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