A small chance

So, Ismael Garcia, my ethics professor in seminary, told one of his classes about a medical doctor, who decided to work in a big city because he could get a better salary and a more prestigious job. Even though the doctor knew that he was needed in the small towns, where they had no medical professionals, he didn’t care.

Ismael was a masterful teacher, and he had us all worked up, booing the doctor, decrying the injustice. Then he turned around and said, “You hypocrites! All of you pastors do the same thing. You’re all going to bigger cities. You let these rural churches flounder. You won’t give them any time.”

Yeah, he laid on the guilt pretty thick. And it worked, at least in my case. When we were looking for calls, I was encouraged to take the associate pastor position at some large, prestigious church, but instead, I decided to go to a small congregation in rural Abbeville, Louisiana.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that it was easy. I’m not going to regurgitate the romantic mythology that people will love you more at a rural church, or that the appreciation they lavish upon you will far outweigh the lack of salary, because it’s not really true. It was difficult. I regularly experienced culture shock, and we would constantly escape to New Orleans to get a bit of city life in our souls.

But, now that many seminarians are looking for their first calls, I do want to urge you to look at a country church or two. At least, don’t completely write them off. If you have a spouse who can manage it, and if your student loans responsibilities aren’t too much (and if you’re Presbyterian, the BOP might be able to help you out with that), it is at least worth a look.


(1) You might like it. I met a wonderful, gifted pastor in Iowa a few months ago who lived in California most of her life, and she loves her country church. As I listened to her story, I wondered if it was a surprise for her to figure that out. Even if you don’t like it, you might find out some things about yourself that you didn’t know before.

(2) It will give you opportunities that you can’t get in larger cities. It’s the big fish/small pond thing. I was quickly placed in leadership positions within the city and within the denomination. It allowed me to gain a lot of great experience that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Plus, other clergy were very good at mentoring me, whereas in larger cities, new clergy go unnoticed.

(3) You can develop your preaching skills. We all think that we’re naturally gifted and talented orators when we come out of seminary. But, in reality, any art form requires practice to do it really well. You just won’t get that practice if you’re at a really large church, preaching four times a year. What people often don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter if you learn by preaching to a thousand people or fifty people. What matters is how many times that you do it. Serving a small church will give you the opportunity to write and preach on a consistent basis.

(4) They need you. Seriously. We’re in a crisis time in our denominations. In the PCUSA, forty percent of pulpits are empty. They are in rural areas, where it’s difficult to attract good candidates. You could give a congregation an opportunity to celebrate communion on a regular basis, or to have some consistent care, which they haven’t had for a long time. It is a sacrifice, but it’s for a very good cause.

Now, to denominational leaders, in order for this to work, we can no longer assume that a person went to a really small church or a rural pastorate because he or she was a low-quality candidate. Because, you know that’s what too many people are thinking. Can we resist that temptation? If seminary students decide to go to a rural parish for a first call, can we make sure that we don’t discriminate against them for giving up some prime years of their lives for the good of the denomination? If we see two people looking for a job, one who’s been on staff at a large prestigious church, and one who’s been a solo pastor at a rural church, can we stop making assumptions about who might be more qualified?

photo by wanderab

28 thoughts on “A small chance

  1. When I read your story about how your ethics teacher used the story of the doctor (a story of a story? I think I got that right), my mind instantly flashes to a situation my wife went through when we were dating….

    My wife lived for about 8 years in Inner City LA, and was a part of a small church there. Although the church was nominally attached to a tiny denomination called “Advent Christian,” all those who held any real connection to that denomination had left long ago, and there was really only about a dozen or so people there, mostly folks just out of college like my wife (although I hadn’t known her for most of this time). With so few people involved, there was more than enough work to go around. The de facto pastor there was a somewhat older man (mid-30’s to early-40’s) who was there as part of a tutoring program designed to help the kids in the area. When the elderly pastor retired, this man was deputized to lead worship gatherings, and thus became the “leader” of this small spiritual community. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call him “Gus” (not his real name).

    Gus was very passionate about being called to inner city ministry, and this passion both energized and alienated various members of the small collegiate community that had come to be a part of this (what in essence became a) “church plant.” My wife, a professionally trained musician, was the de facto praise music leader for this small church. Occasionally, someone would be upset with the way Gus did things, and while my wife sometimes shared these concerns (and grew to do so more and more as the years went on), she was quick to come to Gus’s defense when someone was unfair in how they chose to voice or act upon those concerns. Thus, she felt that she had earned some measure of Gus’s trust over time.

