Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Confessions of a Rural Church Pastor

I spent the first seventeen years of my life (1958-1975) attending, and on occasion being forced by my parents to attend, the Midway Baptist Church which was and is situated four or so miles beyond the city limits of Barnesville, Georgia, a town with a population then and now of some 5000. It’s in the country.

In my first ministry assignment, which I held during my first two years as a student at Mercer University (1975-1977), I served as the Associate Pastor of the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church which was and is located in a rural area known to the locals as Jugtown which you can find if you know your way around the back roads between Thomaston and Meansville, Georgia. It’s in the country.

My first pastorate, which I held during my time as a Mercer upperclassman (1977-1978), was the Fairmount Baptist Church in Hancock County, Georgia; the church sat somewhere outside the city of Sparta, Georgia on a paved road that turned into a dirt road just beyond the church building. It was in the country. Given that my responsibilities began with 11:00 a.m. service on the fourth Sunday of every month and that they ended with the conclusion of that same monthly worship experience and given that I got paid $60.00 and lunch, it was in some ways the best job I ever had.

For a time during my seminary years (1981-1984) I was pastor of the Beech Grove Baptist Church which was found on one of the many rolling hills that made up Owen County, Kentucky; most of those rolling hills that did not have a house or church on them were dotted with tobacco fields. It was in the country.

With my first call after I completed my seminary and graduate school education I hit the big time when I became the pastor of a First Baptist Church; never in the wildest dreams of my youth did I envision being pastor of a First Baptist Church, which is not surprising since I had never even attended one before. Mind you now, the First Baptist Church to which I was called as pastor was located in Adel, Georgia, a town of some 6000 people that is the county seat of Cook County, a small county in South Central Georgia in which agriculture is still a major economic player. The church was in town but the town was in the country. All told I spent ten years in two stints as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel.

For two months now I have had the privilege of serving as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia, which is not only the county seat of Ben Hill County but also the only town in Ben Hill County. Again, the church is in town but the town is in the country. While there have been and are some significant industries in Fitzgerald, agriculture is very, very vital in our area of South Central Georgia, some twenty miles northeast of Tifton.

I took you on this walk through my career in order to establish my rural credentials; while it is true that I taught for six years at Belmont University in the city of Nashville, Tennessee and that I was the pastor for six years of The Hill Baptist Church in the city of Augusta, Georgia, I have spent the majority of my career ministering in and the majority of my life living in small towns and rural areas. As a matter of fact, during a few of my six years in Nashville I served on weekends as the pastor of the Fosterville Baptist Church; Fosterville is such a small community that the mailing address of the Fosterville Baptist Church is Bell Buckle, Tennessee, not Fosterville.

So I know rural places. I love the people in such places. I feel fulfilled as a minister serving in such places.

And so I was saddened, though not surprised, when I read the recent Time magazine article entitled “Rural Churches Grapple with a Pastor Exodus.” The article notes that less than half of the rural churches in the United States have seminary-trained full-time pastors and that in some sections of the Midwest only about 20% of the churches have such pastors. According to the article, one of the main problems such churches are having is that their congregations are aging and shrinking and so it makes it difficult for them to afford a pastor. Another problem is that many young pastors don’t want to minister in rural areas; as rural church expert Shannon Jung says in the article, “A town without Starbucks scares them.”

We don’t have a Starbucks here in Fitzgerald. We do, however, have a McDonald’s, which, according to a Consumer Reports article I read a while back, has the best tasting coffee for the money that you can get, anyway. We also have a local place called Our Daily Bread that has excellent coffee. But I know that there are places that are even more rural than Fitzgerald that don’t have such blessings.

Still, there are other blessings.

I don’t know if the situation is as dire in the rural Southeast where I live as it is in the Midwest. The Time article concentrated on the plight of mainline churches that have a long tradition of educated clergy; many of the thousands of Baptist churches that dot the rural Southeast have typically employed bi-vocational pastors or even full-time pastors who did not attend seminary or in some cases college. I’m a bit of an odd duck, I suppose, in that I have hung my Ph.D. in Old Testament on the wall in rural South Georgia in the conviction that the good folks here deserve the best that I can give them and that I can and do benefit from doing ministry among these people in this place in this time.

I wish that more intentional attention would be paid to equipping ministers, and especially young ministers, to serve in rural areas. Most seminaries about which I know are located in major metropolitan areas and I suspect, although I don’t know, that the assumption of most students in those seminaries and of their professors is that they, upon graduation, won’t serve in towns that have no Starbucks.

Not too many years ago, my alma mater Mercer University came into possession of the Tift College campus (many Tift College alums would put it differently than that, I know, but I’ll not go there) that is located in the small town of Forsyth, Georgia, which is located between Atlanta and Macon. Thanks to the close proximity of I-75, Forsyth is not as rural as it used to be, but it is still a small town and it is certainly surrounded by rural Georgia; indeed, it sits just a few miles from the point where I-475, which bypasses Macon and serves as the gateway to South Georgia, splits off from I-75.

The rumor was that Mercer was getting ready to establish a seminary. It seemed to me that Mercer would do a great service to the churches of Georgia if they would locate the seminary on the Tift campus and specialize in rural church ministry. I don’t know if such an idea was seriously considered but the seminary was placed instead on Mercer’s Atlanta campus where, appropriately, they place an emphasis on urban ministry, and that’s a good thing. But it still seems to me that more seminaries and divinity schools should look at this situation and begin to take some steps to help.

So here is my confession: I’m Mike and I’m a rural church pastor because this land is beautiful, because this town understands community, because these people need the good news, and because these lives in this place call out for love, grace, and ministry just as surely as the people in any other place.

Here I stand. I can do other--I just choose not to.


Trey said...

Thanks for posting Mike! We are glad you are here!- Trey

Gregg said...

Those years in Owen County in some ways seem so long ago and in some ways seems only yesterday. In Owen County you were definitley a county Preacher but a dear friend of our family. If only my Father could have made a Reds fan out of you. We both knows he tried!


Randy said...

How well I remember the Evangelism Director for the GBC warning pastors that we were only one generation away from losing the church altogether.

Maybe that time is upon us. Maybe not.

I know that you are doing your part to raise up the people you pastor, and for that they can be thankful.

Ahhh....Tift. Remember what we called the girls who went there and Wesleyan?