Joining Your Community

A few months ago I went to eat lunch with a new pastor in town. We started with get-to-know-you small talk. Then we discussed the challenges associated with moving and settling into a new place. At some point in our conversation, my new pastor friend turned his sights on our town, Odessa. He complained about how much he missed his home town and explained all the ways his home town was superior to Odessa. He also detailed all the things he didn’t like about Odessa, ranging from the terrain to the weather to the people to the pace of life.

I wish I could go back and look at my expression as this new pastor ran our town into the West Texas dirt. I’m sure it was one of shock and surprise. I just couldn’t believe this new pastor was denigrating our town. After all, he chose to move to Odessa. No diocese or bishopric forced him to move. But only a few weeks into life in a new place, my new pastor friend was openly demeaning his new home. As I sat and listened, I wondered, “How will you serve as a pastor in a town you don’t like? How will you serve as a pastor in a town you despise?”

Challenges for Pastors

I’m not exactly sure what my new pastor friend needs to hear, but I am confident about this. If he’s going to succeed in Odessa, something has to change. Either he needs to learn to love this community, or he needs to keep his mouth shut and make people think he loves this community. Pastors simply do not have the option of despising the communities in which they serve. Additionally, pastors must find meaningful ways to join their community.

To be clear, this isn’t always easy for pastors. In fact, it can be incredibly hard for pastors to jump in and be a part of life in a new community. One challenge is the fact that we often serve in a place that is not our “home.” For many people, the place we grew up holds sentimental value. But most pastors find themselves pastoring in a city or community that just doesn’t feel like home.

On a related note, pastors often find themselves serving in communities that are far from their extended family. Parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles often live hours away. This distance can feel even greater when a pastor realizes that many of the people in his church do live in their home town and do live close to their extended family. When everyone you know seems to have family close by, the distance between you and your family only feels greater. In subtle ways, this distance can cause a pastor to resent the community where he serves. It can also cause a pastor to daydream about living in a different place, which in turn leads to resentment for your current “home.”

Another challenge is the fact that many pastors don’t feel the freedom to move anywhere and find work. Teachers, nurses, and many professionals can live just about anywhere they want and find gainful employment. Pastor positions are not always available in your home town, two blocks from your momma’s house. Sometimes pastors feel “trapped” in a place they would rather not be, and this feeling of being trapped can lead to resentment for your community and detachment from your community.

A final challenge for pastors is the undeniable reality that it’s easier for an outsider to see the flaws of a community. I know this from personal experience. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Amarillo, Texas. It holds great sentimental value in my heart, and it formed the basis of what I think of as “normal” life. Moving to Kentucky and Oklahoma was challenging. In many ways, life is different in these places. Not better. Not worse. Just different. As an outsider, I noticed these differences. As an outsider, I was able to see the flaws of these communities.

How to Join Your Community

Despite these challenges, pastors must find ways to join their community. Yes, you will experience different ways of living. Yes, you will see the flaws of your new home and miss living in your real home. But just like a missionary in a foreign country, you have to find ways to jump into your new home with both feet.

In Kentucky, my wife and I often found ourselves attending community festivals, fairs, and yard sales because folks in Frankfort gathered at these events. At our church, we started a tutoring program because so many kids in our community struggled academically. As a pastor, I tried to work with other churches in the area when it was possible and regularly found myself praying at community events (like the dedication of a new nursing home). None of these activities involved preaching or evangelism, but they did give me the opportunity to build relationships and establish myself as a real member of the community. That had a positive impact on my ability to preach and evangelize.

In small town, rural Oklahoma, I learned that joining your community meant being part of a civic organization (Rotary, Lions, etc.). I also realized that as the pastor of First Baptist Church, football games and basketball games were not just school events. They were community events where people gathered. Our church worked closely with the local schools, often hosting teachers and students in our facilities and at our expense. Did we preach Jesus at these meals? No. Did I share the gospel at every sporting event? No. But participating in those gatherings showed the community that I wanted to be one of them. It gave me standing and respect that empowered my ministry.

My time in Odessa has taught me another lesson about joining your community. Simply put, pastors must not complain about the place they live. If a missionary moved overseas and complained about every aspect of life in their new home, we would rightly question their call to missions. Likewise, as a pastor, if you accept a call to pastor a church, you must refrain from constantly criticizing your new home. If you don’t, your people have every right to question your call to their church and community. I live in a place that is not immediately endearing to new people. The heat. The landscape. The wind. No one loves these things. But as a pastor, if my constant refrain involves gripes and complaints, I lose the ability to relate to people in my community. And when I lose the capacity to relate to people in my community, I lose the ability to impact their lives with the gospel.

The Biblical Basis for Involvement

It’s easy for pastors to say, “This isn’t my job.” It’s easy for pastors to talk about the priority of preaching and evangelism, or even shepherding their family. It’s easy for pastors to focus on church life instead of community life. But if you want to be effective in ministry, you just can’t neglect the importance of joining your community in meaningful ways.

When I interviewed for the pastor position in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, one elderly member asked me about football. In particular, she wanted to know if I had a problem with the expectation that the pastor would attend all home football games. At first, I was offended. I knew the biblical answer about pastors and their role in ministry. But then I realized that in this particular community, football was my way in. It was a way to connect. It was also a relational bridge I could use to further the gospel in Western Oklahoma.

I think this is what God was trying to tell Jeremiah when he was sent into exile. It would have been easy for Jeremiah and the other exiles to live like outsiders. They were far from home, and their home was the Promised Land. However, instead of secluding themselves into Jewish “bubbles,” God called Jeremiah and the exiles to seek the good of their new home (Jeremiah 29:7). God wanted the prophet and the people to realize that in order for the Kingdom to grow, they had to connect with the people who lived next door.

Part of what Jesus was saying when he told his disciples they were to be “salt” and “light” in a dark and decaying world (Matthew 5:13-16). For light to do its job, it has to be introduced to darkness. For salt to do its job, it has to get out of the shaker. We can only light up the darkness and stop the decay when we find meaningful ways to join our community.

Two Warnings

Warning one, don’t become a social crusader who tries to make this world a perfect place. Don’t abandon the gospel in your attempt to bless your community. Ultimately your mission is making disciples who in turn make disciples. Don’t forsake this mission for the sake of community involvement. Do realize that to be effective in making disciples you must join your community in meaningful ways.

Warning two, joining your community is not easy. It requires you to think like a missionary. You have to study and learn your context. You have to recognize the various people groups in your midst. You have to learn by trial and error the things that work and don’t work in your particular setting.