Rural ministry was not what pastor Matt Henslee envisioned for himself when he was growing up in the DFW Metroplex, but it’s where God led him, and now he loves it. He’s urging other pastors to consider that God does some of His best work in rural settings.
As pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, N.M., Henslee wrote “Replanting Rural Churches: God’s Plan and Call for the Middle of Nowhere” with another rural southern New Mexico pastor, Kyle Bueermann of First Baptist Church in Alamogordo.
Henslee was on the front row of his church in Grand Prairie from the age of 2, he said, and was saved at age 7. He was discipled by an associate pastor, visiting hospitals and nursing homes until he was a teenager. In high school, he interned in the worship ministry at a church in Fort Worth and then served a church in Irving that met in a funeral home.
“Later, I returned to Grand Prairie to be the student pastor and after-school director at Westridge Baptist Church — which is where I’d also meet Rebecca, who later became my wife — the day before I went in view of a call as the pastor of worship and children at a church quite literally in the middle of nowhere: Josephine, Texas,” Henslee told the TEXAN.
“I fell in love with rural life and would later become the associate pastor at First Baptist Church, Blue Ridge, which didn’t have much more than a gas station, grocery store and a Mexican food restaurant that was rarely open.”
He ended up back in Grand Prairie as the pastor of students and education at Inglewood Baptist Church, and he and Rebecca adopted four girls through foster care.
“It was then that I sensed God calling me to the pastorate and we moved to Pipe Creek, Texas, about 35 to 40 miles outside of San Antonio,” Henslee said. “A little over two years later, I found myself choking back tears as I left to serve in Mayhill.” He has been in New Mexico for more than two years.
Along the way, Henslee earned a master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Now he’s working on a doctorate in expository preaching at Southwestern, and, along with pastoring, serves as managing editor of LifeWay Pastors, a division of Facts & Trends.
“Pastoring in small, rural towns requires creativity to reach people with the good news,” Henslee said. “In Pipe Creek, I did all of my studying at a mom-and-pop coffee shop in town, which allowed me to meet folks passing through, tell them about Jesus and invite them to church. We grew from about 40 to just over 100 in worship during my time there.
“In Mayhill, I do something similar. I often read outside the local café, where I’ll evangelize and invite people to church. We’ve grown from about the same to as many as 170 in worship in a town of not much more than 60 to 70.”
A welcome difference Henslee noticed right away when he moved to Josephine years ago was how quiet rural life was compared to the city. The slower pace helps him slow down spiritually, he said, and the hour-long trips to make hospital visits give him time to pray, unwind or make phone calls.
Certainly there are downsides to living so far out, he said, such as when his family runs out of sugar and must either travel an hour each way to the store or go to the nearest neighbor to ask for sugar. In rural America, neighbors rely on each other more, Henslee said.
Also in Josephine, he noticed a farmer might invite him out to toss hay or some other task, which provided several hours of quality time talking with the farmer about life, marriage and spiritual matters while working together. “You can’t really do that in the city with a banker,” he said.
Henslee’s daughters “absolutely love” living in Mayhill and often spend their family days hiking in the mountains. “They have more fun doing that than when we would spend a day baking in the sun at Six Flags,” he said.
Bueermann, Henslee’s coauthor, grew up in tiny Tahoka, Texas, and didn’t think he wanted to pastor a small-town church once he finished school, Henslee said, but it turns out he is passionate about ministering in Alamogordo after following God and falling in love with the New Mexico culture.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is where I would like to be for the duration of my ministry,” Henslee said.
— Erin Roach is a correspondent for the TEXAN magazine, located in Grapevine, Texas.