Big City Folk Can Be Rural Pastors Too

This is a great post about the journey of an average pastor from the big city to a rural church and loving every minute of it. This is why average pastors are my heroes. Thanks for sharing your story Jason Byers, Pastor of Barnsdall Assembly of God in Barsdall OK. See original post here  (Used by permission)

 

My name is Jason and I’m a rural pastor.

My wife and I consider rural ministry our calling for life – even though I wasn’t born in a small town.  I was born in Los Angeles, population: 7.25 million people (in 1977).

Los Angeles, CA: 7.25 million

Other rural pastors can usually brag about their cowboy or mountain-roaming roots; but for me, the country setting of America wasn’t originally in my wheelhouse.  “Rural” was a stereotypical word that gave me mental images of Little House on the Prairie scenes with horseback riding and long underwear attire.  I know how most native rural people respond: what’s wrong with that?  But to clear up any urban stereotypical questions: I wasn’t a part of an L.A. gang; I wasn’t taught how to spray paint graffiti at school; nor did I own any cardigan sweaters or surfboards.  We did go to Jack Hayford’s mega church though,  where I followed Jesus at an early age.  And, I did meet movie stars.

Tulsa, OK: 350K

In 1989, my parents moved us to Tulsa, OK with a population of 350,000.  Although significantly smaller, it was still relatively urban.  I went to another large church.  I attended a large school that graduated 700 students in 1995 (and I only knew about half of them).  We went to the mall every weekend and drove on four-lane asphalt roads with multiple street lights.  I was a full-fledge city boy.

Mannford, OK: 3,500

But God has a funny sense of humor.  My first ministry experience took me to a small town of about 3,500 people.  It only had one stoplight.  For the next 12 years I served as a youth pastor for a church around 150 in size, and I never felt more at home.  Pastor Don Yandell showed me how to visit the sick, pray for the hurting, and treat everyone with dignity regardless of race, gender, or social class. His specialty was hospitality.  He was patient with this city boy and invested in me.  Little did I know I was being bitten by the rural bug.

To complete the metamorphosis, I met a small town girl who never thought she’d marry a big city boy.  God is funny like that and now she’s stuck, I tell her.  In 15 years of marital bliss, she has successfully turned me into a country boy.  (Well, kind of.  I have boots, but I still love and miss the ocean.)  To this day, our three kids have been born and raised in small towns.  They’ll have rural roots they may or may not be proud of, and it makes me smile.

Broken Bow, OK: 4,000

Our family was drawn to another small town for the next three years where I served a larger church of about 250 (again as youth pastor).  This town had three stoplights!  Pastor Terry Bradley showed me how to excel in administration and personal growth, teaching me also how to manage systems and teams.  By this time, the rural transformation in my heart had not only taken root, but was confirmed in dreams and visions about our ministry future.

Barnsdall, OK: 1,200

In 2014, God began to stir our hearts about becoming senior pastors.  It was both exciting and extremely frightening.  As we prayed and fasted, God continued to confirm our rural calling which helped us navigate the open-church list with purpose and precision.  We also submitted to our denominational leadership which helped direct us to yet another small town.

By June of that year, Barnsdall Assembly of God decided to take a risk on a first-time, young senior pastor.  They didn’t really have a choice, though – our names were the only ones in the running.  They had less than 20 people, no money in the bank, no organized board to help lead, and no parsonage.  But we didn’t mind; we were at total peace that God had put the nativity-star over Barnsdall that led us to this place.  Brenda didn’t flinch when it was suggested that our family live in the church.  Our kids didn’t care that all their beds were crammed in one room formerly used for Sunday School.  I’ll be honest though, it was pretty rough when some church folks would come in without calling ahead first just because they had a church key.  We lived like that for 26 months and somehow, God gave us a grace to deal with it all.  The folks there have been incredibly loving and progressive, with slow, steady growth.

It was the praying and fasting beforehand that clenched a resolute, all-in-spirit within us.  Either God would build His church or we’d die trying.  If we failed, we figured we would just brush ourselves off and get back up again.  I mean, all we were really doing was saying yes to God.

By His grace, three years later our attendance averages about 70 on Sundays and 50 on Wednesday night Bible study.  People are getting saved and discipled.  We give to missions.  We have a diversity of age groups.  We’ve saved a little over three months of expenses in the bank.  Our church is community-focused and gets involved regularly.  And get this: at our first board meeting, men full of faith decided to build a church parsonage!  When I stop and think about all God has done and continues to do, I’m blown away at the craziness of it all; even in our little town of 1,200.

