In addition to serving as presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries, Paige Patterson and Jeff Iorg share much in common, including ministry experience in rural West Texas churches and a desire to train God-called men to pastor churches in both urban and rural contexts.
Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, served as executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention for nearly a decade, which included extensive contact with pastors and bi-vocational pastors in small towns and rural locations. Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has preached in and pastored churches of various sizes and geographical locations.
Both men see a great need for pastors in small churches and rural settings and lead their seminaries in training young men to fulfill these assignments. Given their experience in these settings, Iorg and Patterson offer advice and insight into reaching these communities.
“Small churches are important. They are going to be with us for years to come, and that’s a good thing,” Iorg said.
“What I would say to pastors is to follow God’s call, and if that’s to a small church in a rural setting, be content there and fulfill that calling. We need to get past the pressure that we’re putting on each other to fit a certain mold of what church planting or ministry has to be like. While I wholeheartedly affirm reaching large numbers of people in the cities, that doesn’t mean that everyone is called to do that.”
Patterson agreed, adding, “The apostle Paul’s methodology, as has long since been noted, was to go to the major cities, but that is only the first half of the strategy. The strategy included the city churches then reaching out to the countryside, and that is precisely what happened. Southern Baptists by-and-large are already in the countryside, spread over a large portion of the United States. For us to simply turn our backs on those churches and neglect them would be a categorical mistake and a disaster.”
Iorg said the majority of seminary graduates begin ministry in small church settings, so Golden Gate focuses on preparing them with the relational skills and proper perspective they need to pastor these churches.
“We try to help pastors understand that their calling is not a career, and it’s perfectly acceptable to be called to a small church and to weave yourself into that community and to stay there for a long time. There shouldn’t be any ministerial pressure to move up or to move on. (Pastors) don’t have to feel pressured to fit someone else’s mold of what success might look like.”
Patterson offers three ways Southwestern prepares students:
“First, we get them out to the rural churches to do evangelism events and to preach revivals and supply preaching for existing pastors.
“Second, we teach them that the pastorate, even in the small rural church, is a crucial matter of growing the church in Christ, both numerically and in their theological understanding and application of the Scriptures to life.
“Third, Southwestern understands that just as the Lord knew everything about each of the seven churches in Revelation, so he knows everything about each of the churches in rural America. These churches today stand as a testimony to the evangelistic aggressiveness of former generations of Baptists who paid a substantial price in order to establish those churches. We owe it to them to maintain what they have done. “
But rural churches have their challenges.
Iorg noted the limited growth potential of rural churches and the discouragement this can bring to pastors.
“Small churches in small communities usually stay small for a number of different reasons; and in spite of evangelistic success and growth that may come, they may not have the explosive growth that would be found in suburban or inner city churches,” Iorg said.
“Small church and rural church pastors must have patience and a kingdom perspective or mindset. Many churches in these smaller communities have limited growth potential in their own congregation, but there is an opportunity to lead that congregation to participate in an association of churches and even in a national or international network of churches where that church can make a difference by being a part of something larger.”
Patterson, too, sees the possibility of discouragement due to the “relative paucity of evangelistic results.”
“Baptizing no more than two to 10 a year may cause the evangelistic impetus to wither in his soul. In order to be successful long-term in a rural situation, he simply must keep pushing the envelope in his witness. He will have to keep his personal walk with God very strong, and he will have to walk faithfully with his people on a day-by-day basis. These are the simple but God-blessed rules for being a pastor anywhere, and they certainly apply in the rural situation.”