By Glenn Daman
Without question, the rural church has a number of advantages because of its size. It possesses a strong sense of community where people mutually care for one another and support each other in times of difficulty and crisis. There is often a sense of authenticity as people know the strengthens and weakness of each other so there is no need for pretense. The rural church often has a greater impact in the community as people become involved in activities. This is also true of those serving in leadership. Because there is a close connection between the leadership of the church and the people, the leadership is better equipped to guide the church in ways that are relevant to the needs of the people. The board and the people maintain a close interaction that enables the leadership to ministry more directly and personally with the people. As we look at the concept of a shepherd and the personal care that it implies, the rural church board has the unique ability to minister directly to people. Rather than oversee programs and organizations, the board in the rural church can oversee people and needs as they encourage people in their spiritual growth.
However, just as there are inherent strengths in the rural church there are also inherent risks. The challenge of the board is to utilize the strengths while avoiding the pitfalls. It is easy to ignore potential pitfalls because we do not want to acknowledge that we can have problems, however, when we ignore them, then we are assuring ourselves that we will fall prey to them.
Pitfall #1: We can become culturally driven rather than biblically driven.
Every community and every church has a cultural bias that governs its attitude and actions. For example, in a rural community a person is valued by how hard they work physically while in the urban setting a person is valued by their accomplishments. As people enter the church, they do not check their cultural views at the door. Instead they bring their cultural perspective with them into the church. This silent and often unrecognized force influences our expectations of the pastor, the church and others. It drives how we evaluate people, programs and decisions within the congregation. The danger is that we can allow the culture to override or replace scripture. This happens when legalism (i.e. adherence to cultural norms) overrides acceptance and grace. Often it is so subtle that we fail to even recognize it. While we see ourselves as a friendly church, when someone enters the church when they are not dressed right or they do not comfort to our cultural standards then we subtlety communicate that they are not welcome. For example, I live in the northwest where the definition of dressing up for church is taking off the sweat pants and putting on clean "dress" shorts and wearing sandals instead of going barefoot. Once, our family was taking a vacation in the state of New York. Because of my northwest culture I did not think of dressing up, instead we went to church in our “vacation clothes.” As soon as we entered the church we immediately recognized that we were not dressed properly for the east coast culture. While we were dressed for a day in the park, everyone else was dressed in their finest. All the men were wearing ties and the women wearing skirts. Not only did we stand out, but no one took the time to greet us or welcome us to the service. It soon became apparent that because we were not dressed properly we were seen as outsiders and not welcome. In this case the cultural norms concerning dress trumped the biblical responsibility of hospitality and acceptance.
Discussion Point: What are some cultural norms and values that influence your congregation? How can they be a positive within the church, how can they be a negative?
Pitfall #2: Decisions made by traditions rather than scripture.
Closely related to culture is tradition. While culture relates to the present viewpoints and attitudes that govern the why we view our world, tradition deals with the past attitudes, actions and events that influence the present way we do thing. Tradition deals with how we did things in the past within the church. Tradition in itself is not necessarily negative. The people and activities in the past can and do shed important light on the present, not only in terms of how we think but also in what we do as a church. One of the values of a rural church is the celebration of the previous people who have contributed not just to the ministry of the church but also to our spiritual growth. The people and their influence are not forgotten even though they may have passed away years ago. Tradition is what provides continuity and security in an ever-changing and chaotic world. However, when those traditions become more important that scripture and people so that we are unwilling to change, traditions become a negative influence. This may be true regarding the traditions we have of worship, programs or the process by which decisions are made. While traditions are important they should never take precedence over people and ministry. Our focus must remain upon scripture and effectively reaching the next generation. We may (and should) celebrate the past and learn from those who have gone before us, but we should not live in the past, being more concerned about perpetuating the past than we are about reaching the future generations with the gospel.
Discussion point: How is tradition important to the church? What are some of the traditions that the church still has? How can tradition have a positive influence? What are some traditions that might hinder the present work of Christ?
Pitfall #3 Fail to follow the leadership of the pastor.
