Few would call pastoring a small rural church "glamorous." In fact, for most people, it takes nothing short of an undeniable calling from God to have the faith to step out into the face of what many see as insurmountable odds. Laced with financial, vocational and locational challenges, the small rural church pastor and his family know firsthand the meaning of sacrifice and the times when faith is quite literally all that remains.
Recognizing the caliber of person it takes to embrace the rural church challenge, the Assemblies of God is working to provide increased communication, support and resources to the men and women and their families who minister to rural America.
According to AG Statistician Sherry Doty, many AG churches are small and often rural churches with less than 100 people attending. Doty says that more than 60 percent of all AG churches in the United States have 99 or fewer people attending - well over 7,700 churches!
Key AG-affiliated ministries currently working to specifically meet the needs of the rural church pastor include Rural Compassion, the Healthy Church Network and the online AG Small Church Forum.
Rural Compassion, founded by Steve Donaldson, is now a department of Convoy of Hope. The ministry partners with the Assemblies of God to offer rural churches several levels of help, beginning with the pastor, then the church and finally the community.
"Rural Compassion comes alongside and empowers pastors to dream big dreams for their communities," states Kim Harvey, U.S. missionary and Rural Compassion team member. "We encourage and counsel the pastor and their church in vital community projects as well as offer ideas and tips we have learned."
In addition to offering coaching, mentoring and training opportunities to pastors, Rural Compassion supplies materials to help churches reach out to their communities, including school supplies, hygiene kits, food, shoes and even Bibles to give to community leaders such as law enforcement, firefighters and teachers.
"We help the church become the center of their community by becoming a spiritually-based serving center for the benefit of the community," Donaldson explains. Rural Compassion also comes alongside rural churches in both poverty relief and disaster response situations.
Mike Clarensau, senior director of the Healthy Church Network, says that one of the most impacting resources offered by the Health Church Network is the Acts 2 Journey, with smaller churches being eligible for an AG Trust scholarship.
"Although the Acts 2 Journey is designed for use by churches of all sizes, more than 80 percent of the churches that participate have under 200 in attendance," Clarensau says. "In the Acts 2 Journey, we work with pastors and leadership teams in achieving the goals of the journey and consult with them by phone and, sometimes, in person."
Clarensau says that the Healthy Church Network representatives also spend significant time fielding questions.
"There are a multitude of questions that a small rural church pastor may not have a readily available and experienced friend to turn to for an answer," Clarensau says. "We handle questions concerning conflict situations, church growth, how to assimilate people, how to lead a church in vision and so on."
In addition, Clarensau writes a weekly blog that focuses mainly on the small church and the department is regularly engaged in research projects designed to better understand how to minister effectively to smaller congregations.
Ministry Coach TV, a ministry partner of My Healthy Church, also offers a five-session course on transforming the smaller congregation.
"Through the different avenues of ministry to the smaller church," Clarensau says, "we want to bring a renewed hope and discovery of potential to the small church pastor and his congregation. The Ministry Coach TV course, in particular, offers pastors principles that help them to know where to focus their energies and develop a vision for their church."
Pastors and ministry leaders of small Assemblies of God churches now also have an online haven designed just for them - the AG Small Church Forum Facebook page.
"I see this forum as a place for small church pastors to connect in order to share ideas on ministering in the small church context," says Richard Schoonover, Enrichment journal associate editor and creator of the Facebook forum page. "I also see it as a place for small church ministers to find encouragement in what others have done and what might work in their communities, to build friendships, prayer support and share resources that could help other ministers."
Schoonover explains that small churches and the pastors who lead them often have fairly significant financial limitations. Opportunities for travel, attending conferences, meeting with peers - instances where struggles can be discussed and ideas interchanged - are limited or non-existent. Schoonover sees the creation of AG Small Church Forum as an effort to ease the isolation.
The three ministries agree, however, that simply because a church is small, it doesn't mean it's ineffective or not a vital part of its community. In many cases, the opposite is true. But now, this trio of ministries is doing their best to come alongside and help ease some of the challenges the small church pastor experiences.
For more information about Rural Compassion, see its website. To learn more about the Healthy Church Network, click here. To view the AG Small Churches Forum and request permission to join the group, see its Facebook page.