I’m aware of several other city folks that haven’t had much success in rural ministry.  Pastoring in small towns isn’t easy.  You have to be available; committed for the long haul; and willing to be patient when the pace of life moves slower than anticipated.  You also have to guard against complacency and push yourself to learn more and lead better.  I’ve learned that wherever God leads me I will follow.  He is the lamp unto my feet, and sometimes all I see is the very next step.  God is funny like that.

Long story short, here I am a city boy in rural America.  And I love it.

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Proximity Matters

Some time ago, I attended a Century Leadership roundtable that featured Nancy Ortberg as the speaker. She said something profound that day that has resonated with me as I have thought about the state of the church.  Nancy said, “You can admire someone you have put on a pedestal, but you will never be changed by them.” I think what she was getting at is proximity matters when it comes to vital spiritual relationships.

The law of proximity in science states that objects that are close together tend to group together and  become more like each other.  Applied to the church world, we become that which we are close to.  We are changed not by how good the information the person offers, but by how close we are to the person we are learning from. Information without relationship is not enough to be changed or formed.

Which begs a very pertinent question in today’s church culture. A very large percentage of Christians today are attempting to be pastored by men and women they have never even met. The advent of the large church and technology has created this dynamic that has never existed in ecclesiastical history: we have virtual shepherds pastoring virtual sheep Judging by the overwhelming popularity of this model,  both parties seem to be just fine with the fact that they will never meet.

But what Nancy said begs this question. Can the direction of your spiritual formation come from a person you have no proximity to? We can admire what they say, but can we be transformed by them? Relationships without presence are not relationships at all. We may be inspired by someone (a celebrity, a successful entrepreneur, a famous author or a famous pastor) but will we ever changed by them? Is simply good information enough? Isn’t knowing the person we seek to be shaped by essential to our formation?

I don’t know Nancy Ortberg. What she said certainly made me think. I was inspired. But I would imagine, were I to spend time with her or work for her, she would not just inspire me. I would be changed simply by my proximity to her. I would have to think the same would be true in the local church. People can get information anywhere. Just turn on your TV. Just tune into one of thousands of live streaming churches every week.

The church is not a dispensary for good speeches. It is Jesus’ life giving body. Proximity to one another and to our spiritual leaders is not just something we do as an activity. it is the essence of the church itself. Karl Vaters once said mentoring IS discipleship. It is the most natural form of spiritual formation. The larger a church becomes, the more discipleship becomes a program instead of a relationship.  Its does so out of necessity. It seems like church has been reduced to a good concert and a half hour speech by a virtual stranger, surrounded by a bunch of strangers.

Since I don’t pastor one of those churches, I will ultimately never be able to truly be able to evaluate this model. I am simply an observer. It does however challenge me as a pastor of people I know to make sure those I wish to impact know me. It’s a challenge to be known. Without it, I am simply another voice with good information.

As an Average Pastor, you have the awesome opportunity to sit in proximity to your people. You have the opportunity to be known and to know those you are seeking to shape.  Take advantage of this proximity.  Pour into the lives of your people.  Don’t be just another person in their life with good information.  Because you are an average pastor, you have the opportunity to not only inspire, but to transform people.

A Church You Would Attend

I have always enjoyed meeting visitors on Sundays. I am always fascinated by why families decide to visit churches. I often ask where they live and how they heard about the church.  One common conversation I often have with visitors is about how hard it is for people to find a church that truly fits them. People often talk about how it takes months of visiting churches before they find something they want to attend.

I heard church leadership experts talk about building your church not on who is there, but on who is not there yet.  They often argue that you have all the people you have because of who you are now.  If you want more people, you have to change to try to attract those who are not there yet. Knowing this, I used to  spent a lot of time thinking about how to make our church a place where people would want to attend.

So I decided to spend time and effort focusing on doing things that I thought would attract and keep visitors.  I started to question the format. I worried about aesthetics. I worried about what I would wear.  I worried about who was on stage and what they looked like.  As a Spirit-filled church I worried about what people would think if visitors were to come who didn’t understand the type of gifts we believe in. I put my focus on changing who we were in order to become a church that people would want to attend.  I even found myself making changes that I personally did not enjoy, but I did them to please potential visitors. After all that effort, we didn’t have any more success in keeping visitors. The worst part is, now not only did visitors not want to attend, I didn’t want to go there either!