    About a year into my relationship with her (we met through seminary; I nearly done with my MDiv, and she having just started a degree that would eventually become an MDiv, but she wasn’t on that track yet), my not-yet-wife came down with Mono, and was sidelined both from work and from her church for about a month. Shortly after that, my wife decided that she needed to leave this worship community for the sake of both her studies as well as her continued emotional and physical well-being.

    Gus did not respond well to this. The next Sunday after she had made the announcement to the leaders of this church, Gus gave a sermon that railed against those who went to seminary, then left inner city ministry to go to large churches that offered higher salaries, forsaking those areas where the “real work” (he may not have used those words, but that was the impression I was left with while sitting through the sermon, and doing my best not to react) was being done. Although Gus never mentioned my wife by name, it was obvious that the message was being directed at her. As soon as the service ended, my wife left in tears, and we just sat in the parking lot for about a half-hour or so while she vented and eventually calmed down.

    My wife is now going through the ordination process in the Episcopal church. Although we both have certain inclinations toward both inner city ministry and emerging settings (she considers this “church plant” to be “emerging before we knew what the term was”), my wife has learned to treat those who speak about these things with a bit of skepticism and mistrust–even as she tries to be fair to the positive need for those very trends to gain more attention.

    Sorry for the overly long post. But after reading your story, I just had to share those thoughts. As much from what I experienced of my wife’s story as from my own current experiences, I find myself constantly struggling with the question of how much we really do need to attend to our own needs, while at the same time affirming that God calls us to “give everything” for the sake of the gospel.

  2. What a traumatic experience. During a time when she needed to be affirmed in her calling the most, it’s terrible that she had to endure that. How heart-breaking.

    I did leave my small, rural parish, even knowing that I would probably be their last FT, ordained pastor. And I had a lot of guilt . But… I let go of it. Now I’m proud that I spent some time there. And happy that I left.

    So, you’re right. There’s a balance between what we want/need and what the church wants/needs. It doesn’t help the church if we’re at a call and resenting the heck out of it every moment that we’re there. But I know that I was told very strongly not to go to a rural parish, and I don’t think that it was such a bad thing for me…

    It’s hard to know what to do with the small churches. Some of them are small for good reasons (they are basically family chapels, not welcoming to outsiders, etc.) and I know a lot of people who think we just need to close their doors. But, there are some beautiful, healthy ones out there too. I would just hate for seminarians to discount them completely.

  3. I worked for 8 years in a small church. It was a suburban church, not rural, but still small and in need of leadership. I went to small church after working for awhile in a very large church. What you say here is very true. The small church afforded me opportunities to learn, lead, and minister in ways that never would have been possible in the large church. And being the solo pastor in the church I would end up preaching every Sunday, about 47 Sunday’s a year….for 8 years. It was indeed the way to learn to preach.

    I am now at a larger church, still preaching often, about 32 times a year…and everything I learned in small church is the foundation of what I do here.

    The primary downfall for working at a small church is that it is very hard to move on when the time is right. People in large churches perceive clergy in small churches as being too “inexperienced” to manage the large church dynamic – but, that is a fallacy…and really needs to be changed.

  4. Amen – loved the post. I’m probably more suited to being an associate, but am enough of a generalist to make it in rural ministry. Been ordained 3.5 years, with all of it in a PCUSA congregation of 110 members.

    We’ve been so blessed to be here. They stocked the pantry and freezer before we got here. Yellow ribbons around trees. Completely redid the bathrooms, and did so much other work since the last time I saw the manse. This past Christmas they got together and gave us a cash gift of nearly a month of cash salary. If I suggest we have a potluck to welcome new members, they get right after it. People have stepped up to lead Sunday School – I’m not even teaching this year, as we have plenty of volunteers. This in a county of less than 6000 – which is larger than 7 of the 8 surrounding counties.

    Yes, the people want us to stay. But they aren’t just being generous and hospitable towards us, but toward others as well. When people come to visit, they come back again. Next week we’ve got 12 planning to join the congregation. That means a full quarter of the membership will have joined in a little over 3 years.

    I’m going to India after Easter, and someone in the congregation has already offered to pay my airfare.

    Okay, I make the minimum cash salary. But they pay for just about every expense we have. Show up at a restaurant, and someone is likely to pick up the bill – even if we didn’t sit with them. A couple years ago when a car quit, we were given a car. The elderly owner couldn’t use it anymore, and his daughter is a very generous person.

