The Potential of Rural Ministry | guest post by Rev. Allen StantonPosted: November 5, 2018
The summer before I began seminary, I had breakfast with the pastor of the Baptist church I grew up in. I told him that I had been offered and accepted a fellowship, which promised a full scholarship in exchange for a commitment to serve the rural church for at least five years after graduation.
“Why would you do that?” my pastor asked. “Don’t you want to go serve at a larger church? That’s how you launch your career.”
It’s a refrain that I heard often, even after I began serving in a rural parish. Well-meaning clergy, people that I respect and admire, would offer similar advice. “Go to that rural church,” I was told, “Don’t make any waves, and in a few years, they’ll reappoint you as an associate pastor at a larger church.”
When I first entered into seminary, my pastor’s remarks, along with that consistent line of advice about waiting out my five years in the rural parish, echoed in my head. Underneath all of those comments is an assumption that valuable ministry rarely happens in the small-membership rural church. For many, the narrative is that rural ministry is a place for the beginning of careers – a place to escape from once you’ve proved your skill – or a place to end a career. Underneath this well-intentioned but misguided advice is that rural communities are not places to have a high-impact ministry. In reality, though, our rural congregations face unique challenges that require thoughtful and strong leaders.
In many rural communities, local churches are some of the only permanent institutions. While businesses, elected officials, and even schools come and go, the rural church remains. Each week, the pews are filled by small business owners, teachers, nurses, and community leaders – a claim which almost no other organization can make.
My previous appointment was a small, rural church in North Carolina. Brought into the connection by Francis Asbury, the area has seen a tremendous amount of change over the last few decades. In the 1970s, farmlands were converted into a lake, which today is a popular daytrip for the nearby urban areas. The once quiet farm road where the church sits is now a busy backroad between two suburbs. Hundreds of cyclists dot the road each weekend in the fall and spring to take advantage of the rolling hills and scenic paths.
The questions that we wrestled with are not that unique: How do we navigate this change? Who is in our community now? What resources are available to us? How do we make this community better?
Rural churches have the potential – and responsibility – to be leaders in the midst of this enormous change in their communities. The Turner Center at Martin Methodist College is committed to empowering and supporting rural congregations as they explore how their congregations can lead transformation. Our goal, as we like to say, is to help rural congregations recognize, cultivate, announce, and invite others to participate in the Kingdom of God that is already being built around them.
At times, that means taking a step back and learning how to see the real needs and gifts of a community. Or, other times, it might mean forming connections with other community leaders in business, non-profits, and elected officials. And still other times, it might just mean taking a look at how our congregations can better serve the changing communities.
I often think back to that time when my pastor told me I would be wasting my time in a rural congregation. Then I think about the meaningful moments in my ministry: helping high school seniors write their college applications and watching them become first generation college students, partnering with a local hospital to offer preventative health-screenings, or working with a food pantry to distribute healthy meals to families during the summer. While those moments are not big and flashy, they will have ripple effects that continue on for years to come.
The truth is that rural communities have a huge potential for high impact ministries. Given that 65% of the churches in the Nashville Episcopal Area are rural, our opportunity for transformation is enormous.
Our goal is to help rural congregations unlock their potential to transform the world for the sake of Jesus Christ. One way that we’re doing that is through our Community Transformation Grant. Rural congregations and District leaders are encouraged to apply for a grant up to $10,000 to fund a project that will impact their communities in a meaningful way. For more information about that program, along with resources for rural ministry, visit us online at www.mmcturnercenter.com, follow us on twitter (@mmcturnercenter) and like us on Facebook.
Rural churches are not forgotten places, rungs on a career ladder, or communities to avoid. They are places where God is at work, where Christ is transforming the world, and they need leaders who are committed to seeing the beauty, the challenges, the gifts, and the opportunities to make lasting, meaningful, God-honoring change.
Reverend Allen Stanton is the Executive Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College