Redefining Success in Rural Ministries

Start with trust, commitment and depth of care.


In the spring of 2000 while a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College, I read Bill Holm’s book, The Heart Can be Filled Anywhere on Earth. It’s a book about returning home to Minneota, Minnesota, of how Americans define success and failure, and lots of funny anecdotes about small town and rural life. I have never forgotten the author description on the back cover, which reads in part, “He (Bill Holm) lives in Minneota, Minnesota, in a house that cost $5000 in 1977 and has since steadily declined in value.” 

For me, that sentence captures some of the essence of rural life. Faced with ridiculous odds, rural folks continue on. 

A former MPR radio host once said, “We’re polite about it, but in St. Paul, we believe that anyone who lives anywhere else must have been trapped by circumstance.” Substitute the name of a small, rural community for St. Paul, and you’ll find many rural people agree with the sentiment. Most rural pastors do too. 

Thriving looks different in different contexts

For the past three years, I’ve worked with rural pastors in a program called the Moses Project. Our purpose is to help rural pastors thrive, and we get our name from a verse in Deuteronomy that says, “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deuteronomy 34:7). 

Thriving looks different in different contexts, but for rural pastors, it’s not about numbers. It’s much more about listening, connection, slow conversations and long relationships, and trust. In my role with the Moses Project, I’ve worked with and talked to over 80 rural pastors. These are some of the commonalities I recognize in rural and small town ministry among them. 

Deep care

Rural pastors care deeply about their congregations. One of the first things most pastors tell me is how much they love their people. The rural community isn’t a second choice or a stopping point. You have a rich history and deep tradition. Your love for the land, family, and your local school are embedded in your DNA, and pastors appreciate these values too. Rural and small town churches know how to work hard, to care for their neighbors, to struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. Rural pastors have to do similar things in their line of work. They worry about budgets, decreased membership and attendance, and how to re-engage the community in church life. They hear stories about how large the roster used to be, how booming downtown was, and they mourn the losses as well. But, rural pastors continue in their calls because of their love for their people and the places they now call home too. Because God continues to do remarkable things in small places. Because faith the size of a mustard seed still moves mountains into the sea. 


Also, rural pastors are tired. Ministry is a joyous calling but it is also exhausting. Your pastor worked seven days a week during parts of the pandemic recreating church so the church could worship, receive communion, attend Sunday School, conduct funerals, organize children’s ministries, receive offerings, perform baptisms, and so much more. They learned about technology and immunology while caring for their own family and children. They also navigated their congregation through divisions over the election, politics, and pandemic policies. No pastor was trained for these responsibilities, and they served with compassion while doing the best they could. Give your pastor extra grace and gratitude. It’s been a tough couple of years for all of us. 

Your church budget may be smaller, the parking lot emptier, but your pastor remains committed to their call. In 1964, Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics, “the times they are a-changin.” That is also true in 2022. Rural ministers and congregations will need to embrace creative ideas and ask hard questions about what the rural church looks like in ten years. Already, rural pastors are exploring different models for ministry, parish structure, and empowering more lay people. There may be difficult decisions and change ahead, but your pastor’s perseverance, tenacity, love for you and the community, and deep sense of calling will remain. 

Returning to Bill Holm, he says, “…to succeed in American terms meant to go straight downward into a kind of psychic limbo, and that old ladies who possessed neither education nor true talent, but were graced instead with largeness of soul and interior generosity, can sometimes teach you more about works of art or beauty and their true uses than Harvard professors” (Holm 24). Success looks different in rural places, and I give thanks to God these are some of the truths rural people and rural pastors know.

  • Trisha Wheelock

    Dr. Trisha Wheelock works at Grand View University in a program serving rural pastors called the Moses Project. She also teaches classes in Theology and Liberal Arts. One generation off the farm, her grandfather feeds cattle and raises organic and chemical corn and soybeans in South Dakota.

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