LEADING THE RURAL CHURCH
By Glenn C. Daman
For those leading the Rural church, dealing with the dynamics of the Rural church can be compared to figuring out a Rubik's cube. The more the leader tries to get the pieces in place, the more confusing it becomes. The leader needs to deal with "tribal chiefs," traditions, a mysterious chain of command where relationships and bloodlines are more important than positions and titles, and a unique calendar that governs programs and ministries. Trying to place every facet within a coherent structure of organization and ministry is indeed puzzling. Nevertheless, there are principles that can serve to give guidance and direction in leading the Rural church. What is important for the leader to realize is that the Rural church is different and requires different leadership skills.
1. Relationships are more important than organizational structure.
The greatest strength and asset of the Rural church is the focus upon relationships within the church. This affects how the church operates organizationally. Whereas the larger church operates and makes decisions based upon an organizational structure, the Rural church bases decisions upon relationships and how it will affect those relationships. Neither is leadership in the Rural church necessarily based upon position or titles or even external qualifications. As a result, leadership in the Rural church is largely conducted upon the servant-shepherd model; whereas in the larger church the leader often frequently serves in the capacity of an administrator and CEO. The time the leader spends in building relationships is far more important than the time spent in building the organizational structure of the church and in the administration of the programs. For a Rural church, the extent a leader cares for the people individually is far more important than organizational and administrative competencies. Because the church is relational rather than organizational, meetings should have a relational focus as well as an organizational focus.
2. Work through the 'tribal chief.'
The tribal chiefs are the individuals who are the recognized (or unrecognized) leaders within the church. They may be male or female, an individual or a whole family. They may be in a position of leadership or they may not be. Tribal chiefs are the individuals who are seen by the rest of the church as the official (or unofficial) spokespersons of the church and the ones who has the final say in decisions. A leader may have gained the approval of the whole congregation on a particular decision, only to discover that the decision is reversed when the tribal chief has spoken against it. On the other hand, gaining support of the tribal chief usually will result in the whole congregation approving the decision. Therefore, the leader needs to learn how to work with and through these individuals in setting the direction for the church.
3. Focus upon doing a few things well rather than attempting to do many things.
The difference between a small church and a large church is not the number of needs that people have, rather it is the number of people who have the same need. As a result, the mistake of many churches is that they attempt to have the same number of ministries as the large church. However, because they lack the resources of the large church (both financially and in personnel), people become frustrated and discouraged. While there may be children, teens, a few singles, several divorced women, and one recovering alcoholic in the church, it would be impossible for the Rural church to staff and run an Awana program, a dynamic youth group, a singles group, a divorce recovery group, and an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Instead, the Rural church needs to focus on doing a few things well and accept its limitations. While we should be willing to be all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22) we need to realize that we cannot do all things for all men (Gal 2:7,9).
4. Lead in the development of a vision.
Vision for ministry is defining the specific focus of ministry and goal that God desires the church to accomplish. Vision is the articulation of the specific responsibility of the church that reflects the individuality and distinctiveness of the church. Vision defines who the church is, whom it is seeking to reach and how they are going to reach them. If the Rural church can only do a few things well, it needs to determine what God has called it to do. However, in contrast to the larger church where the pastor usually establishes the vision and direction for the church, in the rural church, the leader needs to guide the whole church in establishing the direction and goals for the church. In the rural church, the leader needs to be the facilitator and guardian of the vision rather than the dictator of the vision.
5. Build present and future ministry upon the past heritage of the church.
Because the church places a premium upon relationships, tradition and heritage play an important role in developing the framework for the ministry of the church. Conflicts arise in rural churches when the traditions or heritage of the church has been violated or threatened. On the other hand, people will provide financial support and personal involvement in ministries that they see it as an outgrowth and expression of the heritage that the rural church has. Therefore leaders should not only be guardians of the vision, but they should also be acquainted with and seen as guardians of the heritage which the church has.
6. Develop programs around the calendar of the church.
Every rural church has its own calendar around which it functions. This calendar is often seasonal and tied to the employment base for the community. For an agricultural community, this means that the summer months are often extremely busy for the farmers, and it will be difficult for them to be committed to any program, especially one that occurs during the week. On the other hand, during the winter months they have more time to commit to the ministry. Consequently, developing programs and ministries that run from October through April will result in greater participation and effectiveness.
7. Be a generalist rather than a specialist.
Because there are few workers to do the multiplicity of responsibilities within the rural church, there is a greater value placed upon leaders who do a number of things satisfactorily rather than an individual who can do one thing extremely well. The larger the church, the more the church demands specialists. The ruraler the church, the more the church depends upon generalists. This involves not only developing competencies in a number of areas, but a willingness to do a number of tasks. A leader may not only need to be a pastor or board member, but also a Sunday School teacher, caretaker, and song leader.
8. Empower people for ministry.
While it is important to be a generalist, the leader should never forget that the most important responsibility is to strengthen, train, and equip others for ministry (Ephesians 4:12-13). The highest calling of a leader is to empower people for ministry by giving them permission to serve. Many people in the church assume that they cannot do much for God. People tend to see themselves as unskilled and uneducated for ministry. The result is that they have a shortsighted view of what they can accomplish. Leading people involves expanding their vision of what God can and desires to accomplish through them. The leader needs to provide the training and backing for the individual to perform the task. Empowering the people for ministry consists of giving them the freedom to fail in their ministry. People fear failure and often do not take risks in ministry because of their fear. By giving them the permission to fail, the leader can minimize the risks they feel.
9. Recruit volunteers, don't beg.
Because the rural church faces the constant struggle of filling personnel needs, leaders often resort to begging for volunteers. "Fred, we could not find anyone else who would teach the adult Sunday School class, so we were wondering if you would do it?" Since we just told Fred that he was the "bottom of the barrel," we should not be surprised when he teaches without much enthusiasm and preparation. When recruiting volunteers, it is important not only to communicate the importance of the responsibility, but also the reason why they are qualified for the task. If they understand how their ministry enables the church to accomplish its vision, they will be more willing to sacrifice themselves for the ministry. When recruiting people, they should be informed of the responsibility in terms of time, training, abilities, and financial obligations. People are willing to sacrifice their time and energies only for that which they see as significant and valuable to the advancement of the kingdom of God.
10. Take care of the worker bees.
Leadership involves not only leading but also caring for those who are involved in the ministry. One of the dangers of leadership is that the leader can become distracted by those who perpetually have needs. While it is important to care for those struggling spiritually, the leader needs to also realize that those doing the work of the ministry need spiritual care and guidance as well. The pastor is first of all a pastor to the other leaders of the church. The board should not overlook the importance of ministering to the needs of the Sunday School teachers, etc.. Caring for the workers involves not only providing spiritual care it also includes giving them recognition for a task well done. Reward faithfulness not just accomplishments. Betty may not shake the world by her faithfulness in cleaning the church, but her work is just as important to the overall ministry as the dynamic Sunday School teacher. By commending her for her faithfulness, the leader is giving her a sense of value and worth for her ministry. People may not care for public recognition, but they do desire to know that they are contributing to the work of God.