    We didn’t come here because of pay. It’s just that when we started meeting the folks they seemed very genuine and down to earth. It’s worked out very well.

    Attendance was going down for 30 years, and there were rarely kids in attendance. But now there’s likely to be 20% of the attendance in children. There were 14 this past week, and that’s not uncommon. It probably helps that my wife is good with kids, and I tutor math in an elementary school. It may help that I’m second career, though we were previously living in a big city – at least 300 times larger than where we are now.

    I don’t know what it might have been like to be an associate for Small Groups or Christian Ed or Visitation. But, we hope to stay here for quite some time – it might turn out this is the only place we are called – and we are okay with that.

    I didn’t assume I’m a great preacher coming out of seminary. Of those in my seminary class, I was probably one of the least as far as homiletical skill. But, folks comment that the sermons are heart-felt. It’s very humbling to preach every week. And I often wonder what the Holy Spirit is up to – what message is being given to people – because it absolutely floors me when 20 and 30 somethings say they attend because of the sermons.

    Anyway, we are glad to have received the call here, and hope it isn’t over any time soon.

    BTW – the reason I considered rural ministry was that in my final semester, a seminary dean was headed to the Rural Ministry Conference in Dubuque, and volunteered to take students. I’m the only one who took him up on it. He paid for travel and the room we shared. While there, I realized that rural congregations need caring people in ministry – every bit as much as large congregations. The conference opened my eyes, and opened me up to even considering a call to rural ministry. Now that I remember this, I’ve got a letter to send to this seminary dean…

  5. mompriest said, “People in large churches perceive clergy in small churches as being too ‘inexperienced’ to manage the large church dynamic – but, that is a fallacy…and really needs to be changed.”

    Very true! I’ve known a lot of people who blew off small church pastoring, but the dynamics can be difficult. Plus, you’re often dealing with a lack of monetary and human resources. Small church pastors definitely deserve more credit than they get.

    DennisS, what a beautiful story. I’m so glad you found such a wonderful call.

  6. I would add one more caveat – that you stay at the small church for at least seven years. Rural churches don’t grow because pastors never stay long enough – 7-9 years is ideal.

  7. I wonder if the PCUSA can respond to the shifting paradigm in any church. Has the sun set upon the denomination? On any denomination?

    I wish we could look to other models of church and serve in a context that nourishes the context to which we seek to strive the Gospel in.

    Small churches are my preferred foundation for community building. Imagine a church that embraced small churches as the standard. Imagine a denomination that shifted focus to tentmakers, rather than relying on the burdensome systems we rely upon now. Something has got to give.

  8. Thanks for posing these questions.

    Having served on COMs and having watched folks crash at small, rural churches, I advise seminarians to be careful. Those congregations need experienced pastors. Unexperienced seminary grads can get chewed up quick.

    Of course there are exceptions. The best ministers for small rural churches that I have seen are retired clergy–or homegrown CLPs.

    My first church I don’t think qualifies as small–80-100 on a Sunday and they could afford a full salary and pension at above the minimum. That is stable enough for a seminary grad.

    Smaller and less stable churches are more risky. Small doesn’t mean easy.

  9. Thanks for your comments. My first call was as an associate pastor in a medium size church. I loved the ministry, but felt that I had some gifts that were not being used because I was so focused on one area.

    Now I have been serving small churches for 7 years. I love the ministry of small churches. There are positives that I wouldn’t change for anything, but I sure do miss some of the blessings of a larger church. When I miss it, I remind myself of the negatives of a larger church and think “I am happy where I am.”

    As a woman in a small church, it is surprising to me how many people at presbytery act surprised at my leadership ability. I have often wondered silently “did you think because I am in the small church that I am not able to do ….. (fill in the blank)” I have chaired the presbytery meeting and worship committee, chaired an administrative commisssion, organized presbytery retreats and yet……there are some who act surprised that I could do anything of that quality.

    But I also think the problem also is with the perception of the small church by the small church. When I interviewed for my current church, they were surprised that I would even talk with them since they were a small church with a declining membership. They repeated asked me if I was sure that I wanted to go to a church that was small since I had been in a larger church.

  10. Your lesson and message is an important one for all to hear. We must consider the whole rather than thy self. In a small church you will also have the opportunity to really know your people and be able to minister on a less formal and more one on one basis. People will feel the love at a much deeper and more impactful level.

  11. As the pastor of a small, struggling church that I dearly love, I often wrestle with the whole concept of small churches and “first call.” I’m just not sure that the career approach to call reflects the way that God actually works..at least in my experience of call events. One of the things I felt compelled to say to folks in my church early on was that I was in it with them as long as we mutually discerned that as God’s will.

