Small Colleges and Small Towns

Small Colleges and Small Towns

Christianity Today’s article Rural Fish Bowl Pastor Dad needs to be just Dad is a well written, honest reflection on the unspoken expectations a pastor’s family encounters in many towns across the US.

Here’s a preview:

“As a young 20-something youth pastor, I went to the Assisted Living Center to have coffee and lead a Bible study. Sure enough, I would be in the news. I thought it was cool because I was meeting the expectations of the community and they all knew it.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that those expectations would be placed on my wife and my children. It has been a harsh reality-check and weight that I hate they have to bear. It seems like it’s magnified in a small town.” (emphasis mine)


My Small Town Experience:

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs adjacent to a small college. In fact, within 20 miles of my childhood home, there are three small colleges. I also attended a small college on in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago.

Even with all my familiarity to small colleges, when we moved to a small farming community where the main employers were the small private college, federal prison, and school district I was not well equipped to handle life in a fishbowl.

Life in a fishbowl is not unique to pastors and their families, although I believe they feel it intensely because of how churches are small communities of their own, it’s likely that a coaching family will experience many of the same stresses if they are a part of a small college in a small town.

Here’s What Worked For Me:

Get out of town regularly

One of the first words our oldest child learned to say was “Kanera” (Panera). Another was “apple,” and you guessed it, a third was  “bagel.” When I just couldn’t handle the fishbowl for a minute longer, I packed up the kid and headed out for lunch a few towns away. We would sit outside at Panera and eat bagels and apples, and for a little while no one would interrupt us or ask how recruiting was going or if we were going to win that weekend. It was glorious.

Another example from that time is that another coach’s wife and I established a ritual. We left the kids with our husbands and drove 30 minutes to a neighboring town for a great meal, pedicures, a little shopping and a LOT of talking. We did this every 4-6 weeks, and it was absolutely life-giving.

Foster friendships outside the community

After several years in the fishbowl, we realized that the healthiest thing we could do for our family was to find a church where we could worship separately from same people we worked with and shopped with and saw every other minute of every other day. That church provided the first safe small group for us in years. We were able to be ourselves and feel supported in hard life situations without concern any confidence shared would soon be sent around town.

While chatting on the phone isn’t nearly as personal as heading to the local coffee shop, when life handed us lemons the safest people to talk to were those away from us. While that isn’t always the case, it’s important to remember that in small towns people often have long histories that are connected in many overlapping layers.

Even if they want to support you as a friend, they may feel pressure to stay neutral to preserve relationships. Remember, when you move they will still be in relationships with those other people. Protect their future dealings by allowing your friends to stay unaware of any conflicts you encounter.

Don’t feel pressure to overshare

True friendships aren’t single-sided. Share what you can so that your tribe knows you authentically value them.

Brene Brown said it best:

“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.”

In a small town, people naturally know a lot about each other. As the outsider coming in, there is insecurity and curiosity because the same familiarity isn’t present. That’s ok! Your new community will learn about you as time goes on when they have earned the right to learn things.

You may encounter odd questions such as:

  • Who’s house do you live in?
  • Do your children have the same father?
  • Are you related to so and so?
  • Who in town are you related to?
  • Why are you here?
  • How long are you staying?

These are not questions you need to answer until you are ready. And frankly, they aren’t questions you ever need to answer in most cases because people will find out the answers themselves when curious enough.

Be the best version of who you are in public whenever possible

I always remind my kids that wherever we are, whether we think it’s fair or not, we represent Dad. We have public statements that are ok to say and things we only say in our own home.

In a small town, I couldn’t get away with running to the store without makeup on because it would mean 10 people would stop me to ask if I was sick and then later I would hear from someone else they heard I was sick the other day. Which this is a mild example, please know that not all observations are so silly.

Be wise about who you allow access to you through social media

If you aren’t going to keep your opinions off social media, it’s wise to make sure that you have a tight filter on which friend requests you send and accept. Screenshots can be sent easily, and let me tell you, in my experience fishbowls hold long grudges.

I found that social media was an easy way for people in the community to “keep tabs” on each other. I also learned that this was something many found to be a natural extension of small-town life where “everyone knows everything about each other anyway”.

The problem was that it was also the most common way to unknowingly offend someone. It was easier to stay neutral with most people by just limiting social.

Be Aware, But Embrace It

It took me a few years to embrace the reality of where we were living. Once I did I realized I had wasted a lot of time in denial when I could have been having fun.

While living in a fishbowl was not always easy, I know our years in that small community helped shape me into the person I am today. I also developed dear friendships that I deeply value to this day. My kids experienced small-town life, and it has helped them to be grateful for all they are surrounded by now instead of taking it for granted.

One of the best parts of the coaching life is the opportunity to experience and learn from people in different parts of the country. Eventually, through a good amount of trial and error, I found people who have similar thoughts and beliefs to mine but I also learned from a lot of people who have very different ideas than mine. That small town experience expanded my worldview and solidified many of my beliefs in God.

Small colleges are in small towns across the country, and in many, there are conflicts between “townies” and “college-folk”. Either way you are in a fishbowl, so enjoy both experiences while they last. As you know with coaching the likelyhood of staying forever is pretty slim.