Earlier this month, the Project on Rural Ministry (PRM) at Grove City College hosted its third annual conference. A special time for pastors to connect with one another and engage with new ideas, many of those who attended felt supported and encouraged by the end of their time together. With an emphasis on resiliency and grit, pastors had the opportunity to hear several different speakers relate these concepts to rural ministry, particularly in the wake of Covid-19. In between these sessions, attendees joined workshops to put some of the speakers’ ideas into practice, met with their cohorts, enjoyed meaningful discussion over good food together, and had space for some recreational activities such as coffee tasting or bowling.
Abiding in the Vine through Impossible Ministry
Brad Roth, a pastor and the author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, gave several talks about resiliency in rural ministry. Brad explained that rural ministry is often founded on trust and that a unique aspect of rural ministry is that relational roots run deep. Everyone knows everyone, and relationships are interwoven with strong ties. He explained that this structure can make rural ministry feel impossible because it can be hard to break into these spheres, but he argued that biblical faith means entrusting ourselves to God’s goodness and letting one’s view of what is possible be shaped by Christ.
While everything in our culture promotes the idea that to move on is to move up in the world, Brad emphasized the importance of abiding in Christ, as well as abiding in the place where one’s ministry is located because that is where rural ministry becomes possible. He encouraged pastors that Jesus helps create a sacred heart in us for his people and that stability in one’s ministry means developing this sacred heart.
Reflecting on what it means to faithfully abide in one place prompted this follow-up question: “How do you know when it’s time to go?” Brad responded by saying, “If we’ve followed the Holy Spirit into ministry, we’ll feel his call out. It is a question of discernment, and as we live a life that is transformed and conformed to the image of Christ, there will always be some mystery in that.”
Burnout and Receiving Grace
Brad also addressed the opposite of resilient ministry, burnout, and how to rather be sustained by grace. He described burnout as the result of being pulled between expectation versus reality, between ideal versus actual ministry. He encouraged pastors to rethink the ideal and to not just do ministry but receive it as grace. Rather than seeking self-actualization in one’s work, pastors must realize that their ministry is not their faith. He reassuringly stated that “it’s too much weight for us to make a name for ourselves” and had pastors audibly say, “Ministry is a job.” John Friedlund commented that it was helpful to actually say this out loud and recognize that “you don’t have to pretend you’re the answer to whether the world stays together or not.”
Christian Resiliency: Understanding Creaturely Finitude
In a talk given by Lisa Hosack, an associate professor at Grove City College and director of the Social Work Program, she challenged pastors to adopt a Christian perspective on grit and resiliency. She claimed that in order to do so, we must come back to our core purpose: love God and love others. To be resilient, we must develop practices that help us to hold onto a love for God and others despite setbacks.
One important part of this is understanding our creaturely finitude, which reminds us that we are created with human limitations. Lisa stated that these are in fact “realities to be embraced, not things to be overcome.” Understanding our creaturely finitude is tied to knowing what our role is versus God’s role in ministry, which takes the pressure of perfection off our shoulders. “God, in his grace, knows our limitations,” Lisa explained. “And he uses our cracks to let his light shine through.”
This understanding allows us to “joyfully participate in God’s work and stay in our lane,” reflected Mark Sentell. “At the end of the day, who cares who knows our name? Those who pass the Christian grit test are the ones who really matter,” he said, referring to the newly proposed test Lisa offered. Instead of measuring one’s ability to reach inside themselves for discipline, this suggested test measures the ability to remember who one is in relation to God and the ability to strive for healthy expectations of oneself and others. It allows for hard work, as well as space to honor the Sabbath – for faithfulness, as well as releasing control. “Our value is not rooted in being productive, but rather in being beloved,” Eric Philips added. “This allows you to step in and do ministry because it’s not born out of a sense of needing to prove your worth.”
As Josh Stahley reflected on Lisa’s talk, he said, “It was helpful to have a reshaping of grit that makes it something more than just perseverance. We have to ask, ‘God, are you expanding my abilities right now or teaching me to learn my creaturely finitude?’ We need to consider how we can stay tethered to our core purpose.”
Having an Eternal Perspective
On the flip side of understanding our worldliness, Carl Trueman, a professor of church history and best-selling Christian thought leader, spoke on the value of obtaining an eternal perspective. While acknowledging the need to address grave matters as a pastor, he pointed to 2 Corinthians where Paul writes about painful events being viewed as light momentary afflictions in light of the resurrection. “It’s not enough to know that God, along with other believers throughout history, suffered. We must understand the vital importance of the resurrection and focus on eternity,” he claimed. “If you don’t have a good doctrine of God and understand his glory, you won’t be resilient in ministry.”
Other Practical Lessons
The conference also gave pastors the option to choose between a few other speakers and breakout sessions. Michelle McFeaters, professor of Accounting and Dean of the School of Business at Grove City College, spoke about resilient financial practices for the church. She also led a small group through a practical breakdown of how to do this well with the specific needs of their church. Mike Haddox later expressed, “I wish I had heard this in seminary because it would’ve changed the way I do ministry and how I think about finances. The twist is that I was scheduled to preach on biblical generosity the following day. I started to think about what this actually looked like and realized my vision was too small. I was operating in a limited way when it came to generosity. I was wanting to plow through financial meetings and budgets to get to ministry. Essentially, this meant I was giving out of the extras of the life of the church. Dr. McFeaters reminded me that the call of biblical, Spirit-filled generosity is not to give out of the extras of life, but have it be the essence of our life.”
In addition, pastors had the option to attend a talk by Chris Ansberry, an associate professor of Biblical Studies, or Duffy Robbins, a professor of Christian Ministry. Chris walked pastors through preaching and teaching the book of Ecclesiastes, while Duffy spoke on how to have a resilient youth ministry.
The Relevance of Resiliency
Many pastors commented that one of the reasons they love going to the PRM conference is because they learn something new every time. Bobbie Hunt shared, “I like how we get to learn things that we didn’t know we didn’t know, like with the financial talk. On the other hand, it is encouraging to hear these talks and feel affirmed that you are on the right track! It’s great for us as pastors to gain these practical tips and advice.” She also felt that “the theme of resiliency was very relevant, timely, and applicable, especially in the wake of COVID.” In a world that urges people to dig deep into themselves for strength and move on to succeed, many pastors were encouraged to reflect on a Christian perspective of resiliency and refreshed through a deeper understanding of their role in ministry in the grand scheme of God’s eternal plan.
NOTE: Recordings of conference talks are available on the PRM YouTube channel.
Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.