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The Joy of Small-Place Ministry: An Interview with Two Small-Town Pastors

Sometimes it seems like the only thing people have to say about ministry is how hard, exhausting, and unappreciated it is. All too often ministry “advice,” comes in the form of a pessimistic, discouraged warning. Add in pastoring in a rural context where pessimism and discouragement are common themes for the community, and the idea that “ministry is hard” becomes an even more widespread outlook. But it’s also hard like any good thing is. From the perspective of a young pastor only a couple years into the ministry journey and of an older pastor who has lived out many years of faithful ministry service, we hear the reflections and hard-earned wisdom of those who find immense joy in small-place ministry.

Two Perspectives on Small-Place Ministry

In July of 2022, at 24 years old, Kyle Eisenhuth became the solo pastor of a congregation in Marion Center, Pennsylvania that had experienced a 75% decline in attendance in the last ten years. From the start he was thrust into the uncertain waves of ministry. Eleven days into pastoring this church, he and the congregation were faced with starting the process of disaffiliation.  A year later, Eisenhuth had successfully led his church through the process of switching denominations. His leadership in this pivotal year had set a tone of trust between pastor and congregant and, in this new season, Eisenhuth has been asking the question “How do we make the ministry work regardless of who’s leading it?”  Accordingly, he has been pruning the church structure to create space for outreach and discipleship.

In 2009, Calvin Cook stepped back from a full-time career in the business world and stepped into ministry, a call which God had on his life for many years. Having grown up in a rural community, the call to rural ministry, in many ways, was a call home. For the past fifteen years, Cook has pastored two churches in the rural farming community of Kane, Pennsylvania. Sometimes his work as pastor ranges anywhere from janitor to administrator but recently he’s been focusing on “moving out of the role of being the church manager and into the place of doing ministry.”

Pastor Calvin Cook and a group of Grove City College students during a CRM Spring Break service trip in Kane, PA.

Gleaning Insights for Ministry from the World of Business

Eisenhuth received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a masters of divinity.  “I use both of my degrees almost every day,” Eisenhuth reflects. His financial literacy and business knowledge has equipped Eisenhuth to assess the season of decline that the church was previously in and to envision an improved structure of church administration.  “In the business world, you have written roles and spoken expectations,” shares Eisenhuth, “in the church you have that too, but you also have unwritten roles and unspoken expectations.”  Accordingly, Eisenhuth said that the best advice he ever received on ministry is to “take things slowly and communicate excessively.” After all, “most people’s biggest issue with change is the anticipation of that change,” Eisenhuth shares, and so, giving people, both through individual conversations and sermons, the theological framework for the changes being made has proved to be crucial.

Pastor Kyle Eisenhuth leads discussion with a group of Grove City College students during the 2024 CRM Spring Break service trip.

Cook, like Eisenhuth, has found his business experience to be a valuable asset to his ministry. As the owner of a local furniture store, Cook remarks, “some people receive me better because I am also part of the business community.” Reflecting on the blessings of doing ministry in a rural context, Cook shares that he loves “the humbleness of the people,” being a part of the community, and being able to enjoy the simple things of life that might get missed in the hustle and bustle of a more urban context.

Getting to Know the Context

Having grown up in the suburbs, Eisenhuth has spent the last two years learning about the air that rural communities are breathing. “In a rural context it’s all about who you know,” Eisenhuth realized, “It’s a very relational culture so if you want to inspire change, you need to work with key people in the church, with the people who hold a lot of sway.” Furthermore, Eisenhuth has learned, that communicating via social media is a vital channel of church outreach. He, thus, communicates and explains any church updates and events in a weekly newsletter. “Most of the women in the congregation have Facebook, so if you post on Facebook, you’re getting into most of the households,” Eisenhuth shares.

Cook has also focused in on the need for the Church to interface with social media. “Young pastors are going to have to be attuned to social media ministries,” Cook shares. He advised that churches, including rural churches, need to be equipped with the cutting-edge technology as much as they can be while not allowing it to change the message or cheapen grace.

Room for Forgiveness and Long-Term Healing

In a church wrestling with decline and still hurting from a church split that happened in the 90s, Eisenhuth has had the opportunity to witness God’s grace transform lives and relationships and inspire growth.  By forming a friendship with the church that they had split from, Eisenhuth has witnessed his congregants rekindling friendships with and doing ministry alongside people they had been estranged from for decades. While still challenged by the moments “when Christians don’t act Christian,” Eisenhuth continually shares his joy over seeing lives impacted as congregations are healing together.

In his time in ministry, Cook has realized, “Rural ministry faces the same challenges that urban ministry deals with.” Mental health issues and the addiction crisis are prevalent struggles in rural communities just as much as they are in urban communities. However, in the rural context, resources are lacking and the consideration of receiving treatment is often not even on the table.  Attuned to his need, Cook shares, “Our churches work very closely with the Kane Area Community Center.” In a rural context like Kane, Pennsylvania “the local churches become the social services for the community.” By stepping into caring for the holistic health of community members, Pastor Cook and his churches have the incredible opportunity to extend love and grace to people who often stay far away from the church doors whether due to the common hindrances of church hurt, apathy, or the presumption that Church people are always fake and hypocritical.

Building for the Future

Eisenhuth and his church have been through many seasons in their past two years together. Eisenhuth would describe his current focus as “equipping…people to go and do the ministry by forming the structures and communicating in a way that inspires people to do ministry themselves.” “I really want to have a sustainable ministry that outlasts me,” Eisenhuth remarks.  “This church has had seventy-five pastors before me and, Lord willing, there will be more after me so I’m asking myself, ‘What am I going to leave them with?’”

In his past fifteen years of ministry, Cook has been exposing the shortcomings of merely being “religious” and inviting people into a genuine and deep relationship with Jesus. Cook lives out his ministry with a deep love for the people, a commitment to the need, and joy in the Gospel.  Accordingly, Cook’s advice for younger pastors stepping into ministry is to “be real, be authentic, and to have a heart for people wherever they are. Value each other (not because of who you are but because of your meaning and your place in the kingdom of God), value the simplicity of rural ministry, and value worship.”

The Gospel is alive and active in rural communities, and it is being faithfully proclaimed by pastors of all ages and backgrounds. By gleaning from the learnings, wisdom, and advice of other ministers, the fellowship of pastors, who are laboring well on the frontlines of rural ministry, is strengthened and encouraged.

Emma Ruby, raised in central PA, is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior studying English, Christian Ministries, and Redemptive Entrepreneurship with the hope of spending a lifetime doing vocational ministry.