Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Isolation Among Rural Clergy

Written by: on May 29, 2019

While searching Google Scholar for book reviews on this week’s reading, I was immediately struck by an article that referenced What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing by Emma Percy. In a journal called “Rural Theology” the authors stated four situations that might cause the greatest isolation for a local church pastor: [1]

  1. Bi-vocational; causing difficulty for adequate time to develop meaningful relationships
  2. Working alone; as opposed to having staff or pastoral teams of support and accountability
  3. Multiple charge contexts; thus creating a challenge concentrating on one’s own community
  4. Part-time; again, adequate time lacks to deepen key relationships

I am not sure of what it is like in Portland with Trish, in California with Dave and Kyle, or in Washington with Jake, but I can feel the challenges both Shawn and Jason have in their pastoral contexts being the “stand alone pastor” in their churches. I have talked to many people in my travels who think that just because a pastor has a small church, they must have loads of free time and very little pressure. HA, rubbish I say.

When I read the above list, I cringe, because mainly those four situations describe two-thirds of the churches in my denomination. Bi-vocational, part-time, working alone, and multiple charges are the norm for many of us in the Evangelical Church. One word would probably come closer to describing the isolation my Pastors feel—RURAL. I have pastors who are not only the only pastor in their church, they are the only pastor in their entire town. They might have to drive 20 or more miles to get to the nearest town, and they might be the only pastor in that town, too.

Unfortunately, not only do they feel isolated, they also feel unsupported by their congregations. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “What does Pastor ______ do all day? He really only works for an hour every Sunday.” HA, more rubbish!

Andrew Van Dam writes in the Washington Post, “In a way, rural areas serve as urban America’s farm team: All their most promising prospects get called up to the big leagues, leaving the low-density margins populated by an ever-shrinking pool of those who couldn’t qualify.” [2] This makes me quite sad that that is the impression out there, that for some reason the pastor couldn’t hack it, so he/she ended up serving in a small rural setting, like being relegated to the minor leagues.

This reminds me of all the times I heard these hurtful words about teachers, “Those who can’t, teach.” Not right!  In fact, God CALLS some to serve in rural communities, and I thank God for that…

I think that is why I connected with Emma Percy so well. What current servant pastor wouldn’t? I was thankful she mentioned that for much of recorded memory people have been saying the same hurtful words about moms. What do they do all day, but eat bon-bons and watch soap operas? Talk about rubbish! My wife is and always has been a harder worker than me, whether as a stay at home mom or as a second grade school teacher. She should have gotten paid twice as much as me, for both jobs. I couldn’t have EVER handled either one as well as her.

What powerful words from Percy,

“Central to ministry is the building up of the relationships, the quality of incidental encounters, the time spent in praying for people, the care given in walking with people through difficult circumstances and the witness that all of this is connected to the love of God known through Jesus Christ. Such things are hard to quantify, and often the outcomes of such encounters are not obvious in the short term and may never be recognized this side of heaven.” [3]

In comparing how pastoring is to mothering, I totally appreciated Percy reminding us so well of the many demands both positions hold, while reminding us of the spiritual implications of ministry like “challenging people, encouraging others, developing gifts and strengths, adjusting to new members, working through complex realities, fostering spiritual growth, doing outreach and missions, and the list goes on.” [4]

It cracked me up that this book’s title was built upon an earlier book authored my Naomi Stadlen, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing. [5]

My favorite chapter in this book was titled “Living up to the callings – being good enough.” [6] I resonated with what she described as unrealistic mass of expectations from the local parish. Boy oh boy, I am picking up what she is laying down. It is an impossible job (but thankfully, with God all things are possible–Matthew 19:26). [7]

Often, us pastors feel guilty about not meeting expectations. We certainly feel confused by the misidentification of success and failure, like in church size or offering amounts. Especially in RURAL settings, we sometimes wonder if we are being effective for Christ, thankfully we don’t have to answer to the rubbish some people throw down. We simply need to be faithful (to our calling) and fruitful (for the Kingdom)!

[1] Stuart-White, Bill, Jane Vaughan-Wilson, John Eatock, Judith A. Muskett, and Andrew Village. “Isolation among Rural Clergy: Exploring Experiences and Solutions in One Diocese.” Rural Theology16, no. 2 (2018): 65–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/14704994.2018.1519916.

[2] Dam, Andrew Van. “The Real (Surprisingly Comforting) Reason Rural America Is Doomed to Decline.” The Washington Post. WP Company, May 24, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/05/24/real-surprisingly-comforting-reason-rural-america-is-doomed-decline/.

[3] Percy, Emma. What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks like Nothing. London: SPCK, 2014. 20.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 143.

[7] Barker, Kenneth L. Zondervan NIV Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. Matthew 19:26.

*Free Pastor Clip Arts provided by clipart-library.com/pastor-cliparts


About the Author

Jay Forseth

Superintendent of the Western Conference of the Evangelical Church. Blessed with 28 years as the husband of my amazing wife who I can't make it without. Now three of four in our family are attending University, but both my children are way smarter than me.

13 responses to “Isolation Among Rural Clergy”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful review Jay. You are so smart and wise and the best person for the role you are in! You care about pastors and their wellbeing and you care about churches too and the two are interconnected. My first church was a tiny Taiwanese American congregation and I was the only guy. I will never forget showing up to the little church in Garden Grove on my first Monday, not a soul in sight and cob webs filled the pastor’s office. I decided to work from home! You are right, often the pastors of larger congregations can carve out a sustainable role for themselves with the help and support of many staff. The lone pastor who cleans the toilets is a high risk for burnout in my understanding.

