Tim Keller’s Advice to Seminarians–Pastor a Country Church

Though I have never been the “permanent” pastor of a local church, I have been a youth minister and done interim pastor work. Three of the churches I’ve served were rural congregations of less than 100 active members. I wouldn’t trade my experiences with those small-church saints for anything in the world. Perhaps because of my own experiences, I think Tim Keller’s advice to seminarians–consider becoming a country parson–is good advice for many would-be pastors. This is especially true in a denomination like the SBC that is filled with rural churches, many of which are in need of sound pastors (and sometimes other staff leadership). I am all for urban church planting and church revitalization (my current church, FBC Durham, meets in the inner city). But we mustn’t neglect the thousands of rural churches across our Southern Baptist landscape. They are in many ways the heart and soul of the SBC. I hope God will raise up many, many godly and gifted pastors for these churches, even as he raises up church planters to go to the great urban centers of our nation.

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  1. Scott   •  

    Thank you for recognizing the rurual church. I would add a bit of caution however to avoid using churches as stepping stones to the so-called bigger and better ministry. This is often the case for many seminarians.

  2. kamatu   •  

    The fourth comment(by andyrowell94) had a link (here) that mentions the dangers of going out into a small church by yourself. Interestingly it comes from a UMC bishop which IIRC means that he exercises more oversight that would commonly be found in any SBC setting.

    Not that I disagree with Brother Keller, in fact I heartily agree, although Bishop Willimon’s advice needs to be heeded. Having been around a few of the smaller rural churches myself, I can see the lack of attraction for a newly minted pastor who may have a wife, children and car payment. Often enough, about all the little church manages to do is to provide a small (and probably dumpy) place to live, some support in free food (“Daddy, we have to eat BAMBI!”) and maybe a bit of help in finding an extra job. Preaching for food, clothing and shelter just isn’t too attractive since preachers want their kids to have a big Christmas too.

    Of course, this means that I know of several small rural churches who invite in some lay preachers to give their deacon body a break from giving sermons. All because they cannot find a “real” pastor from a seminary that they can afford. I know of a small Methodist church and small Presbyterian church who both have fine pastors who were “retired” from active duty by their denomination and volunteered to go back into the field to help their denomination’s small rural churches. Heh, I’m so used to “old country preachers” at little country churches, I wonder now just how long this particular issue has been going on.

    Solution? I’m not sure, but I’d think something similar to what Bishop Willimon suggested, putting the seminary student into the field a few times under supervision in both rural and city churches.

  3. Les Puryear   •  

    Good post. I agree with your encouragement for small church pastors in rural areas. However, I disagree with Tim Keller’s article because he seems to imply that pastoring a small church is a good “start” as if small churches are to be used as “stepping stones” for pastors to gain experience before moving to larger churches.

    Also, I would like to see seminaries such as SEBTS begin to recognize that the majority of their students will minister in small churches, whether established or newly planted, and provide courses which will equip them to minister in the small church culture which is a completely different environment than is found in megachurches.


  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Les, I also disagree with Keller’s implication that smaller churches are a “training ground” for larger churches. Though they perhaps *function* in this way for some pastors, that should never be the motive for taking any pastorate. I’m pretty old school on this, but my personal conviction is that pastors should assume–and hope–that the current church they are serving will be the last church they ever serve. That’s fairly counter-cultural in the SBC, but I’m sticking to it.

    SEBTS doesn’t need to “begin to recognize that the majority of their students will minister in small churches. . . .” We already recognize it and frankly always have, long before I was around. We do not teach people to minister in megachurches (or any niche of churches)–we try to give them principles they can use in any and every type of church. Most of the “pastoral wisdom” our professors share with students actually come from small-to-medium church experiences since virtually none of us have pastoral (or other staff) experience in very large churches.

    I’m not sure this comment will satisfy you because of your small church advocacy (which I appreciate), but I very strongly believe we don’t need to “provide courses which will equip them to minister in the small church culture.” Our curriculum already does this. And frankly, it also equips the rare student who will minister in a megachurch culture.

    But I say this because I am firmly convinced that a seminary education doesn’t teach anyone to be a pastor of any size church. One learns to be a pastor by watching other seasoned pastors and with on-the-job experience. The best a seminary education can do is give a man some tools, skills, and priorities that, Lord willing, will aid him as he learns to be a pastor. That’s what we seek to do at SEBTS.


  5. Tommy Kiker   •  

    Well said Nathan, well said.

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