Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a 'country parson' -- namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word 'consider.' I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me.
Many young leaders perceive that the ideal first ministry position would be a position on the staff of a large church with an older, mature pastor to mentor them. The limits of this model are several. You can't teach a younger pastor much about things they aren't actually doing. And in a large church they aren't a) bearing the burden of being the main leader, b) leading a board of elders, c) fund-raising and bearing the final responsibility of having enough money to do ministry, d) and doing the gamut of counseling, shepherding, teaching, preaching. In a smaller church as a solo pastor you and only you visit the elderly, do all the weddings and funerals, sit by the bedside of every dying parishioner, do all the marriage counseling, suspend and excommunicate, work with musicians, craft and lead worship, speak at every men's retreat, women's retreat, and youth retreat, write all the Bible studies and often Sunday School curriculum, train all the small group leaders, speak at the nursing home, work with your diaconate as they try to help families out of poverty, evangelize and welcome new visitors to the church, train volunteers to do some (but not all) of all of the above tasks, and deal with the once-a-month relational or financial crisis in the church. No amount of mentoring can teach you what you learn from doing all those things.
Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.
Young pastors should not turn up their noses at such places, where they may learn the full spectrum of ministry tasks and skills as they will not in a large church. Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career. Why not? Your early ministry experience will only prepare you for 'bigger things,' if you don't aspire for anything bigger than investment in the lives of the people around you. Wherever you serve, put your roots down, become a member of the community and do your ministry with all your heart and might. If God opens the door to go somewhere else, fine and good. But don't go to such places looking at them only as training grounds for 'real ministry.'
My own pathway of personal development began with nine years of being the pastor of a small church in a small town. This equipped me well for church planting in New York City, because, when you start a church, you must be a generalist, not the specialist that large churches create. I repeat -- I am not proposing that everyone follow the same course. Being a 'country parson' is not the right move for everyone. But for some it is.
Tim Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York, and author of numerous books. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources by Tim Keller visit Gospel in Life. You can follow him on Twitter.