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I have the privilege of attending the RHMA Small Town Pastors Conference in Morton, Illinois this week.  I have wanted to attend for almost 10 years and tonight I got the chance to go.  Small town Pastors from all over the country and Canada are in attendance.  The theme for the conference is “Winds of change in rural America”.

In 2011 less that 2% of people in rural America work in agriculture. 94% of the people living in rural America do not work in Ag related industries.  That is quite a change for the way it was 20 years ago when I came to our small rural farming area.  As I reflect on my own church, the statistics seem to bear it out as well.

Tonight was the first session with Dr. Mark Devers.  He challenged us with understanding the concept that we are not called to preach, but called to preach God’s Word.  He stressed the significance of God’s Word being able to change lives and churches.  A strong focus was on Ezekiel 37 and the story of the “dry bones”.  It was a great reminder of the power and prominence that God’s Word needs to have in our ministries if we intend to see lives changed.

I enjoyed the fellowship and got to meet a great group of guys pastoring in Northern Michigan.   The thing that impressed me the most today was an older couple who sat at the table with us.  They had been associated with RHMA for a long time and were attending as volunteers.  (She had worked as a secretary for a number of years at RHMA).  They were going to help clean up after we left from dinner.  This couple had been married for 54 years, and was still faithfully serving God.  They spent their winters in Florida volunteering for Wycliffe or Campus Crusade.  Wherever they were needed, they were willing to go.  They had a joy about them as they faithfully and joyfully served God.

I was surrounded tonight by Pastors who were serving in rural ministries.  Some who had served for over 30 years in the same place.  It was an impressive group of people.  But I go to bed this evening thinking about an average couple who spent each day trying to find ways to serve God.  I don’t even remember their name, because they didn’t have name tags, but I am sure they have a special place in the heart of God because he greatly values that servant mentality.

I came to this conference looking to learn some great things from some great teachers.   I know that I will learn much in the days ahead.  Tonight I was reminded that it ministry is really about a servant’s heart and faithfulness no matter who you are or where God has put you.  I didn’t learn it from all the great speakers, but from an older couple who was simple serving God tonight by volunteering to clean tables.

Ministry Mulligans

Just had a friend share  an excellent article in Leadership Journal.net by  Jack Connell.  It’s entitled Ministry Mulligans (If I had it to do all over again …)   Some great advice for those of use who are still plugging away in ministry.

Coffee

For the last 20 years, we have always had a large coffee pot at the back of the church.  Recently, we decided to make an area that is more convenient for everyone.  Please understand, that in our community, coffee is always strong and black.  Country cafes only serve one kind of coffee and it is always the same.

As I started the search for a new coffee maker, I started asking some of my Pastor friends what they were using in their churches.  I visited one city church. that served about 6 different types of coffee.  I realized that the way we serve coffee is  often a reflection of our philosophy of ministry.  Larger ministries offer people a variety of choices.  They serve many flavors and creamers with their coffees.  They also have numerous Sunday School classes and plenty of specialized  ministries.  Rural churches often have fewer lasses and very few if any specialized ministries.

I realized that in over 18 years of ministry, I have never felt bad because we offer only one type of coffee.  I have never apologized or felt bad because we could not match the taste or quality of Starbucks or Caribou coffee.

Which brings me to my final thought – If I don’t apologize for our coffee, why should I apologize for our lack or Sunday School classes or specialized ministries.  It is simply not who we are.  We only serve one type of coffee and rural people seem just fine with that.

Making a Difference

I cannot help but applaud the actions of a young wrestler at the Iowa State Wrestling Championship 2011. Joel Northrup a young man from Marion Iowa  refused to wrestle a girl and showed up at  the mat and gave up the match by default to her.  He showed a tremendous amount of poise, character, and graciousness.  He did not make a spectacle of himself but quietly honored his personal convictions.  It turns out that he was home schooled and his father is a Pastor.   I cannot help but imagine the impact this one teenager will have in his community.  I think it is a great reminder that the world is watching what we do, even if we are a minority in a very large world.

Insignificant Events

This past week has been an encouraging one for me. I have had a number of situations that remind me of the value of staying in one place for a long time. I believe the goal of any Pastor is to know that he is making an impact on the lives of the people he deals with each week. Today, I had a man in the congregation who was going back for his second interview on a possible job. Our relationship goes back over many years of being a friend to him and his family and being his Pastor. I waited till later in the afternoon and texted him asking him how the interview went. A few minutes later he called. He said he had just got off the phone with his mom. He told me I was third on his list to call. First he called his wife, then his mother, then me. It was just a passing comment in a 10 minute phone call, but a very important observation.

As we hung up, I stopped to thank God for the encouragement. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was a very significant thing. After a great interview, He wanted me to know as soon as possible. Sometimes in ministry we look for the big things that happen in people’s lives. We want to know that we are investing our lives in something that matters. I often wonder if we miss the significance of these kind of events. When I got home tonight, I had 2 emails from people in the congregation sharing ways that God was working in their lives. This is a GREAT time to be in ministry. This month, I am going to focus on looking for significance in seeming insignificant events.

