Small Town Listening

Post Author: Jessica Crane-Munoz


Antony Gormley’s statue “Untitled [Listening]”, Maygrove Peace Park, Great Britain

Mun oz?
Moon yo SSSS

Moon, like moon in the sky. Yo, like “hey man.”  Ssss like snake.

People often assume that I met my husband on a mission trip. I imagine that their version goes something like:

Young female pastor meets attractive and impoverished but dashing young man in a third world country and rescues him to be her beloved husband and they live happily ever after.

It makes me chuckle on the days it doesn’t drive me crazy. I met my husband at a bar while shooting pool. I’m a decent player. He’s better.

Pastoring is a strange thing. One of the paradoxes of ministry is that being a pastor is both a vocation and a lifestyle choice. I think I always knew that, but it isn’t so obvious as you are journeying through seminary living in an anonymous atmosphere. It doesn’t sink in until you’ve taken a call, accepted a position, and discovered that your life is fair game for gossip in small town ministry. At that point it becomes crystal clear that pastors are fair game.

Being a pastor in a small town means high visibility. It means never shopping without someone peeking in my cart, and never going to the doctor without running into a church member who tells me all of their health woes while my son tries to wriggle away.

Small town pastoring also means hearing a lot of political talk this time of year.  I live in a “swing” state for voting, and that means politics are a big deal and people love to talk about “the issues.”  Oftentimes this talk about “the issues” doesn’t take into account the life circumstances of those who are listening.

Take immigration, for example. Sometimes people forget that their pastor is married to an immigrant.  They forget that when they talk about immigration in politics, it’s personal for me.

Other issues are much the same: food stamps, crime legislation, tax codes, childcare, you name it. People are simply unaware that their words are more than rhetoric, that there are deeply felt connections behind the issues.

So what is a small-town pastor to do? How do I honor my family and my calling as a minister in a context in which every move I make, from grocery shopping to doctoring to driving my car down the road, will be watched and scrutinized?

The answer, I believe, is different for every small town pastor. For me, it means confining my political opinions to a voting booth. In my context, talking politics has the potential to break relationships rather than strengthen them.

I’m okay with this because I’m in it for the long haul. I’m also okay with it because in my life and ministry, relationships are more important than being right. I love my congregation, and I am absolutely called here to minister in this place. Even when it requires quietly sitting and listening to people who aren’t sensitive to the dynamics of my life. Then listening some more. It means sitting through uncomfortable times, and then speaking when trust has been earned

A respected colleague once told me that the key to his ministry is earning the right to speak into people’s lives. For me, that right to speak into someone’s life does not come through my title. The right to speak is gained at deathbed vigils and at court trials, time spent at graduation parties and hours of labor loading the moving van. It is the work of ministry, not the title of minister, that gives me the right to speak the truth of Christ into people’s lives.

My hope is that eventually people will know me well enough to start asking questions like, “What does it mean to live here in this place as a half-Latino family?” “What does it feel like to pastor in a small town?”

Someday in the future, perhaps we’ll tackle together the big questions about God’s care for the poor, the widowed, and the disenfranchised. Maybe we will discuss why Christians are called by scripture to remember and care for those who are in prison. Or we may examine together how we are all strangers in a strange land.

Until then, I remember that I’m in it for the long haul. Messy politics, establishing relationships, building trust. Ever aware that my shopping cart is eye-balled, and my car is watched as I drive through town.

God calls us to this crazy thing called ministry so that we can walk among God’s people, offering grace and truth. And if we are courageous, we build our relationships with heaps of grace and then nudge in the truths, ever so slowly, little by little, along the way.

“How do you say your last name again?”

“Pastor Jessica is fine. Or just call me Jessica.”

Rev. Jessica Crane-Munoz is pastor of a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Iowa. She has a BA from Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, and a MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. Coffee lover, pastor, mother, wife, cat owner, and jack-of-all-trades, Jessica is a decent cook, and a sub-par quilter who spends much of her spare time reading.

Image by: Mike Quinn
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Sarah Weisiger
    Sarah Weisiger says:

    Jess, I really love that point you made from your colleague about “earning the right to speak into people’s lives.” Part of my experience of ministry has been something i see paralleled in public discourse–we cannot speak to each other until we begin to listen to one another. And we can’t really listen if we are caught up in always being right. thank you for reminding me that our call is a vocation to community, even when that community is foreign to us. And I wonder–in what ways are we called to be in conversation about differences in values? How do we reconcile the two?


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