Leadership Magazine Summer Quarter 1989
ReTooling for Rural Ministry
How to enjoy a country church when it’s a cross-cultural experience.
By Ron Klassen
My wife, Roxy, and I both grew up in Phoenix. After agreeing to candidate in a country church near Brewster, Nebraska, we went clothes shopping so we could blend in better with the natives.
I ‘d heard Brewster was ranch country. Ranches made me think of cattle. Cattle made me think of cowboys. And cowboys made me think of boots. So I figured I should buy a pair of boots.
Checking out different styles, I discovered boots came with rounded or pointed toes. Since I’d always worn shoes with rounded toes, pointed boots seemed extreme to me. So, I bought a pair of rounded boots. When Roxy and I found ourselves candidating in Brewster, sure enough, I was right. Sort of. There wasn’t a men’s dress shoe in the entire church. But I sported the only pair of rounded-toe boots.
This city boy had a lot of adjusting to do when he moved to a rural pastorate. And since approximately 40 percent of rural pastors are from the city, I suspect I’m not alone. Here were some of the cultural adjustments I had to make to begin ministering effectively.
What You Leave Behind
I soon learned that if I were to be successful in rural ministry, I must be willing to give up some of my “rights.” I took a tip from the apostle Paul, who mentions in I Corinthians 9 that he had to give up rights in order to minister to Gentiles – people who were vastly different from his cultural] upbringing (just as rural people were from mine). Here were some of the things we had to leave behind.
Cultural rights. Roxy and I discovered numerous cultural differences. For instance, we had grown to enjoy specialized restaurants in the city. in Brewster, population 21 (after we moved into town), we found none.
We also discovered rural cooking was different. I will never forget the day we visited some folks in our church. For dinner they served noodles on mashed potatoes. It looked awful.
Entertainment events also differed from city fare. Neither the Ice Capades nor the circus ever made it to Brewster. Neither did college or professional foot-ball. We found the best entertainment to be a high school ball game, Sunday afternoon rodeoing on someone’s ranch, or an elementary school Christmas program.
Cultural norms, we decided, could be relearned. We learned to adjust.
Family rights. Our entire family had to acclimate to rural ministry. My wife gave up her rights to convenient shopping – no malls in Brewster. In fact, we had to go sixty miles to buy our groceries. She also gave up her rights to working in her vocational field, because there were no jobs nearby in her chosen profession. Both of us gave up our rights to having our extended families nearby. We endured the three year terminal illness of my wife’s mother from a 1,200-mile distance, which was excruciatingly difficult.
Salary Rights. Few pastors in rural churches make the salary, that can be earned in city churches. For many, rural means pastors, this means taking” a “tent-making” job like the apostle Paul. Other rural pastors learn to live frugally.
I’ve found two primary reasons why rural churches typically pay low salaries. The first is economic. If the church is small, or if the area is not economically strong, the people may not be able to pay their pastor a good salary.
The second reason is more common. Rural people often aren’t aware of how much income it takes to live. Once an elder told us his family lived on five hundred dollars a month, implying that we could do the same. But he forgot that all of his vehicle expenses, insurance, house payments, utilities, and much of his food, come out of the farm account, leaving very little to personal expenses. But the pastor has no farm account from which he can pay his expenses.
Before you feel sorry for us, let me hasten to tell you that, though we have had to give up certain things, we have gained far more than we have given up.
What You Gain
Our gains have led us to a conclusion that startles some of our friends and family in the city. Both my wife and I have so grown to love rural life that we would now choose to live in a rural community even if ministry were not a consideration. (This conclusion may not be startling to those of you reading this while at a rush-hour standstill on the freeway!)
What have we gained? For one thing, clean air. I’d forgotten stars can be plainly visible at night.
We gained space. I now feel almost claustrophobic when I visit the city.
We gained a relaxed lifestyle. Rural people take time to drink coffee and visit on the streets (often holding up traffic as they do so). We can dial the wrong number in our small town and talk for fifteen minutes anyway.