After exhausting myself trying build a church that some imaginary family would want to attend, I started to think about what kind of church I would want to attend. It was a question I asked our team during our vision discovery process. As our team discussed it, I realized that for the most part, the people who were already there all wanted similar things.  We had similar values and were all there because we wanted to be there. We took those things and made them our core values.   What a freeing decision that was. I no longer had to  worry about whether a visiting family liked us or not. We knew who we were and the type of church we wanted to be. 

This is one of the best parts about being a pastor.  You get build a church you would want to go to.  Its sounds sort of self serving, but it is actually not. As pastor, you should love your church. You should be its biggest fan.  Plus, you will only be effective in doing the things you feel the most passionate about. You can change all you want, but if you don’t love what you have become, what good is it?

Instead of trying to chase the illusive goal of building a church that some imagined visitor would want to attend, why not spend your energies working to build a church culture for the people who have already said this is a church they want to attend.   You can go out of your way to change for the people who aren’t there, but often when we do that, we alienate the people who are there!  While its true, that some visitors may not fit what you are trying to do. But lets be honest, that is happening anyway. There are people out there looking for a church that cares about what you care about. 

If you don’t love your church, start by asking yourself a simple question. If you were to leave your church today and had to search for a church to attend, what would you look for?  Write those things down. Discuss them with your team.  Then put your energies toward building that kind of church.  When you love it, when your team loves it, when your church members love it, others will want to join you.

The Disappearing Church

In recent years, economists have been watching the phenomenon of the shrinking middle class. One of the major reasons for the shrinking middle class is that there are fewer middle class jobs that support a middle class lifestyle. Without jobs, there is less upward social mobility for lower class families who are working to climb into the middle class. As the middle class shrinks, the lower class grows and the wealth of the nation becomes increasingly concentrated in a smaller percentage of people at the top.

The church is also experiencing a shrinking middle class. It seems to me today that there are less mid-sized churches. Many of the historically mid-sized churches from my own denomination (including my own) are struggling as smaller churches. Even after attempts to revitalize our church, what was once a church of 300 is now a church of 100. I don’t think we are alone. The number of mid-sized churches (100-250) seem to be shrinking and the number of average churches (100 or less) seem to be growing.(1)


 When I look at this data, I see a trend some trends in church size. Small churches (50 or less) are growing slightly and middle size churches (100-250) are declining slightly. This may not be enough data to show a massive trend, but it does suggest a few things about the future that I have also seen from my experience.

More average churches. It used to be that the church of 50 could be revitalized to grow to 100 or more just by bringing new life, adding programs and improving the worship. But not any more. It seems harder today to grow churches that will move into the middle class. I certainly thought I would move our church past 100, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Less mid-sized churches. 250 people used to be a big church. Not any more. In many urban communities, 300-500 is considered big. Mid-sized churches are caught in the middle, they are expected to compete with large churches, but they don’t have the resources.

Mid-sized churches are losing members to large churches. A recent leadership network survey cites that 62% of mega-churches are multi-site.(2) The new phenomenon of larger churches with multiple satellite campuses of around the 500 mark means that traditional mid-sized churches are losing out on potential members.

The shrinking middle-class church is starting to affect the whole church. We should be concerned as average pastors. This trend is affecting us in a number of ways:

  1. Middle class churches have historically been places that can support several full time staff pastors. As those churches decrease in size and number, the opportunity for new ministers and full-time ministry jobs become fewer.
  2. A recent article has highlighted the phenomenon of the shrinking middle class clergy.(3) As more clergy are becoming higher educated, they are also incurring more debt. Many ministers can’t afford to take a small church that barely pays a salary because they have so much debt. They are forced to be bi- vocational. That also means more educated ministers are applying for positions in small churches traditionally held by less educated or older ministers, which may be squeezing them out of the market.
  3. Because there are fewer jobs, there are more ministers who are just attending our churches. At one point I had seven ordained ministers, all who were still of employable age, just attending my church. These are people who 25 years ago would have had a better opportunity to have ministry positions. Some of them I have been able to use to help me, but not all of them.

I have always wanted to be that pastor that grows our church from 50 people to 150. Chances are it wont happen for us. The gap between large churches and small churches continues to grow. The concentration of people, wealth and influence remains with a small population of churches at the top. I am praying for a revival of the middle class church in America.

Don’t Be A Boss, Be A Pastor

It is not unfair to say corporate culture has infiltrated how Pastors see the church.  In previous blogs I have talked about pastors seeing themselves as CEOs rather than shepherds. Today I want to talk about another symptom of the corporate culture.  Pastor, you are not a boss, you are a Pastor.

