All ministry emphasizes relationship. As ministers, we call people first to relationship with God and then to relationship with others. It’s as basic and as demanding as the Great Commandment (Matt 22:34-40). But as anyone who has attended a variety of churches knows, relationships work themselves out differently in different churches and in different places. The large church in a large area may excel at creating relational interactions at the welcome booth or even in a thriving small group ministry, but these relational connections are of a different type than the kind that most churches in small towns and rural regions experience.
Small Places and Overlapping Lives
In smaller places relational connections do not happen only at church or at scheduled intervals. In smaller communities, lives overlap with more frequency and more randomness. When you go to the grocery store in your gym shorts, you may very well meet the mayor or one of the elders of your church. When you are tempted to berate your server for poor service, you may very well be speaking to the niece of the woman who volunteers selflessly each week in the church’s children’s ministry. In small churches and small communities, relationships are dense and inter-connected through shared schools, social venues, and work environments—not to mention connections through the far-reaching branches of a family tree!
These unsolicited connections might be an embarrassing or awkward reality if one is accustomed to the anonymity of urban life, but for many of us who call rural places home these relational connections hold life together in powerful ways. They provide not merely accountability (not a bad thing in its own right), but the synergy of knowing and being known by individuals within one’s church and within a wide variety of businesses and organizations in the larger community. When these relational connections are thriving, they can be a powerful tool not only for the wellbeing of a pastor or church but for an entire community.
An Email to Someone I Had Never Met
I learned this in a powerful way in late 2015 when I wrote an email to someone I had never met. I got Joe’s name from my father-in-law who got it from a fellow dentist who just happened to be Joe’s nephew. Because Joe had been the superintendent of the school district in the town where my wife and I were hoping to plant a church, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to send an email and ask to meet up sometime. To my surprise, Joe got back to me, and we set up a meeting a few weeks later when my wife and I would be in town. (Later Joe confessed that he told his wife that he had received an email from some hippy nut who wanted to start a church. Thankfully, he still took the meeting!)
That meeting was the beginning of what would become a great friendship between two families, but it was also an important source of connection with the town where we felt called to plant. Joe and Deb not only welcomed us to their home for meals and gave us a mini-roller coaster for the kids to play with in the back yard, they also introduced us to our adopted town and its people. In the early days of the church plant, Joe took Aimee and me for drives around town, pointing out places and the stories behind them. Later, he did the same thing with other board members. As Joe seemed to know everyone, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the introductions kept coming. His introduction paved the way for meetings with a wide variety of leaders in our town. About six months later when he and his family started attending church---once he decided we weren’t modern day hippies—his presence helped give our fledgling venture a sense of legitimacy and rootedness in our town.
Relationships, between us as individuals and families but also between us, our church, and the community, undergirded it all.
And the blessings of this relational connection went both ways. As Joe and Deb walked through job transitions, the purchase of a small business, and the ins and outs of parenting a son with significant special needs, Aimee and I—and the entire church family—had the joy of walking in relationship with them through each of these steps. We showed up at their business, we prayed for job opportunities, and we helped them launch a ministry for parents of children with special needs. Relationships, between us as individuals and families but also between us, our church, and the community, undergirded it all.
In the nearly five years since Joe and I first sat down for a meeting I’ve found that this relational dynamic is hardly the exception in our small town. From finding the perfect space for Sunday morning worship at our local YWCA, to working with entrepreneurs and organizations like our local library and chamber of commerce, we have found that connections—between individuals, families, churches, businesses, and others—are what hold our church and the larger community together. More than that, these connections help me thrive as an individual and as a pastor.
The Project on Rural Ministry—Forging Rural Ministry Connections
At the Project on Rural Ministry, it is this sense of pastoral thriving that motivates our work with rural and small-town pastors in our region. At its most basic level, all our programming—whether oriented toward resourcing pastors or amplifying their voices and stories—is geared toward helping rural pastors thrive. We care about rural congregations and rural communities, but at this time our task is specifically oriented toward thriving pastors. However, we know that all of us (and perhaps especially those of us in smaller places and churches) live interconnected lives, so when a pastor truly thrives this flourishing will impact the church and the larger community in a host of positive ways.
Be looking for regular posts from us here at the Project on Rural Ministry as we highlight a wide variety of voices and perspectives in the coming months that will help us consider ways in which we can better resource, understand, appreciate, and learn from pastors who have heeded God’s call to serve in churches throughout our region. We want to see these pastors thrive, and we can’t wait to see what rural ministry connections emerge.
Charlie Cotherman is administrative director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written about rural ministry and church planting for Christianity Today, Evangelicals, Multiply Vineyard, and Sapientia. He is a co-editor of Sent to Flourish: A Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches and the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement. He lives with his wife, four children, and a cat in historic Oil City, Pennsylvania.