True, we have given up individual rights. But we have gained community closeness. I can walk into the variety store, the cafe, the grocery store in Corn, Oklahoma (we have since moved from Brewster, being promoted from a town of 21 to a town of 550) and I’m not a nameless face like I was in the city.
Our family loves to go on walks at night. It usually, takes us a couple of hours to go around the block, because we stop and visit with so many people. A few months ago m, family went on a walk with my sister’s family, in Dallas. It took us less than an hour to go two miles, because no one stopped us.
Besides community, closeness, we also have gained community spirit. My wife and I thought going to a Cowboy’s game was fun when we lived in Dallas. But now that we live in a rural community, we wouldn’t trade our high school football games for the Dallas Cowboys Community spirit is contagious in our small town.
Best of all, we’ve gained family togetherness, some-thing we found difficult to maintain amid splintered family, interests in the city,. Here we play together. We go to the park, have picnics. We often invite friends into our home. Rural life makes us creative with family activities. We have to be. The other alternative is to sit on the porch and watch the grass grow.
But we have learned (surprise!) that we don’t have to go to the Ice Capades or the theater in order to have a good time together as a family. Participating is far more enjoyable than just observing.
Earlier I mentioned farm foods. I’d like to set the record straight. True, we have given up rights to specialized restaurants, but farm produce and farm meats can’t be beat. And noodles on mashed potatoes? I admit, it sounds awful, and it looks even worse. But it tastes great. it’s become one of my favorite dishes. In fact, the farm wife who first fixed it for us now serves it every time we visit, because she knows how I love it.
What You Have to Acquire
Besides giving up some things and gaining others, I learned I also had to acquire certain attributes in my approach to ministry.
For instance, I shelved my city-ways-are-better attitude. If I were to minister effectively, to rural people, I had to acquire a servant’s attitude. Again, I gained from Paul’s wisdom in Corithians 9. when ministering to a culture different from his own, he ,voluntarily, made himself a slave, though he was not a slave, so that he might win the people of that culture to the Lord.
Its always tempting. no matter what one’s background, to consider it superior to others’. If I, coming from the city. project to country folks the notion that my tastes, preferences, and lifestyle are better than theirs, then my effectiveness as a pastor will be zero. This means more than putting my city clothes in mothballs and replacing them with jeans and seed corn jackets (although I did that).
With rural ministry in particular, the degree of my success, especially since I came from the city, largely will be determined by the degree to which I choose to function as a servant instead of a superior. Here are four specific ways that works out.
Hide that education. We seminary graduates are privileged to know much. I’m grateful for what I learned in seminar,, But I’ve found my scholarly abilities don’t impress rural folks. in fact, (‘often my, knowledge is an occupational hazard, especially when it gets in the way of a servant’s attitude.
If anything, I’ve discovered many of the people in my churches have been suspicious of education. If not suspicious, they at least remain unimpressed. And I thought everyone would stand and salute when they found out I was a seminary graduate!
I often remind myself not to assume that wisdom comes with education. I dare not look down on those to whom I am ministering because their education is less than mine. Instead, I strive to look up to them -for two reasons: (1) an attitude of superiority is sin, and (2) in many are as of life, they know a lot more than I do.
So, for a long time I kept my diplomas in the closet instead of on the wall. And one of the best things I have done is to ask people to call me Ron. Instead of Reverend, or Pastor, it’s Ron. This keeps me off the pedestal. I’m not fond of titles anyway, so this was an easy adaptation.
Tougher to adjust was my speaking. Instead of using the theological words I became so familiar with in seminary, I work hard at being plain when I communicate. what a challenge! It’s far more difficult to communicate simply. it takes more preparation time.
But I learned the fallacy of assuming that unclear means deep. Since when is confusion profound? I’ve learned the most profound communicators are those who make the complex clear. This is far greater challenge for me than keeping the complex But it pays off in ministry.
