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Rural churches a unique start for young clergy


This is the 10th installment of a yearlong series that follows newly appointed United Methodist clergy as they begin their ministry.

6:00 A.M. EDT June 30, 2011 | PEGRAM, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children’s time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children’s time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert. View in Photo Gallery

Sometime around 1800, a log church was founded just inside the Cheatham County line – one of the first churches established in Middle Tennessee. That church was named Bethel Methodist. Now named New Bethel United Methodist, the church has outlasted most of its neighbors.

Tucked away in a rural community a half hour from Nashville, New Bethel and a sister church about 14 miles to the east, Centenary, are almost mirror images: stark white steeples, dark-paneled sanctuaries … and a few dozen people in the pews on Sunday morning.

The churches also share the same pastor, the Rev. Brian Rossbert, 29, who was appointed to the two charges after he completed seminary in 2009.

Rossbert graduated from United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He said fitting in with the rural congregations was easier because he grew up in a small town in the Colorado Rockies.

Rossbert’s appointment is typical for a young pastor.

“Most young clergy get appointed to the bottom of the salary level — small rural churches,” said the Rev. Lewis Parks, professor of theology, ministry and congregational development at Wesley.

Small churches don’t expect to have pastors who will stay with them for more than a few years, Parks said. “I work with small churches, and they would like to see the continuity of leadership. But often the young clergy have families and needs, and both parties expect they will move on.”

That is the case with Rossbert as well. After two years serving the two rural churches, he has been reappointed to Dalewood United Methodist, a 300-member church in East Nashville. His new appointment begins July 1.

“Brian is exceptional,” said Sandra Kingdon, a member of Centenary. “The first time I heard him, I told him he wouldn’t be at our church for very long.

“I hate to lose him. I really do. But, his talents need to be spread more than at our church.”

The Rev. Jessica Baldyga. Photo courtesy of Jessica Baldyga.
The Rev. Jessica Baldyga. Photo courtesy of Jessica Baldyga. View in Photo Gallery

Unique challenges, benefits

Clergy often may not find a rural appointment appealing. The pay usually is low, and clergy have to serve two or three congregations to get full salary support. The pay may be too low for the pastor to start paying off tuition debt from years of seminary study. Spouses sometimes have trouble finding good job prospects. In many rural areas, the young people have moved away. That means few people are the same age as a young pastor, which can be isolating.

The Rev. Jessica Baldyga, 26, is in her first year at Farmington (Ill.) United Methodist Church, a town in central Illinois with a population of less than 2,500 and a median age of 40. She said she definitely misses her peer group.

“I am by far the youngest adult in the congregation by at least 10 years. It can be tough in a small town where I don’t know a lot of the people and the common social activity for people my age is to go out to bars,” she said.

A recent study by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) found less than 10 percent of seminary graduates open to serving in congregations with fewer than 100 members. An even smaller percentage of graduates said they were willing to serve in a rural setting.

Krysta Rexrode Wolfe, 23, is in her second year at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. She is a native of West Virginia and plans to return there to begin her ministry.

“I’m sure I have multi-part charges in my future,” she said. “I’m from a rural area and I expect to be put in those places, but some people are shocked when they get out of school and wind up in a rural place that they don’t have any passion for or experience in.”

In addition to often being much younger than their congregations, young female clergy may struggle with gender barriers.

Baldyga is Farmington’s first woman pastor. She said congregants often told her how “cute” she was or how much she reminded them of their granddaughters before she gained acceptance as their spiritual leader.

Wolfe said not only is she likely to be appointed to a church that’s never had a woman as pastor, she may also be the church’s first pastor with a seminary education. She said licensed local pastors in West Virginia outnumber ordained clergy two to one.

The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, center, directs the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.  Photo courtesy of Kate Rugani.
The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, center, directs the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. Photo courtesy of Kate Rugani. View in Photo Gallery

“I know people who’ve never left the county I grew up in,” she said. “Because I moved away to study at a large school in an urban setting, when I go back, I have cultural bridges to build.”

Baldyga said she feels called to small churches. “This is a really good fit for me. It challenges me and, in turn, causes me to still want to challenge the congregation, which I think is necessary.”

Wolfe agrees.

“I prefer being in a rural congregation where there’s love of neighbor, visitation and work ethic. Because it’s such a big part of who we are, church becomes a very comfortable place,” she said. “I grew up with 15 moms, and these women still call me and send me care packages.”

What makes a good rural pastor?

Even though many seminary graduates are not from a rural setting, that doesn’t mean they won’t flourish there. The experience often is more about personal values than background.

Baldyga said patience is definitely a virtue for a rural pastor.

“Most often the rural churches are small and you don’t always have a lot of people who are willing to take leadership in different things. Sometimes you start new programs and they don’t always succeed because you don’t have the interest,” she said.

“Having a healthy sense of humility is important, and it’s good to have a sense of humor,” said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. “The rural folks I know appreciate someone who can laugh at themselves.

