What are some temptations that small-town pastors face?
I’ve been reflecting on this question while working on a sermon series based on Jesus’ three temptations in Matthew 4.
For Jesus, the first temptation was the temptation of sustenance – relying on something other than God to sustain him.
The second temptation was for power – relying on ego to overtake his calling.
The third temptation was for riches – relying on economic comfort instead of being a prophet with “no place to lay his head.”
In the wilderness, he was tempted, and in the wilderness he heard the voice of the evil one.
In rural ministry, which for many can seem like a wilderness experience, there are unique temptations that persist no matter how many times you’ve battled them.
There are three major temptations that rural ministers and churches face:
1. The temptation to do it all.
Many rural pastors are in what ministers refer to as a “single staff” church where the pastor may not have the luxury of even a part-time administrator or secretary.
In this scenario, the temptation to do it all might mean that the pastor provides all of the pastoral care, single-handedly does the church’s outreach and even folds the bulletins.
These expectations often come as a result of a church’s size, but can prove a recipe for isolation and burnout.
Don’t give into the temptation to do it all. It’s unhealthy not only for clergy, but for the church.
As one friend put it, “When a pastoral leader doesn’t delegate and equip people, it robs others of the joy of ministry.”
3. The temptation to isolate.
In a rural community, it might take an hour (or several hours) to get to the nearest city, denominational office or continuing education seminar.
It takes work, planning and intentionality to remain connected to those in denominational life, and in the larger world of church. It can even take work to remain connected to those in your own region.
For example, even a “local” pastors’ gathering in the Tidewater Region of Virginia can take me over an hour to reach.
Find peers in a local ministers’ group. Take the time to reach out to others in the community and build lasting relationships. You can even enter a coaching relationship with another pastor-mentor via phone or Skype.
Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself.
3. The temptation to compare.
Small-town ministry is different from urban and suburban ministry. It may (or may not) go without saying that rural churches don’t have the same population to draw from as their city counterparts.
I once heard a member of a small church voice a desire to be able to take 50 to 60 teens to youth camp, “like that one youth group does every year.”
That one youth group happened to be in an affluent suburb of a major metropolitan area and had no problem attracting that number of students.
Small-town churches can sometimes set their sights on goals based on suburban and urban realities, instead of setting realistic expectations. This can lead to a sense of failure and dejection.
A healthy youth group for a church of 100, for instance, would be 10 students. Instead of comparing the youth program to a model that works at a larger church, small-town churches might do well to rethink their youth ministries altogether.
Through deeply understanding God’s word, focusing on prayer and relying on the sustaining presence of the Spirit, Jesus was able to resist his own temptations.
I believe rural clergy and churches can resist our own temptations in the same ways.
Jonathan Davis is pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia. He serves on the Virginia Baptist Mission Council and is a doctor of ministry candidate at Logsdon Seminary, where his research focuses on equipping small-town churches for 21st-century ministry. A version of this article first appeared on his website, which is dedicated to sharing research, ideas and tools to help small-town churches. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathandavis_.
Jonathan Davis pastors Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia. He holds a D.Min. from Logdson Seminary, where his studies focused on helping rural churches thrive in the midst of 21st Century change. Jonathan is the founder of the Small-Town Churches Network where he shares research and ideas to help rural churches and clergy thrive. He also serves on the Coordinating Counsel for CBF Virginia, and on the Mission Counsel for the Baptist General Association of Virginia.