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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Being a pastor in the sticks

So by now you have probably discovered that they didn't tell you everything in the seminary. Indeed, that it's a long list. But what I had in mind today was about the nuts and bolts of being a parish pastor. It seems odd that this would be one of the lacunae of seminary education - I think the plan is that this is what you are supposed to pick up from your fieldwork supervisor and vicarage bishop. And fair enough: we all learn a lot there. Yet in that quick immersion in parish life one can lose sight of the forest for the trees. And what if you don't end up in a parish like unto your vicarage parish? A lot of the practical things are very, well, parochial.

For example, my father in law served the majority of his career as a parish pastor in an exurban parish that exploded in growth as the yuppies of Chicagoland headed west. He himself grew up in the city of Kansas City. We had a very interesting conversation once about home visits. Never worked for him. The people didn't want him in their homes, and that made total sense to him. This is all mind boggling to me - I'm from a small Nebraska town and serve two small rural Illinois parishes. The people expect me to be in there homes, to know what pets they have, to eat their coffee cake, and remember to say hello to their aunt (who is not a member) is in the nursing home three towns over when I visit their cousin (who is a member).

In all my pastoral ministry classes - Intro to Pastoral Ministry, Pastor as Counselor, Pastor as Administrator, Pastoral Theology (the capstone class) - such things were not discussed. I've often thought that the best pastoral ministry class would be if the professor just brought in five different pastors from the area with different sorts of parishes and let each one talk to the class for two weeks, leaving one day at the end of that second week for the prof to dissect, evaluate, and comment on what the pastor said. That's what I wish I had had.

At any rate, this post is especially for a city-boy friend who finds himself now in the sticks in my native Nebraska. I feel sorry for him. He likes country life about as much as I liked Chicagoland, which is to say zilch. But worse than not liking it is feeling like you don't have your bearings, like the people are expecting something of you but you don't know what. As I said, all parishes are parochial, but for what it is worth, here is my primer on pastoring in the sticks.

* You have to do the home visits. Right away. And then make opportunities for them to happen every year. Folks might say they don't want you to bother, but they are lying.

* Oh, about that lying. They do it all the time. They are Midwesterners. Any time somebody says, "Oh, you don't have to come to the hospital/confirmation party/nursing home, Pastor, I know you are so busy." The only appropriate response is, "Of course I'll be there."

* They expect you to know who is sick, but they will never bother calling to tell you without a lot of training on your part. I once wrote a newsletter article called "When to call Pastor." That helped, but I still rely mainly on gossip.

* Speaking of gossip, somewhere in your small town there is a bar, or truck stop, or restaurant where all the retired men go in the morning to drink coffee. In the OT they called this "the city gates." You need to be there once or twice a week. This is where you will learn almost everything. I'd recommend first just going. You can start a Bible class later. For now, just go and listen, and tell a joke or two, learn their politics, their pet peeves, what a "pork belly" is, etc.

* On homeschooling. If your parish has a school, forget about it. Just forget about it - I'm sorry, but it can't be done. Put your energies into making your parish school better, freely take your kids out of school when you want, skip all the field trips, whatever - but your kids have to be enrolled in your parish school. [If you are one of the exceptions to this rule, good for you and your family. But I honestly don't know of even one exception to this rule where the pastor, family, and parish are all happy and looking forward to many, many fruitful years together.] If there is no parish school, be ready to be surprised by just how much pride the people place in their local government school. I wouldn't send my kid to a government school either, but just be ready to get a lot of push back. 

* I never received communion from a chalice until I went to college. This is largely a West of the Mississippi phenomenon, but be ready to work on that. It probably will be neither as easy nor as hard as you think.

* If you ride a bicycle for exercise: don't wear spandex. Ever. Really even wearing a helmet is problematic, but I know your wife wants you to be safe.

* While you are in God's country you might as well take up a country hobby. That way the men of your parish will then have something to talk to you about instead of just looking at their shoes and shuffling off to the bathroom whenever you approach. Your options are fishing, hunting, and shooting. Fishing is probably the easiest to get in to, and the most practical-cost effective if you like eating fish. Gardening is good too, but one of the three overtly masculine hobbies is really needed as well. Woodworking is also masculine. Settlers of Catan, Star Trek, bocce ball, and squash are not masculine: I don't care what that article on might have said.

* Whenever you are on the job, wear your clerics and keep your appearance sharp and well maintained. Whenever you are not on duty (down the post office on Saturday, the grocery store, working in the yard) dress in ratty old jeans (Wrangler preferred) or camo hunting pants and try to be unshowered and generally filthy.

* The parsonage lawn. This is a tricky one. Offer to mow it and see what the trustees say. They may guard it jealously, or they may be longing for a pastor who isn't so lazy that he won't mow hizzowndamnlawn.

* If a Midwesterner takes you to dinner. . . they might make it easy and tell the waitress right away that it will be on one check and they'll take it. If so, then all you have to do is say, "Oh, no, I'll get our side of it." Then, when that offer is refused, say, "Are you sure? Well, OK, then. Thanks, let me get the tip." If the check comes and this arrangement has not been made, reach for your wallet, not the check - then the same dialogue will ensue.

The same city boy who is struggling in the sticks recommends Wuthnow's Remaking the Heartland. He sent me two quotations that I thought were hilarious, but for very different reasons than he thought they were hilarious. I was laughing at his pain and he was laughing at us hicks. You might like the book, too, whichever side of that debate you happen to be on.

Pr. H. R.11 Comments