I felt like a sanctified version of Mick Jagger. Sans midriff.
I had just preached my first sermon in Bible college. And I rocked.
After my first few months of “real ministry,” I felt less like Mick Jagger and more like John Tesh’s third-string roadie (does John Tesh even have a roadie?).
Serving a small church – living in a small town – setting up a modest number of folding chairs in a rented school cafeteria with a sticky linoleum floor that was permanently stained “Kool-Aid red.”
The contrast between my dreams of ministry and the reality I now found myself in couldn’t have been much greater. The reality is that 75 percent of Bible college graduates will serve in a small church (www.rhma.org, TACT Program, 2012). It’s estimated that nearly half will leave within two years.
If you ever find yourself serving in a smaller church (and if the stats are right, you probably already are), here are a few thoughts to keep your ego in line and your ministry on track:
From VBS to Sunday School, church demands programming. But the most defining moments in your ministry are the ones you can’t plan.
Example: You just got word that the Jones family can’t make it to your Wednesday night programming. The entire family has the flu – thereby reducing your total attendance by half. See that as your cue to switch gears and use that time to write them a card, or simply pray for the family. Big churches can’t do that. You can.
Enough small wins like that and your ministry will be characterized by a unique agility – an agility that has the curious side effect of undermining your sense of personal pride.
School plays. High school football games. Chance encounters with church families at local restaurants or community events. Learn to see these passing meetings as opportunities for you to deepen your influence in your community life by engaging parents.
Your ministry effectiveness will be evaluated on how transparently, steadily, and consistently you love those you serve. But, unlike the large church leader, your ministry is constantly seen by a greater percentage of the community. This is God’s gift to small-town church leaders: familiarity brings ministry strength.
Church life in any context is wrought with discontentment. But before you plan your exit strategy, consider the implications of long-term commitment in a small-town context:
Small town congregations typically have less turn-over than suburban or urban churches. That means leaders have the opportunity to influence families – even generations of families – not just individuals.
Secondly, research shows that substance abuse, pre-martial sex, and gang involvement are higher among rural youth than their urban or sub-urban counterparts. It’s true that in the small-town church, longevity doesn’t result in position much as it does influence. But it’s also true that those who lead by influence frequently outlast those who lead by mere position.
You probably lost your Jagger-strut a few years ago. That’s a good thing. Here’s to Kool-Aid stained floors and folding chairs.