Not long ago, I was at a Calvary Chapel conference in Idaho where many of the attendees hailed from small towns. The guest speaker captured our attention when he said that he, too, was ministering in a small town and understood the challenges we faced. However, when he described his “small” town and began to express how difficult it was to limit your grocery shopping to a Walmart or hold your late-night meetings at an Applebee’s, the listeners began making eye contact with each other and soon a chuckle broke out in the room. The speaker knew something was up.
“What’s wrong? What did I say?” he asked. One pastor’s wife exclaimed, “We don’t have an Applebee’s!” “Or a Wal-Mart!” another shouted. Another from the audience asked the speaker, “How big is your town?” “30, 000,” the speaker replied.
The room roared in laugher! The speaker was surprised to find that his audience lived mostly in towns with four-digit populations and smaller. Applebee’s? Try Apple Peddler. Walmart? Think Stewart’s Marketeria. If you know what a marketeria is, then you can say you are from a small town. Of course, each person has their own perspective of small based upon the large with which they are familiar.
I am now moving toward my sixth year as the lead pastor of Calvary Chapel of Crook County. That’s right, of Crook County – all of it. Most Calvary Chapels I know of claim a town as their focal point, but when you don’t have a lot to work with you’ve got to dream big and aim high. I’m not the founding pastor of this
church, so I didn’t come up with the name. However, if memory serves correctly the pioneer of this fellowship saw not only the town of Prineville, Oregon (population 9,200) as a harvest field for the Kingdom of God, but also the surrounding region of farmers, ranchers and hippies or rednecks who live off the grid (county population 20,978).
Serving a 250-member fellowship in the small community of Prineville comes with inherent challenges, especially since for much of my time here I’ve been the only paid staff member. Of necessity I wear many hats. As an elder I oversee the spiritual growth of the church, but I also perform every day, hands-on ministry, much like a deacon. In addition to studying the Word, preparing to preach, making disciples and spending time in prayer, I am regularly leading worship, updating the website, attending to maintenance needs of the building and doing some heavy lifting at moving parties for the folks trying to “get out of Dodge.” God has, however, raised up an incredible volunteer team of people who are actively using their gifts who help share the load as much as possible.
A unique blessing of living in a small town is that everybody knows everybody and everybody calls you “friend,” not just on Facebook. Take a drive through town and you will see a dozen people you know going about their daily tasks. It really is a wonderful thing and contributes to a “life on life” method of discipleship, and helps to build close friendships and community. It’s also a challenge unique to small- town life. When somebody is disgruntled with you or the church, everybody is going to hear about it, and God gives you an awkward opportunity to love that person when you cross paths in town.
Small-town living also presents many opportunities to serve the community and to develop relationships outside the walls of the church. As I coached my son’s sports teams, the Lord has provided incredible avenues of friendship and ministry to the lost. Almost the whole town comes out to the sports events, and they get to witness the love you have for the kids and the parents.
My small town has invited me to write a newspaper article periodically for their faith page. Though I was reluctant to add another thing to my plate, it has turned out to be a fantastic way to share the love of Christ with the community and to inform them of major world events that are affecting the church. A surprising number of our citizens actually read it.
The secluded Pastor: Many pastors get so wrapped up in being a leader that they almost lose their humanity and their ability to relate to people. They believe that God has called them to lead – not be a friend – and as a result they can become reclusive, leading to feelings of loneliness. I understand where they are coming from. I have a personality that absolutely loves making and fostering friendships, and must be intentional about never letting that blur the lines. God has called me to lead, and as a result, a few of these friendships have suffered. Afterward, though, I have determined to continue reaching out to the men and families in our church not only as a pastor, but as a friend and a brother.
Make disciples: Some of the closest relationships I have had in this church have come from intentional, consistent, discipleship groups. Ours are called “Core Groups” and meet regularly every week when we eat together, study, pray, spur each other on, and share our burdens and sins.
Raise up elders: When I first came to Prineville, I thought that the elders would be a group of inexperienced, uneducated men with a lack of motivation to serve. Not so! I was blown away by the men God had already appointed here for the task. With the resources we have for discipleship. These men have been equipped for the work of the ministry, and are faithful, available and teachable. They just need someone to encourage them toward the role of a shepherd.
Attend meetings and conferences: I am a blessed to be a part of the yearly pastors’ conference in Boise and also participate in monthly meetings with other Calvary Chapel pastors in Central Oregon. These men are true friends who have been tremendously encouraging over the years. We have put on retreats together, shared each other’s pulpits and resources, and established and strengthened churches. I’ve also reached out beyond the Calvary family and have enjoyed rich times with other like-minded local and regional pastors at their conferences and gatherings.
The Fruitless Pastor:
Don’t let times of ministerial barrenness or doubt get you down. Remember, Elijah believed he was the last man standing, when behind the scenes God had prepared 700 faithful men. When Elijah slipped into the depths of despair and feelings of failure, God was compassionate but then told him to get up because there was work to do!
I can testify that God is in the business of using the puny and pitiful to accomplish powerful things for His purposes! Being a small town does not mean that God has small ministry plans for you. We are currently in the process of seeing God work in an outstanding way concerning local discipleship and world missions among the unreached people of the Himalayas, but it hasn’t come without the consistent, heartfelt laboring of prayer. Press into dreaming the dreams of God for your community through regular times of corporate prayer and fasting, both individually and as a church. These times at our church have been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined!
Small town ministry brothers, if your desire is to be about the business of making disciples for His glory, a work is happeninyou need g, so don’t grow weary and don’t lose heart. A harvest is coming!