Monday, January 23, 2012

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.



  1. I'd really like to know more about the cause for this statement: "* 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."

    I think I look awesome in Spandex.

  2. And that, Fr. Gillespie, is the problem!


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  4. Having served for nearly 20 years right across the field from you, I can happily say that ignoring well over half of this advice hasn't gotten me into too much hot water.

    I think, my friend, there is a bit of: "You need to be a bit more like me" in your post! ;)

    Truthfully, the home business is dicey and depends on the persons. You're dead right about BEING there for every opportunity you can to share the Word and pray and serve them - it's your calling and they don't have the authority to tell you to shirk it.

    But what works almost as well as adapting country ways is to play the country mouse / city mouse bit and to let them thoroughly enjoy how incompetent you are AS a city mouse out in the country. Ask me how I know...

  5. As they say, "Your mileage may vary!" It's absolutely true that every man in the ministry and every parish will be quite different and will fit together (or not) in strange and wonderful ways. But as I said, this post came out of a conversation with a specific fellow who was asking for this sort of advice. I certainly advise no one to be more like me - I advise them to be more like my neighbor and exercise and eat only meat. . .

    And the fella I mentioned emailed today to say that he had spent part of his weekend helping a family butcher five steers! Well, there you go. . .


  6. Get out and ride the combine, keep up on corn prices, have a beer at the VFW/Legion, you can't know your sheep if you're not where they are.

    Good advice, Heath. I concur completely on all counts and could come up with more than I have if I took time to think. Too many pastors spend too much time in their studies and behind computer screens.


  7. Another great work Open Secrets - a spiritual journey through a country church by Richard Lischer

  8. PLEASE! Try navigating the waters of a mid-sized, suburb encrusted 'city' occupied by good folks 'right off the farm.' My people have city jobs and city lifestyles with down home sentiments and expectations. Half the time they want me in their homes, just like their hometown pastor once upon a time. Sometimes they want me to be the CEO of the church.

    And yet my advice is to those in a situation like mine or any other for that matter is not dissimilar in this regard. Learn to shoot and go hunting. Shedding blood is therapeutic, even if it is symptomatic...

  9. Most of what you describe is sound pastoral care. Some of it would be, at least for me, acting. And I am not an actor. If I was called somewhere where I had to be an actor in order to get along with the members and in the community, well; I imagine that would be a problem.

  10. Fr. Anderson,

    Exactly why I didn't fit in in the Chicago suburbs! This is too little mentioned in our sacramental-liturgical circles: sometimes pastor and congregation just don't mesh. In such a case, there is no shame in serving as faithfully as you can while asking that your name be put on a call list.

    This is another tragedy of the clergy glut: there is not near enough mobility to allow pastors and congregations to fine good fits. How many guys do you know who are languishing in calls that are "bad fits"? I know plenty. . .


  11. But I would wear camo pants before I would subject anyone to seeing me in spandex.


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