Learn the people’s language. The rural language is completely different from that of the city. A servant may find he has to learn a new vocabulary,. I’m embarrassed to relate this now, but I used think all cattle with four legs were cows. But I quickly, learned that bulls, heifers. and steers arc not cows. I realize you aren’t reading this for sex-education purposes, so I’ll not explain the differences. But be assured, there is a difference. I had a language to learn.
We had to learn about the futures market. About hedging. About cattle varieties and breeds. We learned there’s a difference between pickups and trucks. I used to call pickups trucks. No more. We had to learn about fertilizers, different types of seed. crop diseases. I’ve learned that cheat is not just something done on an exam but can be found in wheat fields. We learned that dinner on the farm is the noon meal and that lunch is a snack between meals. We have worked hard at learning the Language of equipment, tractors. and combines, and all the differences in how they are made and operate.
There is a whole language that we had to learn and that we are still learning. Just as in seminary, where a theological language is spoken that is foreign to those not in seminar, circles, so too the language of the farmer is not familiar unless you determine to learn the jargon.
Farmers are impressed when their pastor knows their language. And when that same pastor steps into the pulpit to preach the language of the Word of God, farmers will listen and want to learn, because the pastor listened and learned their language.
Snuff out Perfectionism. When I moved to our small town, I had to get rid of another mentality,: city – slicker professionalism. Coming from some larger city churches, I was used to slick productions, smooth performances. I soon discovered in our country church that things were neither slick nor smooth. What’s more, much to my dismay, I found the people didn’t want them to be. In my heart, I felt the city, was better. I
‘m learning, however, that a lot can be said for being loose, less formal, and not so perfectionist. More people feel free to contribute when the standard’s aren’t so unforgiving. Rigid quality control can lead to excellence, but also to a spectator mentality among all but the first-rate performers.
Take the opportunities rural ministry offers. If we go with an attitude of serving, the opportunities for ministry, in the country equal or exceed the cities.
A seminary, student who was considering rural ministry, called me the other day,. “How do you reach the men?” he asked. “I’ve heard that farmers work from sunup to sundown. How do you reach them?” Interestingly, in rural areas, unlike most other places, pastors have a rare opportunity to reach men. Rural occupations are among the few I know where the men at work are thrilled to have their pastor come and work with them. In the city the last thing people want is for their pastor to spend a day, with them at the office. It would just keep them from doing their jobs. But in my experience, farmers enjoy the company. They love to have their pastor jump in the pickup with them. or work cattle with them, or ride along in the tractor as they disk the fields, or go along to a cattle sale Rural ministry, provides a great opportunity for a pastor to get to know, and to reach, the men in his congregation.
I have found that spending a half day, with a farmer will likely, have far more impact on him than a dozen of my sermons. (I’m not sure what this says about my sermons.) But the wonder of it all is that I can go Out and work with the men and their farm implements, which are just a larger version of the toys I played with as a child, and I get paid for it! And while I’m with the men, my wife often is enjoying the company of a farmer’s wife Now that we have children, my son and daughter think they have gone to heaven when they climb up on a tractor or ride a horse.
What You Must Be willing to Be
Sometimes I hear that there are more seminary graduates than pastoral positions, that we have flooded the market with too many pastors. This isn’t true – if we’re willing to be servants.
It may be true that in the small area where the spotlight is shining it is crowded. But there is always room in the shadows for people who are willing to be servants.
In the shadows of rural ministry there is a great need for pastors today. Many rural churches go a year or two without a pastor because there are not enough to go around. Or could it be that there are enough, but not enough are willing to make the cultural adjustments necessary to minister in an obscure rural town?
Rural pastors don’t get their names in the news. (Although right now this might be a plus. One good thing about the rural pastorate if you make mistakes-takes, no one in the outside world will ever hear about it!)
