By guest blogger Luke Geraty, pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship in Stanley, Wisconsin.
I’ve been pastoring a church in the small town of Stanley, WI for almost 8 years now. I’m not the type of pastor you’d expect to find in small town Wisconsin. I’m 35, originally attracted to city-centers, and enjoy hip-hop music. Sometimes people ask me why I’m here, because it doesn’t make much sense on the surface. The answer? I’m here because there are people here that Jesus loves.
When I started pastoring I was 26 and fresh out of seminary. After I hit the 3-year mark, I noticed a change in how the community perceived me. Rural communities and small towns are places where pastors often start out and stay for two years– or places where pastors go to die. Now that I’ve been here 8 years, I’m the longest tenured pastor in the area (scary!), even among the mainline churches. Regardless of denomination, churches in rural areas and small towns have a lot of movement of pastors.
Consider this in contrast to the town population, who were born there and have stayed there. There are only a few hundred adults and everyone knows each other at least by sight. It takes time for people to trust you. After three years, I had more relational equity. At the five year mark, I noticed another step up. I’ve talked with older pastors who have served in rural settings for a long time and they tell me it only gets better the longer you’re there.
There is a failure in the way pastors and church planting movements have thought about doing ministry in rural communities. Too often these places are viewed as stepping stones– somewhere to get experience before you’re allowed to move up to something bigger and better. These towns are made up of people and they matter to Jesus. They shouldn’t be used as a stepping stone. What would be helpful, especially given the culture of smaller places, would be to have more long-term-pastors who stay.
After years of staying and serving, helping lead our church to open a food pantry and becoming more involved in the community, our church has finally been accepted as a legitimate church option. We only recently have earned trust in the community. I’d encourage anyone who is called to rural or small town communities to be prepared to think long-term, to stay and invest in the people, to live with them and serve alongside them.