Saving Rural Churches
Rural churches are the backbone of our society and when the rural church dies, so too does the moral fiber of the nation. While in recent years the emphasis has been “bigger is better”, a recent survey indicated that the attendance in 40% of all churches was fewer than 50. Having accepted the large church philosophy of “bigger is better”, rural churches are being abandoned to “make it or break it” on their own.
EXPLANATION OF THE PROBLEM
Without any help, the rural churches will continue to die and large sections of the population will no longer have a gospel preaching church. No longer will the children of rural America be involved in VBS, Bible Clubs or Sunday Schools. What will the next generation be like without the impact of these ministries on the hearts and minds of these children? Yes, there is a place for mass media in teaching and preaching but the personal presence of people and ministries in the community is more effective.
Consider my situation where God has placed me to serve in a rural Vermont church. Thirteen miles to the north is one of Vermont’s largest cities and eleven miles to the south is the next town. In between these two population centers, there are two rural Baptist churches that are only six miles apart. They are the only churches that have served these two rural population centers for over 140 years. Over the years they have had their own pastor, have shared pastors, have been without a resident pastor and been served by missionary pastors. Presently, neither church can afford a full-time pastor.
The pastor and wife of church A both work full-time. This severely limits the ministry ability of both the church and the pastor and restricts the church to being simply a presence in the community. The pastor of church B is receiving outside support and neither the church nor the pastor believes this is an ideal situation for in the past; the availability of outside support was a hindrance to self-support status. One major factor in keeping these churches open is that they have maintained a parsonage.
Six miles to the west is another rural town with a number of churches including one Baptist church that was without a pastor for 4 years. During that time they had only one candidate come before they called their present pastor. The main reason for this was they sold their parsonage about 15 years ago and now the salary they can pay will cover little more than the pastor’s housing and insurance costs.
A real problem for the rural church is pastoral turnover growing from an ill-advised philosophy of the ministry and finances. The emphasis being on “bigger is better” has impacted pastors in two ways. First, pastors of rural churches feel they are failing and In order to rid themselves of this sense of failure, they look for a larger church. Secondly, financial pressures sap the pastor’s emotional and physical resources. He thinks his only option in the face of these mounting tensions is to move on to another ministry. To do so abandons the church to months, maybe even years of pastorless ministry that usually reverses the few gains that have been made. Men coming out of school with a large debt cannot afford to pastor the rural church because of their financial situations.
Do you think the unsaved people in these communities will travel 13 to 15 miles to attend church? How many of the gospel preaching churches that are 15 miles away will spend any time trying to reach the lost in these two rural communities? How will the children be reached without a gospel presence in the community? How long will these churches be able to stay open? How long will they be just a presence in the community? How can we help them and hundreds, literally thousands, like these churches all over rural America?
There are in my mind at least eight options some more practical than others.
Option #1: The Missionary Pastor
This option utilizes a missionary pastor who is supported by individuals and churches, but it has the following drawbacks:
Option # 2: The Working Pastor
The second option is to continue to have the pastor work either full-time or part-time. The disadvantages are:
Option # 3: The Trust Fund
With this option rural churches set up a trust fund with the help of a few other churches and some sacrificial giving in order to fund the pastor’s salary. The interest from this trust fund would help pay the pastor’s salary. Either all the interest could be used or only a portion of the interest could be used with the rest being applied to the principle to promote growth of the principle. One problem that arises from this solution is that it could take away the congregation’s sense of ownership and responsibility for the support of the ministry.
Option # 4: The Shared Pastor
In this scenario, rural churches would share a pastor wherever geographically possible. This limits the church’s ministry options and in many ways reduces the effectiveness of the pastor’s ministry. To offset this loss of effectiveness, the pastor could enhance his ministry by encouraging greater lay participation and training in the ministry. The churches should not be satisfied sharing a pastor and have growth goals so they could one day have their own pastor. This is not wishful thinking but a real possibility as I can personally attest. Thirty–five years ago, I served as the pastor of two churches and within five years, both churches were able to call their own pastor.