When we considered moving to Brewster, my greatest concern was that I might be lost out there in the shadows. I wondered if anyone we would ever find me again. Brewster was not glamorous. As far as I was concerned, it was on the edge of the world, on the way to nowhere. I wondered if I would be headed in the same direction, should I decide to move there.
Rural pastors have to be content to live overshadowed by big city churches. Rural programs rarely will be quite as good as those in the city. Rural facilities likely won’t be as elaborate. Our church in Nebraska was a metal building, the kind farmers use for housing machinery. Rural congregations aren’t as large, and the potential for growth is not as great, especially since rural populations have been in decline. This means a rural pastor will never boast the statistics pastors in the city can chalk up.
Knowing these things, I admit I struggled as to whether or not I would accept a rural-church call. Obscurity didn’t entice me. Finally, I came face to face with my struggle, realizing that the bottom line question was: Do I want to serve the Lord, or do I want to serve my ego? Roxy and I answered this question by moving to Brewster. But ego problems and jealousy are never far way. When I begin feeling that way, I have to remind myself of my role.
Another thing we have to be: adaptable. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s virtually impossible to change a culture. Pastors who try to do so will lose.
But after being in the rural culture now for seven years, I’ve come to the point where I wonder why I ever wanted to change the culture. There is nothing wrong with the rural culture. We aren’t talking about a “thus saith the Lord” need for ethical or moral change. We’re talking about a culture. And there are many desirable, positive aspects of the rural culture that a pastor would be foolish to want to change.
It just makes sense that if you want to reach a hunter for Christ, you become interested in hunting. If you want to reach an artist for Christ, ask to see her paintings (which is like asking a grandmother to show pictures of her grandchildren.). If we want to reach people for Christ, we must get involved in their world and their interests.
It is imperative that when we move in to pastor a rural church, we adjust your lifestyle to match that of the rural culture.
Again, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. My philosophy going into my first rural pastorate was to concentrate on preaching the Word. But experience has taught me that preaching the Word alone is not enough in the rural culture. When I moved into rural America, I spent far too much time in my study. I mistakenly decided that virtually, my sole responsibility was to prepare solid, biblical messages, and my church would be transformed.
I found that even though my messages were solid and well prepared, rural people didn’t listen, and consequently the’, weren’t transformed. Excellent sermons alone will not cut it in rural towns. A pastor can have every jot and tittle in place. Exacting exegesis. Interesting illustrations. Dynamic delivery. Charisma in the pulpit. But if he does not put on his jeans during the week and go out and feed cattle, drive a tractor, learn the language, he likely will never find success in rural ministry.
I learned something, early in my ministry, when I decided to go to the ranch of a young couple who had visited our church a time or two. They were working some of their calves that day, and they invited me to come and help. I was afraid to tell them I’d never worked calves before.
They assigned me to the calf pen and told me it was my job to wrestle the young calves into the chute. It sounded easy to me. I hopped into the pen and went after my first calf. I grabbed the calf around the middle and tried to move it toward the chute. I quickly realized the calf was stronger than me. I wrestled and fought with that calf, but I couldn’t get it into the chute.
Eventually, I ended up flat on m”, face in manure. The embarrassing part of it all was that there were eight seasoned cowboy 5 leaning against the fence, enjoy-mg the show. The fact that I’d never wrestled calves before was now readily apparent. I knew those cowboys desperately wanted to howl with laughter, but they dared not, because I was the preacher, and it is not proper to make fun of the preacher! I have no doubt who was talked about over coffee in our local cafe for the next couple of day’s.
Those cowboys showed me how to do it. I found you don’t wrestle calves by grabbing them around the middle. I spent the day grabbing each calf around the neck. With my other hand I grabbed the tail at the hind end (for those of you from the city”, this isn’t the cleanest end of a calf) and wrestled each calf into the chute.
After grappling with several hundred calves, I was bone tired. I was covered with manure. But that couple became a part of our church.
I learned Paul was right. If you want to win farmers, you must learn to live like a farmer.