“Above all,” he added, “you need to believe this crazy gospel of ours, that Christ cherishes everyone in every community, and seeks out the one that’s lost, and sees great value in even one person showing up for a Bible study or church event.”

Proud starter church

Members of New Bethel and Centenary knew they would not keep Rossbert for long and they are OK with that. They take pride in their role as a “starter” church that serves as a mentor for pastors as they begin their ministry. Members point to the successes of other pastors who started in their churches.

“Our little churches are training churches; that’s the role that we play,” said Terry Kimbro, a member of New Bethel. “Our church has the same problems as a big church, and it gives our young pastors an opportunity to learn how to handle those problems on a smaller scale.”

First appointments often take newly ordained pastors to small, rural churches.  Pictured here is New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn., one of two churches served by the Rev. Brian Rossbert. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
First appointments often take newly ordained pastors to small, rural churches. Pictured here is New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn., one of two churches served by the Rev. Brian Rossbert. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry. View in Photo Gallery

Rossbert agrees. “They have been able to name that for themselves that they are starter churches,” said Rossbert. “They do it not only for the benefit of themselves but also for the benefit of the churches their pastors go to.”

The Rev. Gray Southern, superintendent of the Durham, N.C., District, said many churches claim a mentoring role as part of their identity. “They will go back 30-40 years and tell you who has been their pastor and where they are today,” he said. “They proudly claim the fact that they’ve helped shape someone’s identity as pastor.”

Centenary member Sandra Kingdon said: “I think a lot of times our church is so small that we sort of have to break some of them in. We usually get the really young ones that are just coming into the ministry and we also get the retirees.”

When New Bethel had its 2010 homecoming celebration, the Rev. Cheri Parker, who was pastor at the churches from 1983 to 1990, came back as guest preacher.

While most pastors stay for only a few years, Parker stayed with the churches for seven years – the longest tenure of any pastor at New Bethel and Centenary since the 1950s. She and her husband started their family while she was pastor.

From the pulpit, she reminisced about having her babies in baskets at the altar beside her when she preached.

“You taught me to be a pastor,” she said. “I will be forever thankful.”

The churches, Parker’s first as lead pastor, were a good match for her. “They were like family to us,” she said.

The Rev. Gail Ford Smith, director of the Texas Annual (regional) Conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence, echoed Parker’s sentiment. She said the first congregation she served “knew I did not come to them fully formed. I wouldn’t be the pastor I am today if not for those incredible people.

“You have to observe and respect the rhythm of that community,” Smith said. “You’d better go to the school football game on Friday night. At my first church, I learned how to can, went to cattle auctions, rode in hay balers. You need to be part of the community. A preacher that had no intent of living in the community would never be accepted.”

Experience needed

But not all rural churches may be happy about being seen as a training ground and might feel resentment that they’re relegated to inexperienced leadership.

Respondents to a March 2010 survey by the United Methodist Rural Fellowship cited a lack of qualified pastoral leadership as a central concern.

This also concerns Wolfe as she prepares for her first pastor role.

“It’s not fair to those local congregations that they don’t have a more experienced person than me,” Wolfe said. “What do I know? I’ve been in a classroom for most of my life.”

Wolfe thinks smaller and rural churches are the ones most in need of proven experience at the pulpit.

“Those places are in danger. They’re losing resources, money and population. The notion that as you gain tenure, you gain larger appointments is a futile way of doing ministry. We’re basically putting ourselves out of business by doing that.”

As Rossbert prepares for the next step in his ministry, he says he’s ready for whatever God has in store for him.

“I can’t put my thumb on what ideal ministry would look like. When we get caught up in the ‘I need to be in the big first church,’ when we elevate ourselves as pastors to that place, we kind of get in trouble and we stop serving in the way that is to the glory of God but start serving to the glory of ourselves.

“I want to be used. I want to be an instrument of grace and peace and love and pastoral presence and the body of Christ.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Butler is editor of young adult content.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Comments will be moderated. Please see our Comment Policy for more information.
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Showing 9 comments

