Engaging Small Town Communities
One of the top values people in small towns have is community. Engaging in community is important for the success of any ministry, but especially in a small town, so here are 3 ways pastors can engage in small town communities:
1. Get Out Of The Office. In a small town, there is no reason a pastor shouldn’t know every business owner in town. At least once a day (usually on my lunch break) I walk to the post office to check the mail (my family actually lives right in town). Getting out of the office and walking around town always ensures I interact with people from the community. I usually see a church member when I’m out, and always have a chance to ask them how they are doing. A few times, I have even prayed for people right on the sidewalk.
When you walk around your small town, take note of which shops are run down, which houses are in disrepair, and which parts of town certain people live in. You can learn a lot from walking around. One time I met a woman whose home was in disrepair. Not wanting to pry too much after greeting one another, I was on my way. I made a mental note to try to learn more about her situation. Later the same week, I saw her visiting her bed-ridden husband in a local nursing home. I now knew why her home was in disrepair, and knew of a ministry opportunity that would have never been clear to me had I been sitting in my office all week.
2. Be a Leader in the Community. In small town communities, a pastor not only functions as the minister of a singular church, but also functions as a pastor for the entire area. When you are pastoring a shepherding sized congregation in a major city (125-200 on Sundays), you are hardly in a church large enough to be considered a natural leader in the community. (It’s sad but true.) In a small town, your church might hold a higher status in the community than it would in a city or suburb. This makes small town pastors community leaders by default.
One way to become a community leader is to build relationships with other leaders in the community. Not every leader in your community will be a member of your church, and that’s OK. Get to know the folks at your town office. Eat breakfast with the mayor or your state representative and ask them how you can pray for them. Meet your school superintendent for lunch one day. Engage. When a group like Rotary or Kiwanis asks you to speak, jump on it. Again, it’s hard to lead in the community if you’re always in your office.
3. Serve as a Community Confidant. Small town pastors offer a much-needed function in their community — confidentiality. There are hardly any secrets among longtime residents in small town communities, and a pastor may serve as the community confidant. In his book Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church (Doubleday Press, 2001), Richard Lischer details his early ministry as a young Lutheran pastor in a digressing rural farming community. Lischer quickly learns that the townspeople have secrets, and that they need a place to tell them. The pastor, he discovers, may play a therapeutic role in small towns as the village confidant, which surely beats village idiot!
Small towns are often lack resources like licensed marriage and family therapists, psychologists, counselors, and substance abuse groups. Even if a town has a therapist or psychologist in practice, few locals will visit them. When everyone in town recognizes your car and plates, parking at the local counselor’s office provides little anonymity. The rural poor cannot afford a counselor anyways, and often the best place they can turn for help is the church. Acting as a community confidant and pastoral caregiver is a wonderful way to engage your small town community.
Engaging in community is vital in small town churches.
If you are not engaging in community as a church, you are likely dying as a congregation. Pastors can take the lead in modeling community engagement for the rest of the church. When church people see that the pastor is not stuck in the office all day, serving as a leader in the community, and ministering pastorally to people who need care, they begin to realize that ministry can happen outside the walls of the church. If you want your church to engage in community, set the pace.