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.