Recently I have had the opportunity to interact with and see pastors in their own elements. I have enjoyed watching Average Pastors operate in their own churches. I have also had the opportunity to talk to and visit pastors of larger churches.  But most importantly, I have the opportunity to talk to the staff in both contexts.  My conversations with both have revealed that in larger church contexts, staff pastors are often seen as employees. That is not surprising considering that most staff in larger context are full time and are paid to perform duties.  But this is not the case in the Average Church. Most staff are part time at best.  At my church, I was able to pay a small monthly amount to our staff.  Because I wasn’t paying them, I saw them differently. I saw them as servants, not employees.

Staff pastors are some of the unsung heroes of the Average Church.  They volunteer to serve because they love the church and want to be useful to God’s kingdom. There are little rewards with these jobs.  Since they are not full time they have to give of what is left from working their regular jobs. They don’t have time to sit around and plan ministry like full time staff.  Even if you can pay them some each week, they are still mostly operating as volunteer ministers.

So as an Average Pastor, how you lead your staff is important.  How you see them and what you expect of them matters.  If you have a full time staff, it is natural to see yourself as a boss who has employees.  In this context you have to make judgments about performance, value and production.  You have to make sure your staff justifies their salaries. But even in this context you have to admit that is a hard thing to do when it comes to ministry.  How do you judge value in ministry?  Salvations? Events? Attendance?  Its just not the same as the corporate world.

In the Average Church, that sort of evaluation is simply not appropriate.  These men and women are giving what is extra in their lives to the church. They have limited time, energy and resources to give to that ministry. If you treat them like an employee, you will lose them.  If you treat them as people who are there to do things for you, you will lose them. If you see them as problems to be fixed, you will lose them.  In short, in an Average Church, a Pastor is not a Boss.  He is a partner, a leader and a mentor. But not a boss.

I know that in the early years I fell into this trap with my staff.  I came from a church with a full time staff. I treated my staff as employees who I expected to produce.  I saw myself as a Boss who evaluated their production.  I even gave yearly performance reviews (Are you kidding me? I can’t believe I did that!).  Often saw my staff as employees who were there to do what I want. They ‘worked’ for me and I felt justified in trying to make them do what I wanted.

What a foolish mistake. These people give of themselves, not for me, but for Christ and his church. They are there to serve God, not my agenda.  Once I figured that out, I became their pastor who helped them find their calling rather than a Boss whom they worked for.  I got more joy out of seeing what they wanted to accomplish than seeing them execute what I wanted to accomplish.  That is a Pastor. A Pastor shapes people and helps them become something for God. A Boss only looks over the shoulder of those who work for them to make sure they are doing what they are told.  Don’t be a Boss, be a Pastor.

Your staff are a gift from God. Cherish them. Listen to them. Help them achieve their goals rather than using them to achieve yours.  Build them up by investing in them rather than tearing them down when they don’t measure up.  Be a Pastor, not a Boss.

What is an Average Pastor?

It was nearly three years ago that I started this blog on the average pastor.  Since that time this blog has been viewed over 7,000 times and has over hundred of followers.    The response to this information has been so humbling and encouraging.  The success of this concept of the Average Pastor has proved one thing:  Average Pastors are looking for resources for the average church experience. This is why we published The Average Pastor book which is being enjoyed by pastors around the US. Here are some of the testimonies from those who have read the book:

  • “I can not put it down. I hope all of my Facebook friends that Pastor a “Small Church” buy it immediately! You will not be sorry.”
  • “The book is phenomenal and I highly encourage every medium to small church pastor to read this book. You’ll laugh, perhaps occasionally tears will well up, but ultimately you will identify with Pastor Isgrigg’s words and experiences.”
  • “Some great stuff packed into a small book – if you pastor a small or midsize church grab a copy off of Amazon today and be encouraged.”

With more and more exposure to this concept of  being an “average pastor,” some people still misunderstand why we use that label.  So as a reminder, I want to share the first chapter in the book to remind people what we are talking about. You are average, not because you are mediocre, but because your experience as a pastor of a church of under 200 is the average experience of the average pastor of the average church in America.

You Are Average

No that is not an insult. It is the data. If you are a pastor of a church of under 100 you probably feel small. The recent trend of mega-churches and multi-site churches has made you feel this way. Not to mention that all the pastors conferences are focusing on these churches. But it is not true. You and I are not small church pastors. We are Average Pastors of Average Churches.

