Community Outreach, Rural Ministry

In Rural Ministry Relationships Are A Pastors Life-line


After spending nearly fifteen years working is high-density urban areas the shift to rural America was a culture shock.  In the city, everything you need is a short drive away.  You are surrounded by people and you are packed into small spaces like sardines. Not so in rural areas.  You neighbors could be miles apart, and the excitement you may seek could be a two-hour drive away.  With that distance and lack of proximity, relationships take on a new level of significance. To minister efficiently in this setting, you need to shift your attitude and mindset. It can be very tempting since people are not always around to interact with or even check in on you. Consequently, they may think there is no real ministry to do in these smaller communities.  The ministry of nothing is a real danger to avoid.  It reminds me of this letter sent from a farmer to the federal government.

From the Desk of Don Genereaux

Honorable Secretary of Agriculture 
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir,

My friend, Dan Hansen, over at Honey Creek, Iowa, received a check for $1,000.00 from the government for not raising hogs. So, I want to go into the “NOT RAISING HOGS” business next year. What I want to know is, in your opinion, what is the best kind of farm not to raise hogs on? And what is the best breed of hogs not to raise? I want to be sure that I approach this endeavor in keeping with all government policies.

As I see it, the hardest part of the “NOT RAISING HOGS’ program is keeping an accurate inventory of how many hogs I haven’t raised. My friend Hansen is very joyful about the future of the business. He has been raising hogs for twenty years or so, and the best he has ever made on them was $422.90 in 1968, until this year when he got your check for the $1000.00 for not raising 50 hogs. If I get $1000.00 for not raising 50 hogs, then would I get $2000.00 for not raising 100 hogs? I plan to operate on a small scale at first, holding myself to about 4,000 hogs not raised the first year, which would bring in about $80,000.00; then I can afford an airplane.

Now another thing – these hogs I will not raise will not eat 100,000 bushels of corn. I understand that the government also pays people not to raise corn and wheat. Would I qualify for payments for not raising these crops not to feed my hogs I will not be raising?

I want to get started as soon as possible as this seems to be a good time of the year for the “NOT RAISING HOGS” and “NOT PLANTING CROPS” business. Also, I am giving serious consideration to the “NOT MILKING COWS” business and any information you would have on the endeavor would be greatly appreciated. In view of the fact that I will be totally unemployed, I will be filing for unemployment and food stamps and was wondering how long that process takes.

Be assured, Mr. Secretary, you will have my vote in the upcoming election.

Patriotically yours, 
Don Genereaux

P.S. Would you please notify me when you plan to give out the free cheese again?


Overcoming the “There is Nothing to Do Mentality”

However, there is a real ministry to do, and it is based on developing and cultivating relationships.  I will explore two in this post.

  1. Make Mentoring young people a priority
In every congregation we are keenly aware that young people are essential to the vitality of any community. Sadly, however, in rural communities, they hold a place of higher significance because many of them will leave after their high school years are complete. Churches have their attention for such a relatively short period of time making the need to connect them to the life of the church and equip them early in life so vitally important. Too often pastors hesitate to invest the necessary time and energy in these young disciples because they know that most will not stay long-term in the local church.  This lack of investment in their future is a severe miscalculation of the vital role a pastor plays in their spiritual formation. Rural churches need to see their role as a church that prepares, equips and sends out missionaries into the world.  Don’t ignore those influential Christian young people in your congregations, they are the future leaders of our church. Take the time to make them a priority.
  2. Pastoral care is your lifeline. 
As I mentioned at the start of this post for country people, it’s all about relationships.  And one of the most crucial relationships a pastor can develop and nurture is the care for the sick and elderly.  Your relationships must extend beyond Sunday morning.  Learn to relate to each member of your small community. Keep in mind these folks meet regularly and often socialize, so bad pastoral care will spread quickly.  While a pastor who is good at caring for his people news of that will spread as well. In a small community, people know everything that is happening in each other’s lives, so a pastor who is out of touch with this will appear cold and uncaring to his members.

Excellent pastoral care is what connects the pastor to the lives of his flock.  It allows the pastor to be there in tough times and times of celebration.  Pastoral care engrains the pastor into the heart and fabric of the community. Like everything else, I advise leaders don’t do this alone.  Develop and train a caring team of people to join you in providing care for your members.  Rural people are looking for a church that cares and can be a family for them, teach your members how to be that welcoming community. People notice who turns up and who stays away when the chips are down. Helping at these times breeds a broad sense of loyalty from country people. Crises are powerful ways to connect right into the core of rural families in a way country people understand and appreciate.

Other posts in this series:


Rural Ministry

Rural Ministry Has Unique Challenges and Opportunities



So, far this year, we have written about millennials, racism, urban ministry, and heaven.  My next test is to start a conversation on doing ministry in a rural context.  I have spent most of my ministry in big metropolises, but have not lived in a community of under 4,000.  You know you live in a small town when the closest grocery store is 20 miles away, there is no Walmart in your city, and there are more cows than cars.  Doing ministry in this context is very different than the concrete jungle I left ten years ago.  There is just not the population density; I had to learn to adapt to living around.    Over the course of the next few weeks, I pray that we can begin a discussion on useful models for rural and small-town ministries.  As we enter this discussion, some essential and unique factors determine how fruitful your ministry will be.

Study the Church System

Rural churches frequently have a broad sense of community and are generally led by several principal families.  You can upset this delicate church system easily.   Take time to master the unwritten policies that guide the system. Usually, a small group of individuals oversees the ministry direction.  They are the permission givers. They will either permit or limit what can and cannot be done. While every parish has a written set of rules, these permission-givers are the real decision makers.

The pastor seeking to make change needs to plan to sit down with the decision-makers and get their buy-in before launching into any new ideas.  You cannot make any change and survive it until you carefully define the rules, roles, rituals, and goals, which make up the system.

Skipping this critical step could result in the only change taking place is you.

Take the Time to Learn the Unique Story of the Community

As you are learning how your church system works you must also learn the community you have been called to serve. Every town has its own stories. It’s unique heritage.  You need to take the time to become a cultural detective.  Learn how the town’s past, present, and future have shaped this town’s character.  It is in this discovery phase that you may learn to love this community as much as its life-long members do.  These stories are their identity, they have formed their self-esteem.  Don’t minimize those stories.  Honor their past, help them discover the future direction God may be leading them into.  Steady continuity is particularly important for rural churches. Change is expected, even anticipated in the urban areas.  But people live in rural areas for its slow, steady, dependable pace of change.

John Mark said, “The most important connection an incoming pastor can make is to sit with storytellers and understand the history and identity of the congregation they are called to. A congregation will only journey somewhere new when it is confident that its leaders know its story and stand in line with its history. Sometimes the gentle embracing of these stories may bring healing to a painful past.”

This true account proves that very point.

Carl Geary died a month ago from a heart attack as he campaigned in a small country town. Despite his sudden death he still polled over three times as many votes as his rival in the election in Tracy City, Tennessee.

His widow, Susan Geary, was not surprised by the election results.  “The day he passed away, people were calling with condolences and saying, ‘We’re still voting for him,’” she said.

Geary was known for telling the truth and served on the city council. He received 285 votes to his rival’s 85.

I will end this post with these simple words.  Ministry in rural America is about relationships and patience.