Pastoring Small Towns: Help and Hope for Those Ministering in Small Places, by Ronnie Martin and Donnie Griggs, Brentwood, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2023, 187 pp., $14.99 (hardcover).
Pastors who serve in small places have always faced context-specific challenges. Sometimes the primary challenge is geographic isolation. In other instances, pastors may face crippling loneliness, overwork, or a nagging sense that their ministry is somehow less significant than the ministry of those who serve in large churches or high-powered metro areas.
Donnie Griggs and Ronnie Martin can identify. Both are pastors who made an intentional choice to serve in smaller places. Martin left the sprawl of Southern California to plant Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio in 2013. Griggs planted One Harbor Church in his hometown of Morehead City, North Carolina in 2009.
Pastoring Small Towns is their attempt to harness their hard-earned wisdom for the benefit of others who share their commitment to serving God and His people in the places that don't always show up on maps.
Whenever I come across a new book on rural or small-town ministry, one of my first questions is, "Does the author come across as someone who really gets what ministry is like for small-town pastors like me?" Increasingly, when I read books on ministry in contexts like those I have come to know and love, I look for clues that demonstrate that the author truly cares for small places and the people who inhabit them. Good stories about ministry successes (and failures) are helpful, but I want to get a sense that that the author has wrestled theologically and relationally with the opportunities and limitations of living and ministering in small places. Have they faced the question of significance? Do they know how pervasive hopelessness can be in rural areas?
Over the course of ten short and accessible chapters, Griggs and Martin demonstrate that they are guides the reader can trust. This is a book written with the humility and compassion of pastors who have made mistakes and suffered alongside families who have lost a child to an overdose. What shines through is not their shiny ministries, but their hearts for pastors and those they shepherd.
A Changed Landscape
Today's shifting ministry landscape makes the wisdom of trustworthy guides all the more valuable. Over the last three years, churches around the world have experienced increased levels of uncertainty and disruptions related to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., these challenges altered the ecclesiastical landscape in lasting ways. While the full impact of the pandemic and the social unrest that accompanied will take years to fully comprehend, Griggs and Martin state what many pastors have experienced: "Has there ever been a time in our lives that's been more polarizing and exhausting for leaders? Impossible decision after impossible decision came at lightning speed" (11).
This foregrounding of the impact of the pandemic on pastors, churches, and relationships is one of the book's most helpful contributions to the growing literature on rural and small-town ministry. While the initial burst of publications on ministry in small places at the end of the last decade offered many timely and enduring insights, today's small-town pastor has experienced (or inherited) a landscape strewn with craters, relational casualties, and unexploded cultural landmines. For many small-town pastors, pastoring today feels different than pastoring in 2019.
A Call to Courageous Leadership
This altered landscape requires pastors to face challenges with a new resolve. As Griggs says at one point, pastors need to "get your dukes up and fight like you want to make it to the end" (166).
But who or what are small-town pastors fighting?
It goes without saying that pastors, like all Christians, are in a spiritual battle with the enemy and forces of evil in the world. This spiritual battle takes many forms, but for small town pastors, Griggs draws on two biblical types (wolves and giants) to highlight specific threats to pastors and their congregations.
Drawing on Jesus' instruction to guard against wolves in John 10, Griggs develops this metaphor with a focus on how wolves can slip into or emerge from within congregations to cause "division and discord" that is often cloaked in spirituality (64). Griggs's word to pastors is that conflicts of this kind need to be faced head on. "Those are fights when we can't afford to look the other way" (65). In these cases, it is the shepherd's job to protect the sheep.
The challenges that constitute Griggs's second example are harder to miss. The first of these "giants" is what Griggs terms "the giant of political idolatry," namely, Christian nationalism. "Christian nationalism" Griggs's notes, "is a Goliath that is keeping too many small-town pastors cowering like the fighting men of Israel" (66). One senses the wisdom of first-hand experience in when Griggs admonishes small-town pastors to avoid giving this giant time to expand his reach. "Some are attempting to play the long game of giving the giant of Christian nationalism a wide berth, waiting for it to give up and wander off to pick a fight with someone else. That won't happen. The church is its only target. Followers of Jesus in small town are without a doubt the most likely to bow. This giant, sadly, isn't going away without a fight" (67).
Griggs's willingness to name this all-too-common spiritual ailment in small-town churches is as refreshing and courageous. While Griggs goes on to name other giants (racism and drug and alcohol addiction), it is the giant of Christian nationalism that stands the most entrenched in many smaller churches. To some extent, the controversies over race that have impacted urban, suburban, and rural churches alike are made more difficult because they often appear side by side with assumptions rooted in Christian nationalism. Griggs and Martin are to be commended for calling the church—specifically the small-town church—to address these issues.
Reasons for Hope
As pressing as these challenges are, Griggs and Martin don't give challenges the last word. Before they launch into their (two?) closing chapters on endurance, Griggs turns his attention to discipleship and leadership development. In the process they offer hope that small churches in small places can raise up leaders of "calling, character, competency, chemistry, and capacity" (142).
Like many pastors I've spoken with in the past few years, Griggs notes that the pandemic revealed that churches "have a major discipleship problem." He goes on to say that in too many cases "our churches have seemingly stopped being judged for faithfulness to the gospel. What seems to matter is faithfulness to a party" (127). Griggs asserts that the answer to this dilemma is, at least in part, a revamped emphasis on discipleship that goes far beyond Sunday morning worship. "I can't tell you how many times a boat ride or a hunting blind has been the location for epic discipleship conversations….Think of all the regular places Jesus taught. That still works!" (129).
While most pastors would agree with the importance of discipleship in the small church, some may be more tentative when it comes to Griggs's second emphasis—leadership development. Sometimes the pastor of a small congregation in a small place can feel like they have inherited a leadership desert, as if all the capable potential leaders have left the area.
Griggs refused to let us live in this self-fulfilling prophecy. "Another thing that you will need to do is resist the temptation to believe that this [absence of leadership] is a challenge that would be mitigated if you were in a larger context" (134). Indeed, the example of Jesus himself shows the fallacy of this line of thinking. As Griggs notes, "One of the greatest gifts to us in the earthly ministry of Jesus is how much of it was spent in rural places with common folks" (135). (Ouch. That one crushes my rationalization a bit.)
Whether its through a set leadership development curriculum (like Griggs's church uses now) or through the wings and whiteboard approach (like Griggs's original strategy), what matters is that we trust God to provide leaders and work intentionally to train the folks He highlights.
Pastoring Small Towns is not the last word on small-town ministry, but it is a good word. At times I wished Griggs and Martin dug a bit deeper into the topics they raise. There is certainly more to learn and consider about how the pandemic influenced small-town congregations and the towns they call home. Likewise, I would have liked to see a bit more engagement with other authors and the growing literature on rural and small-town ministry. (The book only has four endnotes.) But if one thinks of this attractive little volume as a small-town ministry primer or a thoughtful introduction to ministry in a small-town context, there is plenty to appreciate. This book provides busy pastors with a quick read full of thought provoking illustrations and observations about small-town ministry that make it well worth the time of folks laboring to shepherd God's flock in small places.
Charlie Cotherman is program 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 on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly (IVP Academic) and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches (IVP Academic). He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat and dog in Oil City, Pennsylvania.