February 3, 2009
The Hansen Report: Rural Exodus
Is rural America a mission field?
Time traveled to the frozen Midwest to report the obvious: Rural communities struggle to recruit trained pastors. The dateline could have read 1979 and the story would not have looked altogether different. The situation has certainly worsened in the last 30 years, but the problem's origins date back at least that long.
Plagued by severe "brain drain," rural American towns have been grasping for ways to entice doctors and motivated teachers to return and settle. According to Time, pastors may be even less inclined to serve small towns than their college-educated counterparts.
"The ticktock of farm auctions and foreclosures in the heartland, punctuated by the occasional suicide, has seldom let up since the 1980s," Time reporter David Van Biema wrote. "But one of the malaise's most excruciating aspects is regularly overlooked: rural pastors are disappearing even faster than the general population, leaving graying congregations helpless in their time of greatest need."
Van Biema cites Fund for Theological Education president Trace Haythorn, who says not even half of rural congregations are led by a seminary-trained pastor who works for them full-time. The other half of churches make due with lay leaders or a pastor who did not attend graduate school. Many share a pastor with one or more other churches. Even $35,000, the average starting salary for seminary graduates, overburdens churches whose members depend on Social Security checks.
But it's not like you can find a huge pool of pastors dying to serve in rural churches who can't land a paying gig. It takes guts to seek out a rural placement after seminary when your classmates have dreams of planting urban churches. Shannon Jung tells Van Biema, "A town without a Starbucks scares [young pastors]." There may be some discomfort with forsaking suburban amenities. A bigger problem is peer support. For decades, bright young minds have been fleeing small towns and the Midwest in particular. You know the Midwest is struggling when even its cities earn recognition as the places where notoriously restless Americans are least inclined to move. If Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Detroit can't entice young professionals, what success will their rural dependents find? It's lonely on the range for pastors who want to discuss Calvin. Such fantasies belong to the 1950s and Marilynne Robinson novels.
If there were easy answers to this crisis, someone would have solved it by now. It's not like rural churches have surrendered to their fate. One of my friends pastors a rural Evangelical Free Church formed by the merger of Baptist and Presbyterian congregations. The fight for survival brings certain theological differences into perspective. It would be easy to blame the seminaries and Christian colleges for escalating tuition costs. Maybe if pastors graduated without debt they would take less than $35,000 and settle down in towns where that kind of money can go a long way. But many Christian schools are based in suburban or urban areas with costly standards of living. And professors need to pay down their own education debt.
It would also be easy for congregations to decide that graduate education is overrated. There is already tremendous pressure on overstretched pastors in some rural churches to spend the bulk of their time visiting members rather than preparing to preach. You don't need to attend seminary to develop bedside manner. But remembering Paul's charge to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:2), we recognize the centrality of the preaching role for pastoral ministry. And seminary is where many pastors develop these invaluable skills. Perhaps congregations can become more proactive in encouraging and identifying candidates for full-time ministry. Supporting them through seminary may be costly in the short term but would pay lasting dividends when they return to serve the congregations that reared them.
Of course, such an option is impossible if the town's youth population has been depleted. In these areas the church feels an acute need to seek the community's welfare (Jer. 29:7). In the meantime, perhaps some suburban pastors will develop a missionary mindset toward rural America. Like missionaries, these pastors may be lonely and underpaid. But they will also abound in spiritual rewards, including the eternal appreciation of Christians who may not have otherwise heard God's Word proclaimed.
They might even begin to enjoy rural America. They won't be spending all their time administering programs such as those that engulf many suburban pastors. They might even find the small community strangely willing to incorporate a young pastor's fresh ideas if they are tactfully implemented. And a pastor working in rural America can always count on church members willing to serve beyond the constraints of time and ability. Starbucks or not, that's the kind of gig that God could use to cure a pastor's soul.