  2. Loved your post as usual Jay! Especially the calling out of the misperceptions of pastors being “rubbish”. 🙂 I also appreciated you highlighting the plight of the rural pastor and how much they must feel isolated and misunderstood concerning “what they do all day”. So glad they have you to support and encourage them. Thanks also for tipping us off to the connection to the earlier book about mothers…very clever. Thanks again for your wise words, blessings friend.

  3. Mike says:

    I like you in the ethnographic image. Nice hair Coach!
    Dave had the “1-hour worked per week pastor” theme too. Wow, both of you spoke about it. That parting shot comment on the way out the door is a well-devised scheme from the principalities and powers that seek to divide, disrupt, and destroy your rural pastoral staff. I would give that congregant a “trigger warning…” but not the type our last author talked about but the one where most of the rural pastors are packing!
    Thanks for your insights between Percy’s maternal metaphor and your Evangelical rural pastoring. Great job!
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

  4. Thanks, Jay. I hear you about rural pastors. When we lived in the States we lived in a small farming community (but drove into the nearby city of Spokane for church, as I was on staff there.) But there was a community church in our little town, where our kids went to VBS every summer, and where we attended Christmas Eve and Easter Sunrise services with our neighbors. The pastor and his wife were dear friends of our, and he was bivocational. They were the hardest working people we ever met. They were, as you pointed out, the town’s pastor–serving everyone, not just the people who attended services.

    Blessings on you as you minister to these fine servants of the Lord!

  5. Dan Kreiss says:


    This is a powerful post and a great connection to your context and ministry to many isolated pastors. There is certainly a lot of confusion about what pastors (especially those in smaller congregations) and mothers do with their time. I think many pastors feel those questions and then feel it necessary to demonstrate their work ethic by taking on too much or attempting to attend to be always available. The doubts they harbor generally do not go away and sadly many end up burnt out and/or falling into temptation of various descriptions.

    I wonder how you might use this text to both encourage the pastors under your care as well as the congregations that have a responsibility to look after their pastors.

    • Jay Forseth says:

      On it Dan! We have broke into “regions” in our Conference to address the needs of rural pastors, meet monthly on Zoom, and do our best to lift each other up.

      However, interestingly, some pastors LIKE the isolation, and push back on any connection. Like we talked about earlier in the year, rugged independence instead of interdependence…

  6. Great post, Jay!

    I love how you touch on the idea of loneliness and isolation that most pastors go through. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “What is it that you do again!?” It’s frustrating because they don’t care to partner with the work, they just want to know about the results. You mention that some pastors have to drive “20 or more miles to get to the nearest town, and they might be the only pastor in that town, too.” Have you thought about creating an online community for the pastors in your denomination to gain support? This could occur through Facebook groups or even monthly Zoom meetings.

    • Jay Forseth says:

      Great suggestions Colleen! Yes, we Zoom often and regularly for the rural Pastors. It is such a great tool, Just like our DMIN Zoom’s. They really do foster community!

  7. I love Colleen’s idea in the previous comment. 🙂 Maybe that would be something of a solution for your far-flung pastors?

    For the past two years I have lived in a rural community – this is new to me. I am learning how rural life can be limiting in many ways and see how it impacts pastoral care. My priest cares for a 3-point parish. Because he is a new immigrant from India, he can’t even get to the 3rd location. It is a little Catholic chapel located on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy. There is no longer ferry service from mainland New Brunswick, but there is a bridge to the island from the American side in Lubec, Maine. But the priest doesn’t have a visa for the US, so he can’t get to the island. A group of parishioners are coming up with a plan to hire a lobster boat to take us over with him to Campobello staying within Canadian waters. 🙂

  8. Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job Jay. It was helpful insight for me to hear more about the struggles and frustration of rural pastors. Sometime I think that the rural communities are more family oriented and less lonely, but the pastor of course stands out even more in a small community. And it is even harded for them to find people that can truly be peers and brothers/sisters to them.

    Since you’ve shared about your complimenterian habits (:P) I was wondering what your thoughts would be this week. 🙂 But its cool to see we are on the same page on this one! :D.

    and btw I think I need (more than most) more nurturing in my pastoring.

  9. Greg says:

    I spoke at a church this last weekend that had a population sign that read 348. Granted the church people came from 2 other towns 10-20 miles away but I thought…wow this might be a cross culture encounter for me. Some of the church members I have met have never been out of Missouri…let alone the USA. Their perspective of the world is limited to what they see on TV. I appreciated their questions and interest but many said they were glad to know about what is happening in the Kingdom of God around the world…that they never hear any good news. I heard in that that they can get discouraged but the slow rural life and have even for them “nothing” appears to be happening. Even for me there are so many times that the slow ordinary times of life makes it feel like there is nothing happening. Even in a city of 8 million, I too can feel isolated and alone. I would imagine there are a lot of similarities in city and rural pastor’s struggles…maybe how that is lived out is different but we are usually tempted and discourage is similar ways. Thanks Jay for pastoring those pastors that need to hear, see, and feel the presence of God that you bring.

Leave a Reply