The Country Parson

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.

Many young leaders perceive that the ideal first ministry position would be a position on the staff of a large church with an older, mature pastor to mentor them. The limits of this model are several. You can’t teach a younger pastor much about things they aren’t actually doing. And in a large church they aren’t a) bearing the burden of being the main leader, b) leading a board of elders, c) fund-raising and bearing the final responsibility of having enough money to do ministry, d) and doing the gamut of counseling, shepherding, teaching, preaching. In a smaller church as a solo pastor you and only you visit the elderly, do all the weddings and funerals, sit by the bedside of every dying parishioner, do all the marriage counseling, suspend and excommunicate, work with musicians, craft and lead worship, speak at every men’s retreat, women’s retreat, and youth retreat, write all the Bible studies and often Sunday School curriculum, train all the small group leaders, speak at the nursing home, work with your diaconate as they try to help families out of poverty, evangelize and welcome new visitors to the church, train volunteers to do some (but not all) of all of the above tasks, and deal with the once-a-month relational or financial crisis in the church.  No amount of mentoring can teach you what you learn from doing all those things.

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.

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.’

My own pathway of personal development began with nine years of being the pastor of a small church in a small town. This equipped me well for church planting in New York City, because, when you start a church, you must be a generalist, not the specialist that large churches create. I repeat — I am not proposing that everyone follow the same course. Being a ‘country parson’ is not the right move for everyone. But for some it is.

  • Frank Gantz

    Amen. I learned so much in Red Rock, Oklahoma and Greenfield, Arkansas. Although I was a city boy, I loved being a part of those country communities and churches. People invested their lives in me and I in them. I would not trade those experiences.

  • Hayden

    I am a city boy living ins a small town setting as well. I love the cities, but have really learned alot where I am at right now. Dr. Keller is spot on with his analysis! I have been in a larger church and now am the Pastor of a small church, and have learned so much already in this setting.

    Gentlemen, do not despise the small church setting. Dr. Keller is spot on.

    Now only if I could get Dr. Keller to come to my little church outside of Gainesville Florida to speak to us ;-)

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  • Thom Bullock

    Dr. Keller, thank you for these words. I don’t know what the scale of your first pastorate was, but something about small churches helps you learn how to love Jesus more than ministry.

    I pastor two small rural churches, one of about 50, and one of about 15 (two separate small communities, and in each case the only evangelical church for about ten miles in each direction), and in both cases, it would only take one major division to close the church. And in the midst of sleepless nights because someone is annoyed about some petty thing or other, and having to think again and again “if they leave, I don’t have a church…or a job…or a home…” – you learn quickly to make decisions and have feelings because your identity is in Christ, not in a ministry position.

  • JasonS

    As the sole pastor of two small country flocks (One with 100 and the other with 40) I find this refreshing.
    We country preachers don’t get limelight, but we do work. It is important work, too. It is also hard. As Thom mentioned, one works in an often peculiar context. In many cases, family problems and church problems are the same thing, because the church is one extended biological family.
    One also has to deal with the history of the church in its area. People who have lived there for years know the good, bad, and the ugly. The pastor has to help shape a better image for the church, many times.
    There is then the fact that many country churches have uneducated ministers, or a shortage of ministers. I have no formal theological training, but apply myself as I can. In working in rural contexts one often has to work hard to undo the results of years of foolish legalistic teaching that comes from ignorance more than anything else.
    In the context, however, one rubs shoulders with the worst and the best of humanity, and learns to love both.
    To be honest, I’ve been in the city. I wouldn’t trade the country for the city at this point in my ministry.
    There’s a place for each pastor. I’m glad Keller has chosen to encourage people to look beyond their initial prejudices and consider a country pastorate.

  • Pastor Steve

    Well said. I owe so much to Hanston, KS and Southfield, MA. At FBC Hanston they told me (just our of seminary) “We know we can’t keep you. We see our mission in the Kingdom as giving Pastors their ‘starts’. We’ll teach you how to be a Pastor, and we’ll tell you what’s right & what’s wrong.” I decided I’d be in for life, but God has His plans. I don’t know how much I gave them in those five years, but they blessed me for life.