    They weren’t a stepping stone to something better.

  12. You’re a good man, David.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that small churches are a stepping stone, or anything less than real, solid calls.

    I do know that, logistically, rural small churches pay less. And a pastor may not be able to afford a house, two cars, childcare expenses, or college savings. Those are things a person might be able to do without at the beginning of his/her call, but it gets more difficult as the years go on. At least, it did for us.

    I certainly didn’t write the post to denigrate small churches. I’m really, really concerned about them, especially since they make up almost half of our denomination.

    We are at a crisis point in our denomination. Either we begin to think strategically about small churches (i.e., begin providing BOP expenses for pastors who feel called to go to them), or we will be closing most of them.

  13. Great post as usual. I continue to marvel at your writing discipline and consistency. This questions is coming up a great deal during my travels from seminarians thinking about their first calls. These are both comforting and challenging words for them.

  14. For those of us in the pew, what is BOP?

    Loved this post, all the stories in the comments. (I never think it’s bad when someone leaves a really long comment novel…I love reading what other people’s reactions are to the blog posts.

    This reminds me of Katherine Paterson’s book, Jacob Have I loved, where Sara Louise Bradshaw chooses a rural Appalachian town to be a nurse there. Her plan is to stay two years and then get the government to pay for her to go to medical school. It is a beautiful testament to what happens when we open ourselves to something happening….and, btw, KP is the wife of a Presby minister.

    Hmmm. There could be a booklist that goes with this blog post:

    Catherine Marshall’s Christy
    Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I loved

    Also, agreed about #3: What people often don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter if you learn by preaching to a thousand people or fifty people. What matters is how many times that you do it. Serving a small church will give you the opportunity to write and preach on a consistent basis.

    (Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours for mastery.)

    Keep writing!


  15. Greetings,
    As the PC(USA) Associate for the Small Church and Community Ministry Office, I have been following this conversation very closely. I served smaller membership inner-city congregations for 23 years and loved every minute of it. Smaller membership congregations have many challenges (as many of you have already mentioned) but I truly believe that the benefits outweigh the shortfalls.

    Small Churches matter! Many are struggling to survive but there are also many that are flourishing, faithfully serving their members and community well. Pastoral leaders who see their small churches as problems or stepping stones will only continue to do harm with these congregations. Pastoral leaders who love and embrace the life and mission of smaller membership churches will see their congregation flourish in ways that go beyond numbers, budget or staff size.

    Carol, thanks for starting this conversation. I plan to post your initial comments on our blog. I hope that is ok with you and can you give me some info about who you are and where you are from?

  16. Phil,

    Yes, I’d be happy if you used it. There’s a bio on the “About” page, and if you need more than that, I’d be happy to send more information along.


    I forgot to mention, BOP is Board of Pensions. They have programs that help repay student loans for pastors who choose to go to small churches. It’s a HUGE help for people who want to go to a small church, but feel like they can’t afford it.

  17. Thanks Carol. I didn’t totally make the link here since I now realized that I have your book Tribal Church! Thanks for your blog and to Bruce Reyes-Chow who directed me to your blog and article on small church.

  18. Oh good. I hope you enjoy the book. I really appreciate the work that you do. I remember going to a small church conference when I was in Abbeville, and it was wonderful. I was (finally) around a group of people who realized that having 50 people in morning worship was a great achievement, and not a failure!

  19. I presently serve a growing (162 members, 110 in worship),urban, multicultural congregation. I love it here and plan to stay until I retire in 6-7 years.

    Yet I miss that part of rural WV that I call “home.” This is where we will retire. We own a home there. If I could afford to I’d still be ministering there. I left because the small churches I’d been serving in a yoked position could not together afford a full-time pastor. My wife wanted to retire, and did after 33 years of teaching, so I had to make enough for us to live.

    While there I was also part of an experimental wider-parish: six churches served by one FT pastor and two PT seminary interns. It fell apart because everybody wanted their own “pet preacher.” I must also add that a few folks in two of the churches were a royal PIA. Those churches are now being served by a CLP, a retired UMC stated supply, an elder, and occasional supply preachers. If I could coax 3-4 of these churches to seriously commit to the the wider parish thing again, I’d seriously consider moving back. There’d be less money but a heckuva more beautiful view out my back door and the stress level would go way down.

