Pastoring a small church in the rural Northeast can be a real challenge. There are a number of reasons for this that I have observed while growing up, going to school, working, and pastoring there:
Pastoring a small church in rural Northeast
1. People are very independent and have strong opinions that are not easily changed. On the positive side, if you can get them to hear you out and realize that they were wrong, when they turn around they usually are extremely faithful.
2. People are wary of anyone new to the community and are not very open or warm toward them. One pastor said that he was in the community for 15 years, that I pastored in, and was still considered an outsider because of his New-England accent.
3. They are prejudice toward those who have much wealth or come from the big city regardless of what city it is.
4. They seem to be a little clickish and don't mix well with other social groups, even within the church.
5. They are very reserved when it comes to expressions of affection and can easily misinterpret affection for something else in a negative way.
6. They always compare the new pastor with the old pastor and the new one never measures up to the old one, even though they didn't like the old one while he was there either. The pastor that I followed told me that there were those who gave him a very hard time but after he left, the same people acted as though he could walk on water. Go figure.
7. They are more ecumenically minded because of the smallness of the community as well as the broad range of religious affiliations among their friends and families. In a small community there is a tremendous pressure on individuals to cooperate with their friends and neighbors in religious activities regardless of their affiliations. To decline to fellowship in these ecumenical activities causes one to be labeled unfavorably in the community.
8. The average stay of a pastor in these churches is about three years, never long enough to develop a sound foundation in the church nor to develop the proper view of the pastorate. I was fortunate in that even though the pastor that I followed lasted only six months, the one before him was there 19 years and I knew him personally. He gave me some very interesting advice and insight into this church, which helped greatly.
9. Young pastors right out of Bible school use these churches as a stepping stone to a larger ministry. They view these small churches as a place to gain experience and add to their resume. This mind set is placed into the minds of influential members, as one member said to me, "I think you have been here long enough and it is time for you to go and build your resume by pastoring another church."
10. The hardest thing for the new pastor is that members see the church programs on TV and desire to be like them. Pressure is placed on the pastor to make the church to grow at any cost and at the same time limit his resources.Realistically, how does one build a church of hundreds when there are 5 churches in a community of 1,400? By the way, this community was large compared to the surrounding ones, usually around 500 or so people with at least two churches in each. Also keep in mind that these people have a strong denominational loyalty even though they may attend church infrequently and have no idea what the doctrinal stand of the church is. Early in his ministry, the pastor that I knew, led numerous longstanding people to the Lord in the community and tried to disciple them via Bible study but could never separate them from their liberal ecumenical churches. I experienced the same thing as I followed him. The only people that I could reach, bringing them into the church, were new to the community or old members that had strayed away over issues but came back. Even a majority of the youth that we had led to the Lord would never attend our services but always showed up to play basketball with me or just talk, because of their family church affiliations. Even my neighbors, who would give the shirts off their backs for me would not attend our church because it was not a part of the ecumenical community nor was it their family historical church.
While you can't change a community, you can be used of God to change the church. Here are some things that I learned:
1. Make up your mind that as a pastor, you are in it for the long haul, even your life if possible. The people will eventually get it and realize that you are not in the ministry to use them but to advance them in Christ.
2. Preach the Word in season and out of season. Teach Bible doctrine and don't assume that they know everything, let alone anything. Teach the full counsel of God. Take them through the Bible book by book mixed with some topical messages from time to time. If you do this, within several years the congregation will have a Bible education equivalent to any good Bible institute, especially if one were to attend all of the services.
3. Teach your members how to minister to one another and show them genuine Christ like love. Don't be afraid to show compassion upon the hurting, even to those who misuse you and abuse you. I remember one man who mocked me during a
church service and later was hospitalized for a serious problem. The first thing he asked me when I showed up was, "Why are you here? What have I done to deserve your visit?" When I told him that I cared for him in spite of what he did, he broke down and cried. He opened his heart, pouring out all the evil that he harbored and asked if God could forgive him for all these wasted years of his life to use him now. You know the answer I gave him, "Of course!!" He became a man with a mission for God, reaching his grandchildren for Christ.
4. Use the Scriptures to break down clicks and bring harmony within the body. Some will resist while others will try to campaign against you, but if you can get the majority to work together they will neutralize the opposition.
5. Live what you preach and preach what you live. They are looking for someone real to lead them.
6. Be open as to where you are trying to lead them and why. This will reduce the idea that you have some secret agenda at their expense.
7. Show financial responsibility. You are working with a small group with limited financial resources. Make every dime count. If you can help manage the church finances to the point that they do have a reserve at the end of the year, they will actually be encouraged and be willing to give more because they know it is not being wasted. Condition the congregation into a pay as you go mentality rather than a barrow now and pay later. Build up a cash reserve for the church, if possible, for unseen emergencies just as you should for your personal account. God may have a thousand cattle on a thousand hills but he still expects you to use Biblical discretion in the use of these funds.
8. Stick with Biblical counseling, immersing into the Scriptures those who come to you for help. God's Word is much wiser than all the authors on counseling in your library. While these books may help you with some insight, it is the Word of God that the Holy Spirit will use in the life of ones you counsel. Also take precautions to avoid any appearance of impropriety while counseling.
9. Major in personal discipleship of new believers as well as anyone else who desires to be discipled. Your personal attention will be necessary and appreciated in a small church. Eventually your personal disciples will be discipling others on your behalf.
10. Take time for your family. What you do with your family will be an example to the rest of the congregation to follow. I have seen too many pastors put all of their energy into the church and lose their families as well as the church. Some of my counseling at Bible camp has been with the children of those in some sort of ministry. It is amazing how many of these children were in rebellion, feeling that they were unimportant to their parents, an inconvenience or just in the way. Try to keep a balance and make promises that you can keep with your family. I am sure someone can add more to what I have put forth, but this is more than enough to digest for the time being.