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The Joys (and Challenges) of Rural Ministry

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

Australia is a large, sunburnt country with many small rural towns scattered far and wide across the landscape.  Many of these towns have little or no evangelical witness, and many of those that do are struggling to find pastors.  In my own denomination there are currently seven unfilled positions in rural Queensland, not to mention other opportunities for church planters. 

So why is it that churches in the country seem to have so much more difficulty finding pastors than their city cousins?  Could it be that a growing number of trained gospel workers today are actively resisting the possibility that God might be leading them to serve in the country?  And if so, why is this the case?

Could it be that a growing number of trained gospel workers today are actively resisting the possibility that God might be leading them to serve in the country?

Reasons and Excuses

Some of the more common reasons include:

  1. Isolation from family and friends
  2. The children’s education
  3. The wife’s career
  4. The fear of adapting to a rural lifestyle
  5. Lack of pastoral training or experience
  6. Medical issues
  7. Wrong timing
  8. A perceived loss of ‘professional status’
  9. No decent coffee shops!
  10. “I’m/we’re just not cut out for country ministry”

While some of these may be valid, others might be downright sinful—and can too easily be combined and weighted to justify whatever outcome may seem most desirable under the circumstances.  To paraphrase Isaiah 6—“Lord, here am I. Send someone else.”

Myths about Rural Ministry

There is an unstated perception in some circles that rural ministry is somehow inferior to city ministry.  This form of ecclesiastical snobbery is patently sinful and also very wrong.  Some of the most capable, adaptable and multi-skilled pastors are those all-rounders who have served for years in the country.  Their capacity, competence and experience are like gold.  They are “worthy of double honour” (2 Timothy 5:17).

There is also a perception that a move to the country will mean closing the door on opportunities for a return to the city in the future.  The fact that many pastors do end up staying long-term in country ministry has more to do with the fact that they find real joy in their ministry than lack of opportunity to return to the city.

And then there is the myth that children will be disadvantaged growing up in the country.  Obviously, life will be different from their city cousins, but to call this a disadvantage would be far from the truth.  The richness of life experience gained from ‘growing up in the bush’ should be the envy of most city kids.

Challenges of Rural Ministry

Without question, it does take a certain type of person to make a successful transition to rural life and ministry.  It is not for the faint-hearted and requires an honest realism when prayerfully weighing the possibilities.  These are a few factors worth considering in the screening process:

1.  Personal suitability

  • a clear sense of God’s enabling for the task;
  • a willingness to fall in love with country people in general;
  • a strong marriage and a wife who shares the call to the country;
  • a healthy family unit;
  • a willingness to listen, learn and embrace new ministry challenges;
  • a willingness to serve without much external support;
  • a flexible, adaptable personality;
  • in some cases, a willingness to work bi-vocationally.

2.  Isolation factors

  • a willingness to live independently from the extended family;
  • a willingness to form meaningful new friendships within and outside the church family;
  • the need to have a support network, either locally or remotely, for spiritual and personal accountability and encouragement.

3.  Some pastoral factors

  • a high turnover of people in some places due to seasonal factors, drought, economic fluctuations in farming, the mining industry etc.;
  • stresses caused by economic and climatic factors resulting in high unemployment, financial crises, bankruptcy, depression, suicide etc.;
  • the loss of young people to the city for higher education, most of whom do not return;
  • a shortage of gifted lay leaders;
  • resistance to change (in some congregations).

Rewards of Rural Ministry

If rural ministry involves some unique challenges, it can also offer rich rewards. While no pastor should take on a position with the expectation of any earthly compensation, many rural pastors can attest to the special blessings and joys resulting from their ministries.  These might include:

1.  Deep and loyal friendships

The pastor and his family become a loved and respected part of the whole community, not just the local church, as they engage at many different levels of community life.  Even shopping can become a significant social (and time-consuming) event.  Relationships are significant and grow easily and naturally.  By showing a willingness to understand and embrace country life, barriers quickly begin to fall.

2.  Vast ministry experience

Country pastors have to develop skills in many different areas – maintaining the weekly programme of the church with a heavy preaching/teaching load, counselling and pastoral care in complex situations, visitation in many different rural settings, conducting weddings and funerals for both the church and the community, leading in public events (Easter, Christmas, Anzac Day, school events), invitations to speak at community groups, networking with other clergy and churches in the town etc. 

3.  Excellent gospel opportunities

Though small country towns are still quite secular in their culture, many people retain a certain respect for churches and their Christian friends who attend them.  They will still attend services randomly and on special occasions.  There is a greater openness to the gospel than in the city.  Personal conversations and hospitality happen more easily.  Events like funerals can be extremely valuable gospel opportunities as the whole community comes together.  Pastors have a mostly positive public identity, and when trusted, can find people from the community seeking them out for guidance and advice. 

4.  The rural lifestyle

If some aspects of country life seem harsh to those used to the ‘latte culture’ of the city, life without traffic, smog, fumes, noise, rush and stress is surely appealing.  While far from perfect, there is a wholesome quality about life in the country that is conducive to happy family life, productive ministry and personal spiritual growth.  Friendships are real and people matter.

A Challenge

In these days of drought and rural decline it is easy for us to dismiss our Australian country towns when it comes to gospel ministry.  Yet the mission field in our ‘wide brown land’ is as open today as it has ever been. The needs are great but the labourers are few.  Christ loves these country people and their little churches, and they need humble, faithful, godly pastors and their families who are willing to go.  ‘Come over and help us’ is their cry.

Christ loves these country people and their little churches, and they need humble, faithful, godly pastors and their families who are willing to go.  ‘Come over and help us’ is their cry.

The work will require resilience and sacrifice, but that should not be a deterrent to any pastor who takes the gospel seriously.  So what, if it means a step into anonymity.  So what, if it means social dislocation for the family.  So what, if it means adjusting to life in a different culture.  Let’s not put selfish conditions on God when we offer ourselves for ministry. 

Pastor, are you willing to consider the possibility of serving in a country church?  Will you pray?  Will you trust God with your future?  His ways are not our ways, but they are always right and they are good.

Testimonial

It is now many years since my time as a country pastor.  But those 13 years spent serving in a town of 6000 people in Central Queensland still linger prominently in my memory and powerfully shaped the rest of my pastoral ministry.  Our six children were born there, and we thank God for the privilege of being able to devote some of our best years to that ministry.

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