepherd. Lead the sheep, don’t smite their backside. Sometimes we need to be blunt, but consider Jared’s response to “Pastor Karen” in the above comments in comparison to yours.

        Best to you,

      2. Hi R,

        Jared was answering Karen’s question. I was making a statement about the impropriety of her position.

        I don’t believe there are other positions derived from scripture because, believe it or not, I think I’ve read scripture.

        Shepherds lead the sheep but not everyone is a sheep. Shepherds smite the wolves.

        The problem with the article is not with anything it says but with what it omits: that often problematic rural congregations are simply going to fire a faithful pastor, especially if the members of those churches approach the church and the pastorate with the same kind of consumeristic attitudes you’ve espoused elsewhere.

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          John, it’s a blog post not a treatise. If the problem with my post is that it omits all the difficulties of rural ministry — as if there are no difficulties in ministry other places, sheesh — then the problem with your barrage of comments is that they omit any joy or encouragement.

          Your need to respond to every single person in order to let them know how half-empty their glass is is beyond tiresome. Please change your tack or refrain from commenting further. Thanks.

  35. Laura Groves says:

    As the mom of one of those young guys who’s out there serving in the cow fields, thank you, thank you, thank you. My son sent me this link this morning, saying, “This was very encouraging to me.”

  36. StephVG says:

    Hey – here’s some help for those considering ministry in the small places: My husband and I serve with a domestic missions organization (US and Canada) that exists solely to strengthen local churches in rural areas to be the lights their communities need by placing full-time pastors (and their families). Village Missions (www.village-missions.org) has a long history of quiet, oft-unacknowledged ministry in the places that have been “left behind,” the places that can’t find, can’t attract, or can’t afford a full-time (not bi-vocational) pastor. It has been our privilege (often joyful, but definitely hard) to serve with VM for the past 7+ years. Click over and take a look at the mission.

  37. Joe Horn says:

    To my brother John C: My heart goes out to you. Church ministry can be just like you describe. People in churches, small and large, can be stiff-necked, rebellious, stingy with the pastor’s pay, racist, and the like. They can and do fire pastors who seek to lead them. It sounds like you were deeply hurt in just such a place. But my counsel to you would be to seek healing from Jesus and grant forgiveness to those who inflicted such pain. You can, as James McDonald said of a former pastor he knows, develop the attitude that pastoral ministry is “Crap treatment for crap pay.” But in so doing, you miss the glory and privilege of serving Jesus among people who need Him and the Gospel more than anything. And I say this as a man who has pastored in two small places over the past 11 years and know of cases just like Brother John speaks about. There’s hard times and deep pain yes, but there’s also joy unspeakable in ministering to God’s people anywhere.

    To those who are young guys looking to minister in a good place that would align with the Gospel Coalition: Send me your resume. I am looking for a man who loves Jesus and has a deep passion to bring the Gospel to both the saved and the lost here in Central IL. Email me at thebullhorn6@gmail.com.

    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the compassion and pastoral heart. But I’m doing well. Our church isn’t as big as I would like but we have some very good people and I get to do what I love. So I’m in a very blessed place right now. My warnings here are not meant to be discouragement so much as to be disillusioning, to take the rose-colored glasses off.
      Regards,
      John

  38. Drew Buell says:

    Thanks Jared, this article meant a lot to me. God called me to my rural church just two years ago as 31 year old seminary graduate and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I’ve told the elders that I plan on being buried in the courtyard, on top of the septic system :-).

  39. TJ says:

    Perhaps some seminary instruction on exactly how disgusting Starbucks coffee is (and it is) would encourage more young men into rural ministry? ;)

  40. Mo says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve grown weary of the attitude that inner cities are so bereft of the gospel and Christian ministry. I live in a major U.S. city. I was involved in one church for many years, and only recently began exploring other options. I could not believe how many churches existed in my area, all strong in biblical teaching and all reachable by public transportation, since I do not drive. I can tell you for a fact t that there is no lack of the gospel or ministry going on here! Maybe that was the case 15 or 20 years ago, but it’s simply not the case now.

    I don’t know why one location for ministry is considered to be any more or less important than another location. Non-Christians everywhere need the gospel. Christians everywhere need to be built up.

    There’s enough to be done wherever we may find ourselves, without worrying about what everyone else is doing and criticizing them for it.

  41. Andy Wiebe says:

    Great article! I love it. I came across it as I was preparing for a workshop I will be doing at a Rural Church Conference. The workshop will be “Confirming Your Calling to Rural Ministry”.

    I’m also part of the Rural Church Pastors Network. Check us out at http://www.ruralchurchpastorsnetwork.com

  42. Ralph says:

    I am a pastor of a tiny church in a town of about 450. I just wanted to let you know that your two reasons for avoiding rural ministry may not be as sound as you first think.

    One member in our church sometimes plays with an area polka band. He’d play more if he had more time. My wife teaches piano and voice lessons and accompanies the local high school choir. If one of them played electric guitar, there would still be opportunities for community involvement. I would be very surprised if musical talents didn’t provide many opportunities in a rural area.

    As for the car… I bet someone in the rural church would come up with something for you to drive. If not someone in the church, someone in the town who likes the idea of a new pastor at the church down the street.

    God might not be calling you to rural ministry, but don’t jumpt too quickly to that conclusion. There is a huge need.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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