Leading Change in Rural and Small Town Communities

People in rural communities aren't allergic to change. Here are some effective ways to engage them.


When I was a younger pastor, I used to love the joke “How many Lutherans (please insert your own denomination) does it take to change a light bulb? As the joke teller, you wait a breath or two and then in increasing volume say, 




People would usually start laughing, recognizing our anxiety about change. It’s always good to laugh together when you are engaging in difficult and important conversations. It is also helpful to be curious about how change has happened in a fruitful way in the congregations and communities where you serve. 


You know them when you travel or hear them. Language often has a local flavor with distinctive words, grammar and pronunciations. I remember as a child, how people remarked about how our family had a Minnesota accent when we traveled to Colorado and California. When we moved to Texas for my internship and first call, we encountered strong Southern accents and all kinds of interesting new ways of saying things. People there also thought we talked “funny” coming out of the Midwest. 

I still use some of the language and wisdom of the people I served alongside in the South. When I hear a story that makes a good point, I often will say, “That dog will hunt…”  There were other phrases I never adopted, like “… I might could …,” but I love the warm and inclusive tone of the word, “Y’all.” Noticing local dialects will enhance your leadership and help you connect with different communities. 

History matters

As a new member or leader in a congregation, it will bear fruit to pay attention to the local history of your community of faith and your greater community’s history.  

Your efforts at navigating through change will be more fruitful if you communicate with awareness of your local context. Become a student of local change agents. Notice how people remember and share stories about key transitions in their life together. Become curious about the history around failures and successes in change. Notice how successful small steps can create positive change. 

A changing process

Life is full of change. Leading change in your household, congregation or community looks a little different every time you do it. We live in a stream of time where some things have stayed the same as previous chapters in our lives. However, all kinds of new and different forces are also at play in creating opportunities and challenges. Noticing these nuances will help you in your work of discerning God’s preferred future and moving towards that future fruitfully. Let me share some hunches with those of you who serve in small town and rural communities in particular. 

Oral culture

Part of how people communicate In many rural and small town congregations is summed up in a timeless book by Tex Sample, Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living With Will Rogers, Uncle Remus & Minnie Pearl. This text was written in the mid 90’s. Sample’s key point is that small town and rural people live in more of an oral culture, where people share their thoughts by telling stories. 

Through the years of my ministry, I learned to study the stories that are shared in conversations that either reinforce a point being discussed, challenge it, or make small refining adjustments to the proposal. Rather than directly addressing the issue, arguments for and against something in this dialect can unfold in a series of stories told by discussion participants. This communication pattern from rural contexts differs from the communication style I learned at college that focused on facts, data, and linear, written arguments. 

Stories are more influential than a parade of facts in most cultures. They are “stickier.” People find it easier to remember the point you are making through the story that illustrates it. The kinds of stories that move your communication forward will look different in each context as you translate your thoughts into the local dialect. 

Notice local change leaders

When you see someone in your context who is leading change successfully, notice what they are doing right as they make their case for change. It might be worth your time to visit with them about their tactics and what they have learned through their efforts. Having informal and formal conversations with your leadership team about how to foster change may be more important than what you might learn in a book about change management. 

Change brings losses

Change is easier to talk about than to accomplish. It was also easier to argue for and imagine change when I was younger. Now I know more about the losses that come with change. I notice the struggle as well as the gains.  Working to change the structures and tools of God’s Church can be very difficult. I am more humble about my ability to imagine all of the consequences and execute on a vision for a better future. Yet, we are called to constantly reform our communities of faith to best serve the Gospel. 

Allergies and fears

People have allergies and fears that relate to trauma or difficult experiences with change in their past. It is good to know what some of those experiences were and how God worked to redeem them. One thing I notice in small town and rural culture, is that people have had a mixed experience with experts telling folks what they should or should not do. Notice how your people respond to ideas from a book or an outsider who is giving them input about how they might engage in transformation. Notice if there is resistance. You might need to translate and communicate their points differently. Helping people discover their own ideas for change and find their own way to a decision builds engagement. The people in a local congregation or community know many things an outside expert cannot. Yet sometimes the outsider can see what insiders cannot.  


Sometimes the resistance to change in our life together grows out of “nostalgia.” The ELCA’s former presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, once told  a gathering of rural people, “Nostalgia is a hindrance to hope, but living memory is a source of hope and there’s a difference between nostalgia and memory.” He made an important point by distinguishing living memory from nostalgia. “Memory embraces the past in order to understand and inform the present, (while) nostalgia dwells in an idealized past (that is) unattainable and thereby disparages the present,”  How can you use a story from our living memory about change to cut through the negative impact of nostalgia? 

Listen – act – share 

Most of this article is about listening and learning. However, it is equally important to act through small persistent experiments based on what you believe the Spirit is calling you to do or learn. Getting stuck endlessly analyzing our contexts and the community without moving on to actual experiments is one of the common mistakes we make as church people.  Wise experiments and actions can help us discover where we need to pivot and plant new ideas for the next set of experiments. 

Focus on God questions not only church questions

Jesus’ story of the sower and the seed talks about God’s experimentation and God’s abundant grace. “…other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4                       

It is easy to slide into focusing too intensely on the church, like we might focus too much on the field in this parable. Focusing on God’s longings and people’s spiritual lives can change our attempts at innovation for the better. Trusting in God’s guidance and presence sets us free to experiment and learn. God keeps planting persistent curiosity and energy for experimentation into people who follow Christ. 

Invite people to pray with you and listen for God’s guidance as you engage opportunities and challenges. Invite people to learn with you as you move from listening, to acting and then sharing. You can trust God will keep planting the seeds and bringing forth the fruit. 

Look for assets

Assets are hints from God about our vocations or callings. Be a treasure hunter for assets and the gifts God has given to people and communities. 

Appreciative questions focus on what has been done in the past and elevate our awareness so that we know more about facing challenges or opportunities than we might have imagined. Using questions that help people remember that they already know a lot about implementing change creates energy and sows hope. When changes are unfolding, increased informal conversations in the parking lot and formal communication in congregations and governance meetings will increase the odds of successfully navigating change, whether the change is small or large. 

The first congregation I served was full of people who worked in oil and drilling supply companies. They thought about church planning in very similar ways to how they planned for their businesses. It took time, but eventually I learned to hear them, speak their language and adjust to their mental models. Learn to grow where God plants you. 

Most small town and rural congregations would not approach planning, discerning, deciding and acting like they did in suburban corporate culture. As a person who grew up elsewhere, I had to learn to speak their language and adjust to their new ways of thinking. It was a challenge and quite a gift. 

May God guide you as you listen, learn, communicate, decide and strive to serve God’s mission and the Good News we know in Jesus wherever God has placed you. 

Your turn

Reach out to a couple of trusted leaders in the congregation and community for a conversation about the history and places where change has happened and is currently happening. Learn from them. Invite them to share their wisdom and hunches about needed change and how to journey through that change. Listen to their stories and learn the local dialects they use about change.

  • Jon Anderson

    Pastor Jon Anderson serves as Director of Rural Ministry at Luther Seminary. He recently completed eighteen years of service as bishop in the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.

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