This is the second part of my reflecting and answering more fully the questions I was asked when the EPC Presbytery of the Pacific examined me on the floor in early February, 2013.
The second question I received, just to review, was "Explain your sense of call to the rural church."
The answer to this question takes me back to my days in seminary at a school in New Jersey.
As just an aside, I usually obscure the name of my seminary for three reasons. First, the name of my seminary carries with it a certain amount of cache since it is the same name as rather highly regarded Ivy League university. I do not take praise well and my already bloated ego does not need more people feeding it due to the name of seminary. Second, I am at odds currently with some of the policies of my seminary regarding its students. Finally, I am fairly convinced that I may have chosen differently had I to go to seminary over again. While I am thankful especially for the friendships that I made and for the financial assistance my seminary was able to give me due to an ample endowment, I am not sure that I received the theological education for which I had hoped. I certainly learned how to be theologically educated, but I have had to learn on my own much of what I hoped to receive from seminary. In the end, however, because I carry no seminary debt I am able to serve the rural church I have come to love.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, I was remembering my seminary days.
When I went to seminary I had no idea what sort of position I would seek when I graduated. My wife was fairly certain that I should seek a solo or head of staff position since she thought it suited my gifts and abilities. I trust my wife and truthfully, she is a better appraiser of my gifts and abilities than I tend to be. Nevertheless, I needed to know where God was calling.
As providence would have it, I made quick and fast friends with a number of other married men attending seminary. At least in the three years we were in school together, we formed a fairly tight bond. One friend in particular, A, helped more than most of the others discerning my call. A came into seminary with the purpose of going out to serve as a solo pastor. I was fascinated by his sure sense of God's call on his life and to some extent, I must confess, a bit envious.
I spent much of my time both in and out of class with my friends. We had prayer groups that would meet my first and second year of seminary and I used to pray in these groups begging God to tell me where He was calling me specifically.
What came to me in pretty dramatic fashion was that I was being called to serve the rural church. I do not know how to explain this adequately with words, but I became convinced that this was my call from God. Well, A, and others became a big help as I began to detail out this call to the rural church. Most helpful of all was my wife. She affirmed my call to the rural church and prepared, as best we could, to live in rural America.
The important bit I have left out is that I was raised in the greater Seattle area, as was my wife. While I was only one generation removed from those who had grown up on a working farm/ranch/dairy, I had personally spent very little time in the country. I began to read works about serving in the small church (as rural churches are predominantly small, that is, less than 100 members), but I really did not spend much time studying the rural church itself.
When the time came to seek my first call, I sent out copies of my Personal Information Form to many congregations in rural America and received interest from many of these congregations. Ultimately, I took a call in Merrill, Oregon. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the good saints of the First Presbyterian Church in Merrill ('in', not 'of' reads the charter of the congregation). It was in Merrill that I cut my teeth as a pastor and learned, mostly through failure, how to pastor a rural church.
When the time came to leave the Merrill church, I once again asked that question: to whom am I being called? I wondered if God had released me from my call to the rural church, but a quick flirtation with a more urban/suburban church convinced me that I was still called to the rural church. I accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Omak where I currently serve as pastor in a time of transition for the congregation.
Now, this is all good biographical and historical detail about my call, but it does not explain my sense of call. Perhaps the easiest way to describe my call to the rural church is that I it is where God has placed me. In both of my search processes I was always surprised at how many rural congregations were interested in me. Ultimately, many, if not most, of these congregations made the call that I was not a good fit for them. I know that, as a pastor, I am something of an acquired taste.
I find my joy in the church in preaching and teaching and struggle with the administrative and pastoral care aspects of the pastoral life. I work hard at preaching and teaching because I love the people I serve and I make valiant efforts at administration and pastoral care. Both the congregations I have served have been patient with me in the midst of my struggles, and for this I am very thankful.
As a pastor who is an acquired taste, I have found the rural church is more forgiving. Merrill put up with a few years of me figuring out exactly what is it I do for living. Omak has been kind enough for me to continue to define my calling.
Both of these rural congregations have been full of people who love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and struggle with the shrinking population of rural America. Poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness are palpable problems in the communities I have served. Also present, however, has been a sense that Jesus loves his congregations in the rural church. It is Jesus' love for places few of us could find on a map that has led to my love for the rural church.
The rural church is really different than the church in other environments. First, there are fewer interests competing for the time and energy of the congregation. Second, the rural church still struggles with issues of attendance and finance, but these challenges are on a much small scale. Finally, the rural church is more in touch with the predominantly agricultural images of the Bible. I do not have to spend a lot of time describing to people in the rural church that sheep really are pretty dumb. They know this because they have been around actual sheep.
Rural life has many advantageous, but it is shy of ideal. Regardless, the rural church is in need of good pastors who find their call here. Too often I have observed pastors in the rural church who have settled for it while they wait to find something else. I am not one of these. The rural church needs pastors who are called by God to lead in smaller membership congregations nestled in smaller communities. It is God's call on my life and ministry. Of that I am certain.
My greatest hope in my current call is to continue to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the various people groups of Omak. My major frustration comes from a lack of technique and tactics to get the Gospel out faster to people who are being lost in the depths of hopelessness.
In the end, my call to the rural church is simply that; a call from God to serve the Church in rural settings. I do not know how long I will be in this current phase of my pastoral ministry, but I am glad for the time I am given.