 

What is average? When it comes to describing quality, people often think of average as being the middle of the road: not exceptional but not terrible. But in statistics, average is a statement of what is typical. It is not a value statement for quality, it is a numerical statement of quantity. Average is the number that represents the most common result of a given range of data sampled. On a bell curve, the average is where most people are. This means that the most common human experience is the average experience, not the exceptional experience.

One of the first leadership books I remember hearing about was “The Enemy Called Average.”[1] Nobody wants to be labeled as “average”, especially not pastors. Everyone of us believes that we will be the exception to the rule. We want to be the one that starts a church that grows to 10,000 people or who takes over a struggling church and builds it into a mega church. Every pastor I have ever met has always started thinking they were that person. I have come to realize that my experience as a pastor of 100 people is the rule, not the exception.

Consider the data:[2]

  • 8% of churches are 100 people or less[3]
  • 2% of churches are under 250 people
  • Average church attendance is 76 people
  • Only 2.4% of churches are over 1000 people
  • 62% of pastors of less than 100 people are full time
  • Average salary is $31,000 for FT pastor[4]
  • 72% of churches under 100 have an annual income of less than $100,000[5]

The Barna group tells us, “Despite the enormous cultural impact of mega-churches and mega-church pastors like Joel Osteen and his 40,000+ Lakewood Church, the largest group of American churchgoers attends services in a more intimate context. Almost half (46%) attend a church of 100 or fewer members. More than one-third (37%) attend a midsize church of over 100, but not larger than 499. One in 11 (9%) attends a church with between 500 and 999 attenders, and slightly fewer (8%) attend a very large church of 1,000 or more attendees.”[6]

What these stats tell us is that the pastor of a church of 100 is normal. It is average. The truth is the mega-church and the large church are both very rare. They are the exception, not the norm! Yet, have you noticed everyone expects all churches to grow to a mega-church? Have you noticed that the conference speakers are always pastors of the exception, not the norm? Have you noticed all the books written by the 2% and not the 98%? Why are so few resources available for the pastor leading a volunteer staff or the church in the rural community?

Average is the normal experience for most pastors of most churches. It is not a problem to be fixed, its normal.

If you are reading this, chances are you are an Average Pastor. Average is not a sign of poor leadership, difficult people or lack of God’s blessing. Average is the normal experience for most pastors of most churches. It is not a problem to be fixed, its normal. It certainly has challenges, that when compared to the experience of larger churches seem to be huge disadvantages. But those challenges are simply normal challenges. If we continue to compare ourselves with the exception we will always feel like a failure. But if we can compare ourselves to the normal church experience, we will see we are not failures at all. We are normal churches with normal challenges to be faced with faith and courage. You are an Average Pastor with an average size church in America. And that is OK!

 

[1] John Mason, “The Enemy Called Average” (Insight Publishing, 1990).

[2] http://www.thearda.com

[3] http://www.thearda.com/conqs/qs_295.asp

[4] “The 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff” Christianity Today, 2011, p. 35.

[5] http://www.thearda.com/conqs/qs_314.asp

[6] https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016

 

The Average Pastor Book Review

I am thankful to my friend and fellow Pastor, David Lermy for his kind review of The Average Pastor Book on his blog leadinghappy.com.  David is a resource in the body of Christ for leading happy. David is uniquely gifted to bring out the best in people through thoughts on leadership, highlighting resources and making important connections with good leaders who are doing great things. His review demonstrates that he understands the average pastor and the challenges we face.  Please check his review of the book.  I also did a recent Facebook live interview with David that you can find on his blog as well.

http://leadinghappy.com/the-average-pastor-a-review/

David will be a great resource for you and your ministry.  You will want to follow David on his blog and on his social media sites.

My Easter Service Won’t Be “Special”

Here is a repost of this blogpost just in time for Easter. Pastors, save yourselves the disappointment of the Easter game. Make this Easter about Jesus, not crowds.

The Average Pastor

Easter-Sunday
One of the questions people love to ask me is “what is your church doing special for Easter?”  My response?  Nothing.  That’s right. Nothing.  Ok, that’s not totally true. We do an egg hunt like everyone else and we have some special songs picked out just for Easter. But our service on Easter will be 90% like every other Sunday.

If you keep up with the other churches around your town, you know that is a rare strategy.  Today it seems like everyone is going to have “the most amazing Easter ever!”  Churches drop eggs from helicopters, have kids “eggstraviganzas,” Easter dramas, and offer the most outrageous prizes to give away.  (One church is giving away a cruise this Easter!)   As I see what lengths people go to outdo each other or draw the biggest crowd in history on Easter, it only reinforces why I do not necessarily want…

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