The Pastor as Public Theologian in the Small Places

In recent years, many pastors have reawakened to their call to be public theologians. This doesn’t mean that they publish articles in theological journals or hold lectures on subtle nuances of doctrine. Rather, it means that they have a publicly recognized position (ie. pastor) from which they do the work of theology (ie. the pulpit). As a public theologian, the pastor labors to understand and teach his people about a God who is too glorious for words to describe. He studies God’s Word in order to apply it as salve to his people’s weary hearts and water to their parched souls. He works to inject God’s truth into the hearts of his congregation and prays that the Spirit will spark it into a burning passion. The health of our churches is dependent upon pastors serving as public theologians.                                              

I pastor a church family in a rural town of approximately 5000 people. I love my town and its people but I am sometimes tempted to believe that it is less important for me to fulfill the call of public theologian in my rural location. After all, isn’t it the pastors ministering in the big places, among the young, driven, and well-educated masses of people in the urban centers that need to labor for doctrinal depth? I’m tempted to believe that things are more simple here, that people in my small town don’t want or need me to fulfill this role. However, this way of thinking is not only naïve but insulting to the people living in small places. A pastor must not base the depth of his ministry upon the perceived theological depth or expectations of his congregation, but upon the greatness of his God.      

Increased Responsibility

While it is equally important for all pastors everywhere to embrace their call to be public theologians, there are three reasons that pastors in the small places have an increased responsibility to labor for theological depth in their ministries.

  1. Small-place pastors have a greater responsibility to fight against unfair assumptions - There has been, for many years, an unfair assumption that people living in small places are “unintelligent” or “simple.” This belief continues to proliferate because of the phenomenon commonly called the “rural brain drain” in which high school graduates leave the small places for school and remain in the big places for work. While the average person in a small town might be less formally educated, it is naïve and insulting to believe that they are less intelligent. However, this belief has led many young pastors to treat the small places as merely a training ground for future ministry where they can “get their feet wet” and then move on. It has also led older pastors to treat country churches as an off-ramp to retirement where they can ease off the throttle of ministry. Pastors ministering in small places have the responsibility to counteract this backwards perception. We must honor both our congregations and our God by offering our churches the full depth of the richness of God’s truth that might have been denied them in the past. Small-place pastors have a greater responsibility to fight against unfair assumptions.

  2. The smaller your town, the greater the chance you will have the most theological training - In an American town of over 100,000 people, it is very likely that there will be a number of churches with well-qualified, theologically-educated and biblically-literate pastors. It is also likely that there will be many lay people in those churches who have sat under gifted teachers for years or even received degrees from Bible colleges and seminaries. However, the smaller your town, the fewer number of others there will likely be that have received formal biblical and theological training. In fact, it’s likely that the man pastoring in a very small place might find that he has more biblical and theological training than anyone else in town. With this sobering truth in mind, the small-town pastor has a greater responsibility to prepare himself for whatever questions of truth and faith come his way. In the face of a difficult situation, he might find that there is no one else to whom he can point the troubled sheep for an answer. The smaller the town, the greater your responsibility to bear the theological task.

  3. The smaller your town, the more public your platform - Last spring, tragedy shook our town. Our church responded by opening our doors to the community for mourning and prayer. This gathering brought in people from our church and community looking for hope. It also brought in news crews from our closest urban center looking for public statements. Were this to happen in a town of over 100,000, many churches would have rallied to offer hope to the hurting, and hundreds of community leaders might have been called upon to make public statements of hope and encouragement. However, in the small town, the pastor of the local church will be one of the few upon whose door the media will come to knock. His church will be one of the few places a confused and grieving community might turn. His pulpit that Sunday will be one of the few places where the town might be helped to mourn and offered the true source of hope in a fallen world. Small-town pastors must do everything they can to prepare themselves to stand and speak the truth with clarity and boldness. The smaller the town, the more public your theological platform.

Let’s get practical

While pastors ministering in the small places have an increased responsibility to serve as public theologians, they often meet with increased difficulty in doing so. Small churches in small towns are typically able to offer smaller budgets for continued education and are less likely to have multiple staff members to share the task of shepherding. Furthermore, a congregation might not immediately see the value in their pastor creating margin for theological study. In the face of these difficulties, here are three ways that pastors in the small places might overcome these obstacles and continue to be theologically engaged:

  1. Curate your reading - There are an endless number of books and articles, but not all of them are worth your time. Intentionally build and curate a reading list for yourself, searching for resources that will help you grow in the areas you feel weakest. Search for audio resources like audiobooks, podcasts or online lectures that allow you to continue to grow as you drive or do household chores. Seek out resources that force you to stretch your boundaries such as reading from a free academic journal like Themelios from The Gospel Coalition or Permanent Things from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Seek recommendations from other pastors of books and resources that have most formed their ministries. Read diversely, thoughtfully, hungrily and wisely.

  2. Seek out accountability – As the day-to-day tasks of pastoring squeeze your margins, it can be hard to maintain the motivation to cultivate your own theological growth. Seek out other brothers and sisters in ministry who might join you in reading and thinking deeply on theological truth. Consider starting a theological book club with pastors in your area or organizing a regular Zoom call with theologically mature friends who live far away. Make it a priority to identify others who might share your desire to grow theologically and help one another stay motivated to seek and dig into the deep things of God.

  3. Seek out resources – If your current pastoral situation doesn’t allow the resources or margins for theological engagement, consider how you might begin seeking them out. Begin to educate your elders or church leaders on the importance of your own continued growth. Help them see that your theological engagement will ultimately be for the good of the entire church family. Ask for a continuing education fund. Even if it’s small it will communicate to your leaders the importance of your theological development. Ask for a study leave. Even if it’s short it will begin to create a precedent that your own personal growth ultimately benefits the entire church family.

My prayer for myself and other pastors ministering in the small places is that we would see theology not as a dry and dusty discipline but a deep dive into the manifold glories of our God. May we embrace the weighty yet joyful privilege to serve the small places as public theologians and do all we can to prepare ourselves for this task.

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Ben Ruhl

Ben Ruhl is the lead pastor of BeFree Community Church in Alton, NH. He's a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. He is husband to Olivia and father to Davie.