When a pastor arrives to serve a church he is often regarded as an outsider; someone who comes from another community and another culture. As a result, while the congregation may look to him for their preaching and teaching of biblical truth, they look to others for leadership within the church. The result is that the pastor and family often feel isolated from the church. This is then compounded when the pastor seeks to make changes within the church. Rather than working with the pastor in prayerfully and wisely thinking through the changes that need to take place, any change the pastor suggests is disregarded because “he is new here and doesn’t understand.” While it is true that a wise pastor first learns to listen to the people and their input before he seeks to make changes, it is also equally true that a wise congregation recognizes the value of the new input that the pastor brings the church. When the church, and especially the board, fails to recognize the leadership and wisdom of the pastor, then it will lead to a division within the leadership with the pastor on one side and the board on the other. When this happens, the pastor’s tenure will either be short-lived (which might explain why rural churches often have a difficulty keeping pastors) or he will be regulated to a mere chaplain, someone who preaches, teaches and comforts the afflicted but offers no real direction in the ministry of the church. This does not mean that the congregation and the board are to blindly follow the leadership of the pastor. Rather it means that the board respects, supports and encourages their pastor by listening and valuing his input as the board seeks to provide leadership for the congregation. The board recognizes that the pastor is not just an outside consultant, but that he is part of the congregation and part of the leadership team. They value both his spiritual leadership and organizational leadership.
Discussion Point: How can the pastor and board work better as a team? What are ways that the board can support and encourage the pastor in his leadership role?
Pitfall #4: Filling slots rather than looking for character.
One of the dangers of the rural church is that it fills board positions based upon need or relational connections rather than spiritual qualifications. Because the rural church lacks a number of individuals who are willing to serve on the board, the tendency is to look for anyone willing to serve regardless of their spiritual maturity. When a position is open, the church tends to fill the organization slot because either the constitution or tradition dictates that there be so many on the board. As a result the church is willing to compromise on the biblical qualities in order have a complete board. The problem is further compounded by the fact that often people are voted into a position of leadership because they are a close friend with a number of people within the church. While there is nothing wrong with the congregation selecting who is on the board, the problem is that the basis by which individuals are placed in leadership is not biblical character, but relational connections within the congregation. While the rural church will always struggle to find individuals to fill leadership positions, it should not do so at the expense of biblical truth. It is better to have fewer on the board than to have spiritually immature individuals in leadership. In the end it will result in more problems than benefits. Rather than place unqualified individuals, it is better for the church to develop a discipleship program to bring people to spiritual maturity.
Discussion Point: What are the qualities that the church looks for when selecting leaders? What are the qualities that scriptures outline? How can the rural church do a better job of training individuals to be leaders in the church?
Pitfall #5 Individuals pursuing personal agendas rather than God’s agenda.
One of the advantages of the rural church is that everyone has a voice that can be heard and people have a high sense of ownership of the ministry. When decisions are made people want to have input. However, the danger is that when we come on the board we come with a personal agenda to get things done the way we want. Certainly it is proper to bring our ideas and opinions to the board. As leaders we are to share our perspective and to do so with passion. However, there is a difference between bringing our opinions and bringing our agenda. An opinion seeks to find a common set of actions that the board and church needs to accomplish, an agenda is when we have our own set of priorities and we will not be satisfied until things are done in the way we think. An opinion is shared but open to others, an agenda is closed to opposing views. An opinion is shared openly to share what we have learned and listen to what others think in order that we all might come to a more informed decision. An agenda is hidden seeking to manipulate people to our side. An opinion can be changed, an agenda is unchanging. An opinion can support the decisions of others (even if we do not fully agree); an agenda continues to subvert the decision when that decision is not what we want. When we come with an agenda, not only do we destroy the team ministry of the board, but also we undermine the will and purpose of God. The task of leadership is not to get people do our agenda, but to seek to follow the direction that God has established for the church.
Discussion point: How can a person’s personal agenda adversely affect the church? How do we find a balance between sharing our ideas (even sharing them with passion) without demanding that everyone follow our agenda?
Pitfall #6: Dogmatism.
The smaller the church the more the church becomes homogenous both culturally and doctrinally. Within the doctrine of the church there are issues where the church cannot compromise and areas where the church needs to recognize the diversity that may exist within the church. Students of theology often refer to the major doctrines (those that are essential to the Christian faith) and minor doctrines (those that are important but not essential). For example, no one would disagree that the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine to the church. To deny the deity of Christ is not only to step outside the realm of historic Christianity, it is to be branded a false teacher by scriptures themselves. However, when it comes to timing and order of Christ’s return there has always been some disagreement even by the most faithful adherents to scripture and historic Christianity. As a church it is critical to have a clear understanding of the major doctrines of scripture and to make sure that they become the bedrock of the doctrinal teaching of the church. We must also recognize that there are some issues that fall into the realm of minor doctrines, yet we deem them to be essential for our particular congregation. For example, a Baptist church may have baptism by immersion as a requirement for membership. Dogmatism is when we do not allow for any diversity even on the minor issues of faith. Dogmatism does not allow for different views, but quickly condemns them. Dogmatism destroys unity and grace.
Discussion point: What are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith? What are areas of doctrine that are essential to our particular church? How can we uphold these while still allowing for differences? What are areas that we should allow for diversity even within our own congregation?