    An earlier commentator warned against sending “rookies” to such churches. I think he’s right. It takes some maturity to deal with such situations, and, not everybody has the gifts for small church ministry.

  20. I cannot agree more with the post and the cautions about the small church. I currently serve a congregation with attendance around 80-100 on a Sunday. My wife and I have had to sacrifice financially for me to serve in this rural environment, and we do not regret it.
    I have never experienced a single bit of prejudice toward me for serving a small, rural church. In fact, I believe I am given a certain amount of respect for having the courage to follow God into an environment that most people would not consider.
    I serve on my Presbytery’s CPM and at our last meeting it was reported to us that only 9.5% of pastors are willing to serve in churches with under 100 members. Separately, only 7% of pastors are willing to serve the rural church (regardless of size). Something is going to have to give, especially since a recent glance at Church Leadership Connection revealed about 700 open positions and over 2000 PIFs.
    My encouragement is to be open to God’s wild and free call and stop limiting the Holy Spirit with preconceived notions.

  21. An added note to my original post: my ability to minister in small rural churches was greatly helped by my blue collar, small town, Appalachian heritage. For candidates who come out of larger churches or urban/suburban churches, small rural churches are the equivalent of a foreign mission field. In fact one of the interns I supervised told me later that without her 12 month experience in the WV mountains she would not have survived her VIM year in Africa.

    One last note: if you find yourself ministering in Appalachia, don’t pronounce it app-a-layshia. It’s app-a-latcha. As the blue grass song puts it, there’s no long a in Appalachia.

  22. I do understand the concern about starting out in a small church. When I was overwhelmed, I called Tom Schmid, who had been my pastor in seminary, and he said, “The church has this all wrong. Small churches are so difficult, we should be ending our ministry there, not starting them there.”

    But, most pastors aren’t ending their careers in small congregations. And most pastors are not starting out in large congregations (except as APs, but I think those positions are going to be more difficult to come by…).

    We spend a lot of time and money training our pastors. Do we want to hand all of our small congregations over to CLPs while our seminary graduates can’t find jobs?

    Maybe it’s because my small, rural church experience was positive. I was 26-years-old, from a beach town in FL, so Cajun Louisiana was far away from home (although I did my undergraduate studies in International Missions, so that was a help). I loved the church and learned a great deal.

    I just have a hope that we can support pastors financially, emotionally, and spiritually, so that small congregations can be a place where they thrive.

  23. An interesting, Carol. God recently called me to my first ordained position in a small town. I previously lived in Salt Lake City, Utah (23 years); San Francisco, California (11 years), and in two large cities in Texas – Austin the the Corpus Christi metroplex (4 years).

    I now live in Jackson, Minnesota, a small town of approximately 3,350 people.

    For me, living and working in a small town has been a wonderful experience. I know my neighbors. I can walk to work, the library, the coffee shop, city park, post office, convenience store, etc. I write an occasional bit for the local paper, and I get to broadcast a series of morning devotional on the local AM radio station. All of these things are great, and made Jackson a very attractive “choice” for a place to live and work.

    But none of desirable human preferences meant that I was called here. (And the lack of these things are not necessarily an indicator that one isn’t called to a particular place.) The only criterion my wife and I considered was this:

    Is this God’s will for us and for the church in question?

    If the answer is “Yes,” then all of the human constructed criteria will not matter. God will open the path and will provide the resources to make it happen.

  24. I am an oddity. I will be seeking a first call soon, but I am not inexperienced. I have managed teams, run projects (and contentious meetings), balanced budgets and had difficult conversations to “change or die” with senior management of several different clients. I am an ordained elder and have been for a decade.

    I am not in the minority. Roughly half the folks at my PCUSA seminary have already had one career. From other graduates, I know the PIF/CIF system isn’t likely to work well for me because I don’t fit its categories.

    I may well choose go to a small church because I come from a small town background (although the church was comfortably medium sized). I believe I am capable of pastoring a larger church. It will definitely be a time of discernment and a real opportunity to see God in action. Oh, and there’s the woman thing, too.

  25. Thanks, RC.

    No, the blog’s not in Europe. It’s in Greenwich!

    Actually, it’s just set to Greenwich Mean Time. I write early in the morning, so I used to post every day at 5:00 am. Instead of answering comments about “Why were you up at 5:00 am?” I just left it on GMT, which was the blog’s default.

  26. Small churches are wonderful. And they take more talent, energy, commitment and relational skill than large churches. If we have a career ladder at all in the PCUSA, small-church ministry ought to be at the top of it, not the bottom.

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