    I think a small church rubs the “professional veneer” off – you can’t hide, you are intimate with your people, you are obviously fallible, and you have to form REAL relationships, not administrative ones, with everybody.

    As for “uneducated”. I offered to teach in Southfield a class through Grudems’ Systematic Theology. Six men came alongside and we ate it up for two years. Now in a church of 120, I’m in my third cycle through the book with a group of people – uneducated doesn’t mean unwilling to learn and dig!!

    If you love them, they will let you lead them, and they will let you feed them.

  • Brian Wechsler

    A wonderful article! As Director of Village Missions, an organization dedicated to keeping country churches alive, we know full well the potential and the rewards of a rural church ministry. Yet, most training today seems to be geared toward multi-staff ministry. I appreciate your insights and will be sharing this link!

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  • Grosey

    Amen… learnt guts and grace in a country church over 4 years that had spewed out pastors every 18 months for 60 years. That experience taught me to deal with all manner of people… bad mannered, nasty mannered unmannered and sinmannered!

  • Chua Soon Kent

    I would say “Amen” to this with my whole heart. I began pastoral ministry in a small, struggling church in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia. To me, the seven years of ministry in that church has really taught me what it means to be a pastor, with the full spectrum of ministry opportunities before me. Furthermore, I could spend more time studying and reflecting on God’s word while preparing to preach. In fact, that humble setting has prepared me to serve in the present urban (crazy) setting.

  • jeebus
  • Aaron

    This is one of the most encouraging things I have read on the internet in a long time! Thank you!

  • Chris Land

    I know as a youth pastor in small churches I have seen the ugly reality of church ministry. People complaining, pastors do things behind your backs, and no help offered. Yeah, country churches are an experience in themselves. You either want to quit the ministry or tell God to ‘hell’ with the church. Even the people’s theology is so far off that the people that they think a good sermon is when someone reads the scripture and goes off talking with no point whatsoever. Even the pastor cannot preach worth a flip in some of these churches, which is why the next generations of pastors that go to these churches preach the word and not their opinion or feelings.

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  • JasonS

    I truly pray that you’ll be blessed to get over the negative view of a country pastorate.
    Ignorance, bad theology, and politics are everywhere simply because humans are humans.
    The unique challenges of country pastorates equip a person to pastor by learning leadership, compassion, sympathy, as well as teaching him to be sincere and available.
    In addition, if one cannot be satisfied as a country pastor, it’s unlikely that he’ll be satisfied anywhere. Why? Because the job will never satisfy: only the ONE for whom we work can satisfy us.
    Praying that you’ll learn the joy of the hard labor of fighting sin and bad theology for the glory of God and the joy of your/his people.

  • JasonS

    Please don’t take my response as being condescending. I’m simply speaking from nineteen years of experience….HARD experience.
    I’ve pastored all country churches. Though I’ve been at a few in town, they were still country at heart. Being in town simply made the job more difficult.
    In addition to that, I am the product of a country church and have no formal theological training. I’ve had some major shifts in my thinking. Getting over being misled and then trying to lead folks toward this truth is both difficult, and has great potential to make a person bitter.
    It took me ten years to begin to find the joy that I truly need in the Lord so that I could enjoy being a country pastor.

  • andrew p

    Great article, but a small church might crush you, financially ruin you, sap you and your wife’s spiritual fervour and strength, and completely bewilder you feeling totally abandoned. But I can’t wait to get back in!

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  • Zach

    Dr. Keller,

    I offer my deep thanks for your encouraging words to the rural pastor. Its taken a while for me to ease into small town living but I shudder to think what I would have missed had I passed up the calling to this precious church. Deep joy and love have been reciprocally shared between my family and the congregation. What a deep privaledge to see lives in our town changed by the gospel. I will treasure these memories forever!

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