I am a Rural Pastor by Rev. Russ Lambert of Turtle Lake, ND
I'm a rural pastor. I’ve always served in rural settings. In fact, I even grew up in a rural and small town setting. I currently serve at Trinity Lutheran Church, Turtle Lake, North Dakota. My first service at Trinity was Ash Wednesday, 2022.
I love this call because.....the people of Trinity and Turtle Lake! There is a true spirit of cooperation in this community. Trinity hosts the “Mat Makers”, a group of folks who gather twice each week to make mats for the homeless to sleep on. They use plastic grocery bags. The mats are extremely soft and we’ve heard reports that during the winter months, they even keep folks warm! The folks of Trinity are the warmest, most caring congregation I’ve encountered to date. They love worshipping and they are so open to learning new liturgy and songs.
I love small towns.....I especially love small town life! As I stated previously, I grew up in this kind of environment. Some think it would be a negative that everyone knows everyone and everything about you. It’s not a negative! It’s enjoyable to know people well enough to be able to ask about their “business”, and it’s taken in the spirit of love and care. I love that I never have to lock my doors… neither my vehicles nor my home. Folks watch out for one another in a way that I never experienced when I lived in larger cities. I love the closeness of the community in small town America.
The Holy Spirit at work..... Before I arrived at this call, church attendance had been on the decline. Covid-19 exacerbated that decline. Before I came to interview, I heard that attendance was down to 15-20 per week. When I interviewed that asked me how I would fix that. I told them I couldn’t fix that. They had the power to bring back those who hadn’t moved away. On the day of the vote to call me, 69 parishioners attended, and obviously I was called. It wasn’t unanimous, but it was over 90%. I just try to be the authentic me. Through no effort of mine, weekly attendance has grown to over 100. Between the phone calls and visits of the parishioners to each other, and the work of the Holy Spirit, attendance has grown. By the way, this is all in a town of just over 500!
My advice..... I think many folks enter ministry hoping to work their way “up” to a large congregation in a city. Well, my advice (worth what you paid for it) is to have “newer” pastors intentionally seek rural calls and life. Rural communities are a great place to raise kids (not necessarily just goat kids). Every call is what one makes of it. In almost every installation sermon, I’ve been encouraged to love the people. It’s hard not to love rural people. Sure there are problems. Sure folks everywhere can be cantankerous and edgy when the anxiety (or perceived anxiety) builds. That’s the time to really show that love for your people. When farmers in small communities invite you to the farm, go! Learn all you can about their lifestyle. It’s that lifestyle that helps to pay you.
My final piece of advice is to, like me, try to be you! Don’t put on airs. Be the authentic you, and then take care of yourself. Rural pastoral ministry (all ministry, for that matter) can be both rewarding and exhausting. You can end up doing ministry on your days off. That’s dangerous. If you use your prescribed time off for ministry, make it clear that another time will be used to care for yourself so that you don’t burn out. For myself, I rode a Harley-Davidson as one of my hobbies. My wife doesn’t ride with me so that’s my time. I ride on the evenings and almost anytime it’s not too cold or rainy to do so. My wife and I like to travel in our motorhome and see wildlife. We hold each other accountable to self-care time. It’s far too important in ministry in any setting to not be help accountable.
The bottom line? Consider “Small Town and Rural (STAR) ministry! It has rewards (and challenges) that you can never imagine! God bless your future richly!