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New Duke program will address rural church challenges

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The Rev. L. Gregory Jones
June 2, 2006

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

Rural areas have many strengths, including a sense of community and mutual caring, but clergy often hesitate to accept appointments to small towns.

In an effort to draw more ordained clergy to small rural churches, United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School and Duke Endowment are developing a program to foster strong rural congregations and communities in North Carolina.

“Thriving Rural Communities,” to be introduced later this summer, will create six model United Methodist Church programs aimed at:

  • Attracting strong clergy to the rural church.
  • Training them and other leaders for the challenges of serving in those settings.
  • Motivating rural clergy to be excellent leaders.
  • Helping other churches replicate successes.
The new program is expected to last at least six years, said the Rev. L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Durham, N.C., divinity school. Social and economic challenges, ranging from mill closings to shrinking populations, have sapped the strength of many rural churches and communities, and creative strategies are needed for those churches to remain vital, he said.

“The danger is that we could assign pastors to rural congregations that have less and less ability to support the pastor, much less the ability to foster strong programs,” Jones said. “We could have beautiful fellowship halls or sanctuaries made possible through the conference or The Duke Endowment, only to see them empty in the future because the communities have declined to a point of no longer being viable.”

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

The "Thriving Rural Communities" program is aimed at attracting strong clergy to that setting.

The model churches will work with the field education program at Duke Divinity School, offering special placements for six divinity school students. The students, or “rural fellows,” will be given scholarships to learn the best practices from those programs. They will be asked to commit to serving in rural congregations for at least five to eight years after graduation. They also will attend regular seminars and discussions to enhance their understanding of rural issues, challenges and opportunities.

Of the denomination’s 26,367 U.S. churches, 20,000 have been identified or classified as “town and country,” according to the Rev. Carol J. Thompson, director of the Office of Town and Country Ministries at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The denomination’s 2004 General Conference defined “town and country” as incorporated cities and towns of 50,000 or fewer; areas where the population has 250 people or fewer per square mile; or areas where the economy is based on natural resources through activities such as farming, nurseries, ranching, logging, mining and smelting, fishing and tourism, Thompson said.

Many of the United Methodist Church’s congregations are rural, and the denomination is more widespread in rural areas than nearly any other church. Each year, United Methodists observe Rural Life Sunday, when they celebrate the church’s rural heritage, raise awareness of the crisis facing rural communities around the world, and affirm “the interdependence of rural and urban communities,” according to the 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline. The special Sunday date is determined by each annual conference.

Challenges facing rural areas

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School

Duke Divinity School and Duke Endowment are developing models and strategies to address the challenges rural churches face.

Rural churches and communities face four challenges, according to Julia Wallace, director of small church and shared ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

Population shifts, economic changes and thinning of community life are three of them, “but I believe the number one challenge to rural churches and their communities is inappropriate leadership,” she said. “We see political leaders hard pressed to address rural issues in a comprehensive, effective way. For churches, this leadership challenge lies at the core of church life.

“Pastoral leadership is essential,” she said. “Our practice of appointing pastors to rural areas is unfortunately based on economic matters and availability. We can do better. Rather than undermine mission and ministry in rural congregations by frequent pastoral changes, or realigning congregations to be able to pay a pastor, the United Methodist Church must look at rural mission seriously and find alternative forms of pastoral leadership and use them consistently.”

That is one of the aims of the Thriving Rural Communities project.

“Rural communities are often seen to be on an inevitable downward spiral —demographically, economically, as well as in the strength of local congregations,” Jones said. While some rural areas are thriving, “this program is needed to develop models that can stir the imagination of how rural communities can cultivate spirals of vitality — local United Methodist churches and their wider communities working together in ways that foster hope and a sense of new life.”

Attracting clergy

The project will also focus on attracting “gifted clergy who sense a vocation to rural ministry, and can see the opportunities and possibilities,” Jones said. Factors that often interfere with that include the pressure to pay off student loans, the need to sustain a family, and the perception that “effective” clergy will always be found in the largest congregations and will receive the highest salaries.

“We hope to encourage and provide support to gifted candidates for ministry, especially through the fellowships they receive for their seminary education and through their involvement in the fellows program and the friendships nourished there over the years,” Jones said.

Why aren’t strong clergy attracted to rural churches?

“Many of us are,” Thompson said. “However, it is often very difficult to remain in a rural church and community. Bishops and cabinets often want strong clergy to move along in the appointive system, to go from smaller rural churches to town churches and then larger suburban ones.” There are issues of income, and urban and suburban locations often offer higher salaries and more opportunities for employment for clergy spouses, she said.

“This is a systemic issue,” she said. “... It will take the creativity of bishops and pastor-parish committees to find the solutions.”

Economics and social constraints have sapped many rural churches and communities, and creative strategies are needed if they are to remain vital, Jones said. Vital communities have a sense of excitement and hope for the future, and a capacity to address challenges in life-giving ways, he said.

“We need a variety of creative strategies, including a rich sense of worship and its connection to life through the week, creative approaches to evangelism, as well as developing plans for micro-economic development, or working across ethnic and racial divides to cultivate a new sense of community, and creating new opportunities for ministry,” he said.

The Rev. Kwasi Kena, a director in the Board of Discipleship’s evangelism office, said clergy are often unfamiliar with the culture of rural communities, and seminaries do not emphasize preparation for small and rural church ministry. Rural and small churches appear “less glamorous” and limited in ministry opportunities to some clergy, he added.

Wallace noted that most Americans can trace their family heritage back to a rural base, yet perceptions in the United States are often clouded by television shows and movies that depict rural people as backward in some way. “Rural issues, challenges and ministry opportunities are more than a media stereotype,” she said.

Rural churches address the challenges “as best they can,” she said. The demographics of rural communities greatly impact the local church, affecting its ability to reach new populations, address financial changes and renew a commitment to be a faith community in connection with the community around them, she said.

“ While some churches may withdraw and pretend it is still the 1950s, most churches today want to address these challenges while also dealing with change in their membership,” she added.

Working on solutions

Solutions require the cooperative attention of religious, civic, and governmental sectors, Wallace said. “Rural churches are as effective in their locations in addressing major social issues as suburban and urban churches are in theirs.”

Other partners in the Thriving Rural Communities effort are:

  • The North Carolina and Western North Carolina conferences of the United Methodist Church. They will continue work begun in 2004 with Duke Divinity School to strengthen their understanding of rural churches and how they can support leadership development. Issues to be addressed include the length of appointments for clergy in rural churches, incentives for pastors to serve in such settings and overcoming the sense of isolation in those churches.
  • The Caring Communities program at Duke Divinity School. It will manage several leadership development projects with various churches and other ministries. The projects will include a community garden in the Cedar Grove area of Orange County as well as social ministry and community outreach efforts.

In addition, ongoing education for rural United Methodist clergy will be made available through the divinity school’s Courage to Serve program. A post-graduate mentor program will be developed to address issues that arise during the first five years away from seminary — years crucial for whether clergy continue in ministry, Jones said.

“Duke’s goal is admirable,” Kena said. “Many rural and small churches and their clergy feel ignored and neglected. Any program that strengthens the rural and small church demographic of the United Methodist Church is greatly appreciated. This program is a fine example of missional ministry.”

More information about Thriving Rural Communities is available by contacting Jones at (919) 660-3434 or

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