For the last several months I have written about the trials facing rural pastors. I have asked you to pray for, and love on, rural pastors. The challenges we face are real. We are tired, hurt, and unsure of what the future holds. Most of us are making unwinnable decisions every week. Some pastors are resigning or retiring early. Church experts predict that twenty percent of all churches, not just rural churches, will close in the next twelve months.
I understand all of that! I pray for our rural pastors daily. These are tough times.
Here’s the thing, challenging times are opportunities for great leadership. Rural pastor, your congregation and community need you to be a courageous leader now more than ever. Not everyone will agree with every leadership decision you make, but now is the time to lead with compassion and courage.
Four Essentials for Leading Well During this Time
1). Forgive those who left poorly.
Like you, I know what it means to be heartbroken. People that you loved and cared for have left your church, sometimes attacking you on their way out. That devastates those of us with a pastor’s heart. The pain seems worse because of the reasons they are leaving. You made a decision about masks, said something about racial reconciliation, or posted an opinion they did not like, and they are willing to throw away the relationship they have with you and your congregation because of it. Heartbreaking.
In his book, The Bait of Satan, John Bevere says, “Only those you care about can hurt you. You expect more from them—after all, you’ve given more of yourself to them.” Brevere’s next insight is spot on. “Many are unable to function properly in their calling because of the wounds and hurts that offenses have caused in their lives. They are handicapped and hindered from fulfilling their full potential.”
Allow me to be perfectly clear here. If there is a chance of reconciliation, then pursue that. However, if that isn’t going to happen, forgive and move on. Don’t miss the future by focusing on the past. Grieve the loss. Cast your cares on him, and then choose to move on.
2). Focus on those who are with you.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). While your congregation may be smaller today than it was in January, those who are with you have proven themselves true. Like Gideon’s army, they are ready to take steps of faith. It is unwise to spend so much time focusing on those who left, when those who have stood fast have sacrificed much in order to stand by your side. Love on them. Thank God for them. Express appreciation for them. Most of all, challenge them with a fresh vision from God. They have proved to be good soldiers and they need a leader to call them to action.
3). Find those who are missing.
While some may have left your church on purpose, there are many who may have been lost in the shuffle. Some may be fully engaged online, and you don’t know it. Some may have real struggles and concerns going on in their life and you are unaware of it. Around three months into this season a member of our church had major surgery and I completely missed it.
If you have not aggressively connected with the people in your congregation, start today. Be a good leader in doing so. Enlist a team to make calls and check in with people. Go after the lost sheep with the focus of a shepherd. Find ways to connect each person to the congregation during this season.
4). Focus on God's new vision.
In the middle of the exile God gave this message to Israel, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
This is God’s message for our day. We have no idea when we will get back to normal or even if there ever will be a “normal” again. We cannot allow the uncertainty of this time to paralyze us any longer. God has a plan for you and your congregation even in the wilderness. Your number one job is to experience the presence of God and perceive His direction.
God Is Still At Work
God is not quarantined. He is in the way-making, stream-creating business. Rather than grieving that you are in a desert, find the stream He is making. Like you, my first reaction to all of this was reactive. That was needed and wise. Those days are over. Now is the time to lead.
Every challenge you face is an opportunity for God to show His power! There are thirsty people everywhere in a desert. You have living water to share. Do not shrink back. Find the opportunity in this moment.
Pastor, now is not the time to resign. It’s time to re-sign! It’s time to re-engage the battle. I challenge you to perceive the new thing God is doing and lead.
Steve McVey is the founder of the Dirt Roads Network. A network of churches committed to, “Transforming rural America by planting and revitalizing life-giving churches in small towns and communities.” DRN leads a national collective of rural churches committed to planting and revitalization throughout rural North America. Steve and his wife Samantha are live in Lamont, Kansas. They have been happily married for 31 years. They have two adult married children, and one very adorable granddaughter.