  • BrotherRog 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    serving a rural church(es) works great -- if they're already married.  Not many young adults as potential suitors living in those areas however.
  • pastorpapp 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Some of us do feel called to serve in rural communities. I am an ordained elder who has served 30 years and am in my fourth appointment. I have found that the benefits of these churches has far outweighed the lack of dollars and cents. I have been able to develop close, pastoral relationships with almost all the individuals I have served. I have learned skills that were never taught in seminary but proved necessary to have. I went to my first appointment only to learn that the mimeograph machine broke the week before and that there was no money to fix or replace it. The good people at Gestetner were willing to show me how to do the work and provided parts wholesale. The little bit of extra effort went far in people believing that I really wanted to be there and that I wanted their church to succeed. 
    Births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals take on a more personal note in rural churches. When there are only 20 people in a congregation and one becomes a mom for the first time, it is a major event for all the people and imparts a sense of hope that you don't necessarily get in a 200 member congregation.
    There may not always be a Christmas "bonus" but there will always be home made Christmas cookies.
    I remember a DS, early on in my ordained ministry, telling me to expect the people in a particular church to be set in their ways and not to challenge them too much. What I found there and have consistantly found are people who are looking for ways to give back to God and God's Creation as a way of giving thanks for what God has done in their lives.
    Truly love your people and you will be amazed at what a life of rural ministry can bring in return.
  • joe.lawson 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Small and/or rural churches aren't only sent young clergy, but they are often sent inexperienced clergy.  I was 41 years old when I was first appointed (second career after business management, 9 year Course of Study) and I've been a pastor for 21 years in 4 appointments.  I think the rationale is partly that if the new clergy mess up, it's better to do it where the fewest people are likely to get hurt.  And truthfully, new clergy may have a lot of training and the same Bible but most haven't practiced and developed their skills to properly handle the complications and stresses of larger congregations.  Also, new/ young/ inexperienced/ whatever/ clergy are like every other clergyperson in that they want a raise and they want it now -- but like in every other profession, clergy have to show that they're worth more money before they'll get it.  Too many of them are so desperate or money-hungry that they fall into the trap of trying to move frequently to get raises and the churches they serve really do become stepping-stones because of that.  I've moved 3 times since my first appointment and each time I was told I was "topped-out," which means that according to the powers-that-be, I was making all I was supposed to make for my clergy classification (Associate Member, Deacon in the Elder track).  Each time, I replaced an Elder but took a lesser-paying appointment and grew the churches to rise a little higher in the income scale and was replaced by another Elder who was glad to get my "topped-out" salary.  I love serving rural churches and my heart's really in being the best servant-pastor I can be, and not the money.  Yeah, I have to make a living (and so does my clergy-couple spouse, Part-time Local Pastor, 6 years in 2 appointments) but God really does provide for that.
  • Cheryl George 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    My husband and I are local pastors in West Virginia and serve a 6 church charge.  There are definitely challenges to overcome, including making a living wage, but the benefits so outweigh the challenges.  We also spend time in real rural ministry, on the tractor, on the river floating fishing, pulling calves, cutting firewood.  The best way to get to know people is to work with them--not preach to them.  When a pastor comes into an area and knows nothing about the lifestyle of the people, that pastor has a lot of catching up to do and believe me the people will figure out quickly that you want to love them when you find ways to be with them...no matter what is going on!
  • HHH_AAA 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I pray for all small rural churches undergoing pastoral changes this summer.
  • pastoremily 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    What is the next step?  I agree with Rev. Rossbert when he shares that he wants to be used by God and is willing to serve anywhere.  As a young clergy person I also struggle with some of the challenges listed in the article.  When you have debt from Seminary or Undergraduate work that is cutting into your base compensation what do you do?  If rural churches want to have "more experienced leadership" one way they can help sustain ministry is to start offering scholarships for people who have been in ministry for a while and would like to pay off their debt.  Rural settings are great places to learn, but if we put people in Rural settings right out of school it can seem like an experiement for all concerned.  One other thing that rural church memebers can do is respect the young person's experience and education.  When a pastor is given respect and treated as a person of Authority instead of being compare to a grandchild the ministry is shared more willingly. 
         With discussion of doing away with garunteed appointments, rural churches will need to think about how they can draw experienced and effective clergy to their churches.  The lack of leadership in Rural churches needs to be addressed by all churches no matter who their pastor is or what their size.  When effective clergy are called to serve is the church willing to pay?  If not, where do we go from here?  One final concern that I raise is that Women Clergy are called to serve Rural pastorates multiple times in a row whereas Male Clergy are often elevated to places with more members right away.  This article in itself highlights an example of women pastors who are prepared to nurture rural churches while although men are willing to serve anywhere are often given "First Church Downtown" where people are more comfortable with male leadership.  I hope that we can find ways to create sustainable ministry for all people in lots of places.  Grace and peace, Emily Earnshaw
    Discipleship Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Canon City, CO
  • Mervin Anthony 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    got the same situation in the Philippines especially in the provinces (rural areas) it is also my experience to be assigned in a small membership church on my internship and when graduated from the seminary (Union Theological Seminary - Phils) it is not only small in membership like in Calauag church they were still holding their worshiping at rented house because of limited budget. But inspite of the situation their love and concern for pastors cannot be described. An atmosphere of love and care surrounds the worker inspite of the situation.
  • SheriffBart 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I wonder if we will see more non-elders serving in rural or smaller churches in the future.  Ministers who have huge seminary debt cannot afford to take a smaller church.  Using local pastors who are on the course of study track may be the logical answer to this problem. 
  • Pam Dountas 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    It is very difficult for the rual church to be a training ground for new pastors and not feel like a step child in the process. What it does offer us is the advance experiance for layity to help the church grow. This includes home visitations, worship preperation, and community out reach. Thanks to UMC for offering training classes in various church leadership.

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