As Red Green says “Hang in there.- We are all in this together.”

RHMA is an organization that I have followed for a number of years. They have a genuine burden for small church ministries. Each year they hold a conference for small churches. I have been wanting to attend one of the conferences for the last 4 years and looks like this year I will finally get to attend. The topic is a very relevant one for our world at the time – “Winds of Change in Rural America”. As a disclaimer, I get nothing for mentioning this and am attending purely as an attendee. I will let you know what I learn. If you want more information, here is the link. Winds of Change Conference
It is April 4-6 in Illinois with Mark Dever as the featured speaker.

I just finished attending our county fair and now head to the Iowa State Fair this week. I work as an organizational leader for a 4H club and also work with our county 4H organization, so fair time is holds the same status as major holidays in our community. Each year I am amazed at the size of the equipment and the new trends I see in farming. Our discussion last night involved a new grain cart with tracks instead of tires. I was informed that the tracks added $30,000 to the price of this grain cart. I was also informed that farmers are ordering them. As I started to reflect on this new “trend” I realized I was seeing more track driven equipment in the fields.

This got me to thinking about our task as Pastors. How does a salesman convince a farmer to step outside of the box and spend more money for a something radical and new? These salesman have to convince the farmers that this “new way” of farming is better. Complex issues like soil compaction, replacement costs, metal fatigue, etc had to be carefully and painstakingly explained. This salesman had to invest the time to convince this farmer that this “new concept” would be a better investment of his money, before he would place an order.

I wonder if sometimes in the ministry, we do not do enough work explaining the changes that we would like to make in the direction of our ministries. It might be that we assume everyone understands. Maybe, the best thing we could do is spend more time explaining the issues and answering questions. I wonder if we could learn some lessons from the salesman. Often we use the excuse that rural people are resistant to change, but the county and state fairs are proof that rural people will accept change. Maybe the real issue is not “change” but how we approach change in our congregations.

The Fridge

My youngest son will graduate from Air Force Basic training in less than 2 weeks. He will have spent 8 1/2 weeks in a difficult environment preparing to serve our country. During this time, his only contact with the outside world is one phone call a week and letters that he receives from home. Our church family has watched our son grow up in this ministry. He was 6 months old when we came to our small church. After 18 years, these people are family to us.

Over the last 7 weeks, many of them have written to him to encourage him. Some of the men have told him stories of their experiences serving our country and the ladies have written to encourage him to do his best. Every week he has a list of people that he wants us to thank because they wrote him a letter. The list of people gets longer every week and it has been a tremendous help to him in this difficult time.

In rural ministry it is easy to feel isolated. Your entire world is spent with a very limited amount of people. I have learned that as I invest my life into their lives, many of them return that favor. Two weeks ago, my wife and I were at the home of one of the older couples in our congregation. This couple had been married 68 years and had numerous kids, grand kids, even great grand kids. My wife noticed that the entire refrigerator was covered with everyone’s picture. And there it was, Joshua’s High School picture. When my wife asked why it was there, she was told “It is to remind us to pray for him everyday while he is at Basic.” When you experience an event like that, you thank God for your rural ministry.

I was raised in a large mega church ministry and have been exposed to those ministries for almost 30 years. I enjoyed the opportunities those ministries afforded. My kids were not able to experience that type of ministry. My wife and I have 2 boys (or I should say young men – 18 & 21). Since I have been at this ministry for the last 18 years, a small rural church is all they have known.

I often wondered if this would have a negative or positive impact on their lives. I have always been able to see the positives and negatives of both types of ministry. Recently, my oldest has moved into a larger city about 40 minutes from our church. He is involved in a larger church ministry in the city during the week disciplining Junior High age kids and working with the College age ministry. I explained to him that I wanted him to feel free to choose where he worships and that his mother and I wanted him to visit us, but that he needed to worship in an environment that was beneficial to his growth at this stage in his life.

Recently we have noticed that he has started to attend worship with us. Upon further investigation, he explained that he enjoyed the family atmosphere that surrounds our church. He enjoyed the programs of the large ministries, but missed the intimacy and accountability that a smaller church provides. In his mind, he has the best of both worlds now.

I am thankful for a church family that allowed my children the freedom to be themselves and loved them no matter what they did. I often wished our church could have offered them more programs, but I have come to realize that what we could not offer in programs, we replaced with intimacy and family.

Variety in Ministry

Last week I was in San Antonio for a short visit with friends.  We attended a small Spanish speaking church and was once again reminded of the great things God is doing in his kingdom.  The Pastor was a man who worked as a manger of a hospital Imaging department.  He spent 40 hours a week at his job and then still managed to raise his family and Pastor the church.

We had a great time of fellowship the evening before and I was reminded of how privileged we are to be in ministry.  The church was small by San Antonio standards,  but they had just acquired a building and the atmosphere was one of great fellowship and love.  I was able to sit with my wife and listen to people sing in Spanish (which I do not know) and enjoy the sacred sounds of people worshiping from a heart of love.

This was what ministry was all about.  People ministering to one another.  I saw tears, praise, and the word of God faithfully preached.  It was an incredible day!