Able Baker, a pastor of a rural church in British Columbia, wrote an interesting post recently titled 11 Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Challenges Unique to Rural Pastors. Quite a bit of it resonated with me. Last month I marked my third year as pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, a rural town of about 600-700 people in southwest Vermont. (You can see a photo of our traditionally “New England” white-steepled church on the green at the town’s wikipedia page.) The challenges Baker mentioned resemble a fair bit of my family’s experience here, but I also think of the blessings of this place and my place in it, blessings that overshadow the scattered inconveniences and disappointments. After 3 years in Middletown Springs, having come from suburban Nashville, Tennessee, I am overwhelmed, actually, with the sweetness of God and his people. So as a counterbalance of sorts, speaking only for my peculiar experience of course, here are 11 particular blessings from my first 3 years in a Vermont pastorate, in no particular order:
1. The people in general.
Yes, they are in many ways good evidence of the stereotpyical New Englander — private, self-reliant, somewhat stoic and emotionally reserved — but they are helpful, genuine, honest, and friendly. New Englanders in general have very little tolerance for pretense. This is so refreshing.
2. The people of my church in particular.
I clicked with these folks from my first phone calls with the pastoral search team. They just felt familiar. And since arriving they have exemplified themselves as models of hospitality, service, and warmth.
3. Generosity and flexibility and freedom.
My church has been extremely generous to and with my family. When I moved up in August 2009, I came with my two daughters but not my wife, as Becky stayed in Nashville. We needed her income to cover our home there which had not sold. 9 months later, it still hadn’t sold, and life in Vermont was upside down for us without wife and mom here. Our church said, “Move Becky up.” We did, sweetly and finally, and our church began covering our mortgage each month. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve had incredible help with yard work, finding housing, repairs, etc., and it hasn’t abated in 3 years, so I know it wasn’t just the desire to make a good impression. Further, the church has given me great flexibility and freedom in writing and speaking. I am strategic about my time away (limiting Sundays away for speaking to just 4 a year and trying to keep most away engagements on my regular days off, Friday and Saturday), but Middletown has been very generous in sharing me with other ministry opportunities. They see it as an extension of their ministry, not just mine, to be generous with their pastor.
4. Simplicity and environmental silence.
Before we even thought about moving anywhere, much less rural Vermont, Becky and I were really sorting out our disillusionment with our suburban lifestyle and the overwhelming consumerism there. I was wrestling a lot with how the kingdom of God was being brought to bear in a place like Nashville — some of the results of that wrestling became a sermon series at our church there called “God vs. Suburbia,” which eventually became the Bible study resource Abide: Practicing Kingdom Rhythms in a Consumer Culture. We have found here what our souls were aching for — namely, a much simpler lifestyle and a whole lot of environmental silence. The “noise” of our previous culture was just too much, and I don’t mean what you hear in the ears, of course. Did you know there are no billboards in Vermont?
5. Wide open spaces.
Similarly, the wide open spaces here — rolling pastures, dazzling emerald mountains, magical forests, winding country roads, endless green — is great for adventuring, for breathing, for just being.
6. Tight-knit community.
In my experience, in suburbia many of us lived mere feet away from neighbors whose names we never knew. In small town Vermont, we may live miles away from people but we know all about them. There’s drawbacks to this too, of course, and many will mention the gossip grapevines and fishbowl voyeurism, but we have enjoyed living in a community where people feel connected to each other, where “neighbor” has less to do with proximity than it does the fraternity of small town life.
7. Heritage and roots.
In a place where newness and convenience are idols, memories are short. Here people value tradition, heritage, the old stories. Families go back many generations in one spot. Churches are hundreds of years old. And there’s plenty of great old people kicking around to tell you great stories about the land and its lovers. People take the long roads and keep the long views in small town Vermont.
8. Congregational submission to God’s word.
Back to my church. I have been very blessed that these folks have a willingness to do whatever God’s word says. If you can show it to them in the Bible, they wanna do it. That’s rare everywhere, including in Vermont.
9. Congregational desire to grow.
As much as Middletown Church loves its heritage and tradition, as much as they love the core community they’ve developed over the years, they were intent on telling me when I was interviewing that they were ready to “move,” ready to grow. This is not a church content to sit on its status quo. Sure, plenty of churches in our parts say they want to grow, but when time comes for the changes necessary to cultivate growth, they balk. Most churches want to grow but also stay the same. That’s not possible, and Middletown understands this. So they’ve embraced the changes necessary and are open to more changes, whatever might be needed to go where God wants us to go in order to grow spiritually, and if God provides, numerically. I am so proud of my church. And in the last 3 years, by God’s grace, we have seen those far off brought near, people lay claim to the gospel’s promises, make professions of faith in baptism, overcome addictions, work on reconciliation in their marriages, become devoted to sharing the gospel with others, serve and love and work. And in the last 3 years, by God’s provision, we have more than doubled in worship attendance. This is because Middletown Church desires to make Christ look big. I couldn’t ask for more.
10. My wife’s growth.
Since bringing my wife home into her lifelong desire to be a stay-at-home mom, and freeing her up to be the pastor’s wife she is designed to be and wants to be, I’ve seen such joyful growth in her life. Her long-dormant creativity has blossomed like crazy, as she writes and takes pictures and cooks like a recipe-hording madwoman and organizes milestone events for people in her life. With more time and margin in her life, she’s developed more mentoring and discipling relationships. And she’s just happier. Which makes me happier.
11. The challenges.
Some see them as setbacks to small town or rural living. I choose to see them as blessings too. It’s a blessing to have to think about how much gas is in your tank at any given moment because there’s no gas station in your town, because it helps me think beyond the moment. It’s a blessing to pastor a gospel-centered church in a culture largely ambivalent about — and in some corners, hostile to — evangelicals and evangelicalism, because it reminds me to stand firm and find my approval in Christ alone. It’s a blessing to live in a place where there is little cultural Christianity and where the prevailing values are typically liberal, because it will push my kids to sort out their faith for themselves and not just assume it, to see if they own it or not. It is a blessing to live in a place with high taxes because it constantly reminds me to keep my heart away from my money. I could go on and on. But all the challenges and discouragements of small town life in this New England state are means of God toward my sanctification. And so I choose to be grateful for them.