Locked Down In A Small Town: Rural Ministry During COVID-19

Pastors in small towns and rural areas are on the front lines of ministry right now. They bear the needs of their church members deeply. Yet they and their churches probably feel unseen, undervalued and under-resourced.

If you live in a small town or rural area, the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is hitting you differently than your big-city friends.

Here are 5 lessons I’m learning from conversations I’m having with rural pastors:

1. The Impact Is All or Nothing

It’s impossible to live in a heavily-populated area and not feel the results of this pandemic at close range. Even if you don’t personally know someone who’s sick, there are hurting people all around you.

In a small town or rural area, the results are different. As in, it’s all or nothing.

For most rural folks, either the coronavirus hasn’t affected anyone who lives near you, or it’s hit your town with a vengeance.

For instance, in the small town of Bobcaygeon, in Ontario Canada, there is a nursing home where coronavirus killed almost half of its residents in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Friends in that town tell me that the immediate onrush of medical professionals came in under the assumption that “everyone in Bobcaygeon is infected.”

The way pastors are responding in Bobcaygeon will necessarily be very different than the way pastors are responding in towns that don’t have a single case of coronavirus yet.

2. The Response Needs to be Contextual

In big cities around the world, the response to this pandemic is all about percentages. Some have more cases, some have fewer, but they’re all dealing with something. But in rural communities, the “all or nothing” impact means there’s no standard response.

Many people in rural areas will be more skeptical of national or state mandates, which are likely based on situations that are common in big cities but have little overlap with their specific context. Click To Tweet

Because of this, many people in rural areas will be more skeptical of national or state mandates, which are likely based on situations that are common in big cities but have little overlap with their specific context.

Pastors of small-town churches can be a huge help to their communities during this season, as they are often among the most respected members of their towns.

They have the pulse and the trust of their communities, so they can respond in ways that make sense in their context.

3. Technology Can Feel Like a Burden, Not a Blessing

If you live in a big city, it’s easy to think that the internet is accessible everywhere.

Church building closed? Just go online! Many churches reported that their early online numbers were vastly larger than their in-person attendance ever was.

Not so in small towns.

In many rural areas, internet access cannot be taken for granted. And even if it is available, small town churches are more likely to minister to aging congregants, many of whom don’t know how to watch online.

Plus, if the church didn’t have an online presence before stay-at-home orders went into effect, the only person who can make live stream services happen is the pastor, and they are unlikely to have the tech skills to do it themselves.

In big cities, and especially in big churches, there may be a team of people who can do the tech for you. In a small town, it’s just you. And you’re a pastor, not a tech expert.

The online “opportunities” that fellow pastors are using well, and may even be excited about, may feel like a 100-lb weight on the shoulders of our colleagues in rural areas. Click To Tweet

The online “opportunities” that fellow pastors are using well, and may even be excited about, may feel like a 100-lb weight on the shoulders of our colleagues in rural areas.

So what’s a small-town pastor to do?

Here’s the most important lesson I’m learning from my small-town pastor friends…

4. The Personal Touch Is Essential

Phone calls are our friend.

Yes, the old-school, voice-to-voice, “how are you doing?” phone call.

The smaller the town and the older the congregation, the more our church members and neighbors need to hear from their pastor and each other.

The smaller the town and the older the congregation, the more our church members and neighbors need to hear from their pastor and each other. Click To Tweet

In most rural situations, a couple of short phone calls a week will mean far more to church members than an online service ever could.

If you can do both, by all means do them. But physical distancing doesn’t have to mean emotional distancing.

We can still call our church members. Then, because we know people personally, the local pastor is often aware of what their church members need, even if the member won’t ask for help.

The small-town pastor is aware which members are likely to be more fearful, who is likely to be going stir-crazy, and who is in a potentially abusive situation in their own homes.

5. They Need Our Prayers and Support

Pastors in small towns and rural areas are on the front lines of ministry right now.

They bear the needs of their church members deeply. Yet they and their churches probably feel unseen, undervalued and under-resourced by those inside and outside their church.

If you know a pastor in a small town, call them. Listen to them. Pray for them. Ask how you can help.

It will mean more than you will ever know.


For more resources on leading a smaller congregation through uncertain times, check out SPARK Online at KarlVaters.com.



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2 thoughts on “Locked Down In A Small Town: Rural Ministry During COVID-19”

  1. Thank you! Please allow me some transparency. If I read one more article about how we should be doing Zoom Bible studies and prayer meetings, I am going to lose it. I am grateful for the opportunities we have to live stream, but I don’t find it “exciting.” We have members who don’t even have computers, and those who do have issues with their providers. Preaching to an empty church is awkward, and doing a midweek “devo” online may or may not even reach my people. Thank you for your honesty. I pray daily for an end to this.

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