Option # 5: The Lay Pastor
This option calls for rural churches work together and enlist the help of a nearby Bible College or Seminary for the purpose of training laymen to help local churches. A rural church without a pastor could have a trained layman come and serve as an interim pastor for a set period of time. During this time period the church could set up a fund in which to set aside budgeted money that’s been designated for the pastor’s salary. This money then could then be used to help pay the pastor’s salary. When the new pastor is called, he would be paid the budgeted salary plus money out of this fund. This way the pastor is guaranteed an adequate salary for a specific period of time. This would allow him time to concentrate on the ministry and on reaching new people for Christ. As the church grows, more of his salary could be paid from the budget and less from the fund making it possible for him to maintain full-time status. This option differs from option three in that all monies set aside would be used and it would provide immediate short-term help.
Option # 6: The Retired Pastor
This option calls for the retired pastors to help rural churches. The church could provide him some limited financial help but because the retired pastor has other income he could help a church work toward a goal of self-support status or else help them work toward buying a parsonage. In this scenario both the “retired” pastor and the church would benefit. It would allow the retired pastor supplement his income while he is still healthy and the church would benefit from his years of ministry experience.
Option # 7: The Adopt-a-Church Program
This option encourages the establishment of an “adopt-a-church.” Program. This program calls for a state association or a larger church, preferably within one or two hundred miles to adopt a rural church. A working relationship could be set up to help the rural church that could include things like providing special music, work teams to help repair facilities, staff for a VBS program or even some financial support for a specific period of time. The real benefits would be the rural church would be encouraged knowing somebody really cared if it lived or died, and the larger church would gain both a vision and new opportunities for ministry. In this type of relationship it would be best if the two churches drew some articles of agreement to eliminate unrealistic expectations by either side.
Option # 8: The Church Planter
In this last option we do nothing to help rural churches. After the rural church has closed and all the church’s assets have been sold, somebody gets a vision to plant a new church in the area. The church planter raises thousands of dollars in support, new land is purchased and a new church is built. If it took six years to bring the new church to self-support status, the cost could range from $600,000 to $900,000 for the church planter’s salary, rental of a meeting place land purchase, the erection of a new church and parsonage.
In light of all the other options, the cost of saving a rural church would amount to a small fraction of the cost of this option. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of God’s money. Depending upon the situation of an individual rural church, $600,000 - $900,000 could go a long way to save as many as 15 or more rural churches depending upon which option is used.
WORDS OF ADVICE
If your church is located in a rural area, don’t sell your parsonage! In rural areas, the lack of a parsonage limits the church’s ability to have a full-time pastor. When the high cost of housing is added, the future for the rural church looks bleak. If housing costs for the pastor run around $1,000 per month and health insurance runs about $1000+ per month, the yearly expenditure totals over $24,000 without adding in any other expenses. With a parsonage, however that figure drops to around $14,000 for both health insurance and the cost of utilities. At least this figure opens up the possibility for the rural church to be able to afford a full-time pastor. [These figures are projected figures and will change based upon the situation of each local church]
Often the rural church’s solution for supplementing the pastor’s finances due to its inability to pay a full-time salary is for the pastor’s wife to work. This solution poses major problems. First, it fails to consider the biblical role of the wife and mother. Secondly, it deprives the pastor of the needed emotional support he needs from his wife. Thirdly, the children need a mother who can be there to help them. If the wife works, who will fill these roles? What will be the consequences?
The solutions I have suggested are not a ”one size fits all.” Every church must evaluate its situation and find a solution that fits. My desire is to make people aware of the necessity and needs of the rural church. There may be other solutions but to find them we have to think outside the box and not be limited to old concepts that no longer work, and in some cases, go back and help correct past mistakes.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE CHURCH AS A WHOLE
Are we going to let the rural church die or will we throw them a lifeline?
©2005 by R. Robert Flatt, 1270 Route 38B, Newark Valley, NY 13811