by Ken Hinkley

Ministry in a rural setting is a constant struggle. We struggle with balancing our time among ministry, family, outside work, and other things that pull at us. We constantly ask ourselves if we are devoting enough time to preparing the Bible lessons or sermons to truly “rightly divide the word of truth.” When we step into the pulpit or in front of a class, do we always feel fully prepared? More often than we like, we will have to say no. But that is because of the other options we have that distract us or require us to devote time toward those non-ministry efforts.

But setting all that aside, we rural pastors struggle for reasons that have to do exclusively with ministry. Some of them are legitimate struggles like dealing with a Deacon or Elder who resists everything you as a pastor are trying to accomplish in and through the ministry. But many times, we create our own tension and anxiety. When we are dissatisfied with the attendance level on Sunday mornings and know that it could be much higher, we are setting ourselves up for long-term disappointment. We read or hear about ‘such and such’ a church not far away that has triple the numbers, and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Why is God not blessing us with the same kind of results? Looking at attendance numbers as a measuring device for success is not being real with ourselves. The reality is that God has placed us where we are for His own purpose, and He expects us to be faithfully teaching the Word of God with no regard to the size of our church. There are examples in Scripture where someone preached to sizable crowds (Peter at Pentecost); there are as many, if not more, examples of those who taught the Word to only a small group, even one person! The challenge for us is not to grow the church numerically but to faithfully teach, train and admonish those who are willing to sit under our teaching. The numbers may or may not come.

In the church where we are now, my wife and I have seen the numbers go from thirty plus down to single digits. We have hung in there for seventeen years, and now we are blessed to be approaching twenty again. God is faithful. The Gospel is slowly being shared by those we teach as well as ourselves. After many years of hearing me say the Gospel has to be LIVED to be effective, some fruit is being harvested.

Relating to the struggle with low attendance is the disappointment we get when our ministry goals are not met, at least not as quickly as we would like. Perhaps you have a small group of teens and a wonderful teen worker. Your ambitions are that those few would be able to do great things for God by investing themselves in Christian service. You desire to be able to pat yourselves on the back because your youth program is doing all kinds of hands-on ministry in the community. But the reality is that the youth leader can’t get enough volunteers to conduct the outreach at the level he would like. Your goals for that youth program were set higher than practical, and so you are disappointed and tell yourself that perhaps they were not committed enough or are too busy with other things to be involved. The same attitude applies to different adult opportunities, as well. The fault is not really with them, but with your ambitions. Are they godly or selfish?

I remember one time that I wanted to start a home visiting ministry with willing volunteers. There were only two requirements to participate: one, you had to be a born again Christian with a good reputation, and two, you had to show up early for a time of prayer before dispersing to various homes. The first week there were two or three volunteers, but as time went on, there was less and less interest in the project. The few that had said they would participate either skipped the prayer time and went straight to homes, or they failed to show up at all. The dream I had of sharing the Gospel in every home fell far short of the goal. In reflection, the goal was one I had set; not one God had set for me to accomplish.

Looking back, I have often wondered if we pastors confuse our lofty ideals and goals for what the Lord has in mind for us. If we would take the time to pray earnestly and long before taking action, perhaps we would save ourselves a lot of discouragement and despair.

Then there is that perennial headache, the church budget. We see needs all around us and within. People on our doorsteps that could use a helping hand or building repairs that have been ignored for too long are a couple of examples of things we want to see done, but until the people catch a vision for it, the project will remain neglected. The few dollars that are collected are never enough to do what we see as important.

From a Pastor’s point of view, church income is never enough to pay us adequately. The financial rewards are not to our liking because we want to be like others. We sometimes feel that others in the secular world with the same education level are paid more than we are, and it doesn’t seem fair. There are many booklets and online resources that can tell you how much you should be receiving as a benefits package if the field were leveled. But we are talking about the Lord’s ministry, not human-led experiences. As servants of the Most High God, we deserve nothing in return for our labors. Slaves (servants) do not get paid! If we truly love the Lord and are convinced He has called us to minister, we should be willing to do that without worrying about how well we are paid. Our God will take care of us. (Matt. 6)

But that does not take away the struggle. It is real. We must learn to trust the Lord with it and to give us patience until He provides the funds to repair that broken stair rail or that leaky bathroom. We must also wait for Him to offer us a pay raise or provide other sources to meet our daily needs.

When we sit in our studies or at the kitchen table, we often struggle with what we see as inadequate study resources. We do not have the expansive library that we have seen in other pastor’s offices. He may have hundreds of books at his disposal while we have to make do with one shelf with only a few. We tell ourselves we could do a better job and provide more informed sermons if only we had an expansive library. If only we could afford to subscribe to that online catalog of quotes, sermon preparation guides, or libraries of commentaries. That would make a big difference, we say. Who are we kidding? Probably ourselves. A large library or access to multiple volumes does not necessarily translate into more eloquent or more influential messages. By having to spend a considerable amount of our time elsewhere providing for our families, study time is diminished. Having many volumes won’t help stretch the number of hours we have. If we think back to the early days of the church, the preachers then only had the Scriptures to rely on. Libraries were developed as time went on, but still their heavy reliance was on the Word of God alone. Perhaps we need to get back to that concept. It would help relieve us of the struggle of feeling insufficiently prepared.

The opposition to our work is more subtle than in more urban places. Often it comes in the form of being ignored rather than direct confrontation. Because we are small and struggling, even the competition from sports or organized events seems overwhelming at times. We all know people who ‘used to go to that church when I was a kid.’ Life, it seems, has pulled them away. They have been immersed in the frantic world of jobs, school, hobbies, after-school activities, and other such things. Going to church to worship the Creator has slipped to the back burner or even off the stove. They have become so ingrained in that way of life that worshipping is far from their thought on a Sunday morning. Organized sports, sunny beaches, or weekend getaways are more important than taking time to thank the Lord for their very existence. For those of us who have a close relationship with the Lord, we sometimes slip into resentment when we should instead be praising the Lord for the ones who do come. The faithful few will, after all, be the victors in the end.

Faithfulness brings challenges. We know that going in, and we experience that every day in ministry. That truth, however, does not diminish our call and should not weaken our commitment. We must take our eyes off ourselves and look steadfastly to the One we serve, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.