As the son of a pastor, the grandson of a deacon, and the great-grandson of a pastor, I have known more than one minister in my fifty years. I have met pastors that were hateful, hurting, and hypocritical, but the vast majority have been heroic in their sacrifice for their congregations. I am not, of course, referring to the charity CEO that takes the title pastor, he or she has their reward, but the shepherd who shows up at the birth, the baptism, the illnesses, and the death of a congregant.
My own pastor, Father Richard, is: youth group leader, secretary, wise man, guide, confessor, speaker, and scholar. Where else, but church can an American get access to a person with three years of graduate education who has the duty to love?
There are rich pastors, but none of my own pastors have lived in much more than genteel lower middle class discomfort.
Of all the pastors I have known, however, none deserve greater admiration than the pastor of a rural congregation. Often they work another job to avoid burdening the small community with their total maintenance. If they are seminary or Bible college trained, these pastors are often the best educated person in the community outside of the doctors, who are getting hard to find in the country, and school teachers. The rural pastor left the intellectual riches of seminary life to bring the greatest book ever written, an explanation of the global Christian mission, and the historic faith to communities that might otherwise become entirely parochial. Even the self-educated pastors, like my great-grandfather, pour over the Bible and read every book they can get to make their sermons better.
For this they may receive a ramshackle parsonage and only rarely a decent pension, but they do not, in my experience complain. They have joy, not a job.
Call on them and they will come. When I was small, my Daddy told us that if we were ever lost that we should look for a Baptist Church, because someone would help us there. He was right. The church in a rural community stands as a place where help is available and where for no membership fee services are rendered. Rare is the pastor who will simply deny help altogether.
Go to your local Catholic parish and say you are far from home and need help. Something will be done for you, even if you are miles from the nearest city.
And yet in pop culture the rural pastor almost never is admired, in films the town hooker is more likely to have a heart of gold than the pastor. America could not afford the taxes that would be required to replace the social services and community formation the rural pastor provides. In one day, he might save a marriage, bury an old friend, exegete some Greek, and pray before the local football game. Imagine the wages that would have to be paid to attract a person with seven years of education to work two jobs to provide advice, support, social opportunities, and charity to a rural community!
For a Christian the greatest good done by a rural pastor is to bring salvation and the message of eternal life to the forgotten places of America. In a town, that the elitist drives through or past, they reach sinners and bring the love of Jesus Christ. Lives are transformed. It is not chic to be hooked on hillbilly heroin or romantic to live in with your illegitimate children in a trailer and so such sinners are forgotten. The cost of our abandonment of the Faith of our Fathers and Mothers, a holy faith, is too obvious for comfort. The rural pastor battles the demons of alcoholism in his parish, the despair of joblessness, and the futility of government education with fewer tools than his urban brothers.
When pop culture preaches hedonism and materialism, the rural consumer is quickly destroyed. He or she lacks the wealth or the social structures to delay receiving the wages of sin: spiritual death. The very pastor who might save the flock from the wolves is held up as a “wolf” by the wolves in digital disguises.
And yet the Holy Spirit is enough for these brave souls, these rural pastors. They battle powers and they often win. Souls are snatched from the fire and paradise is found in a good death.
God bless you pastor. God bless your work. God bless your charity. God bless your family and your sacrifice.
Millions of citizens salute you and millions more in Christendom are thankful that you incarnate the son of God for us, Jesus with skin, in our small towns this Christmas.