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Caring For the Rural Church

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The population drain that has plagued farm communities might also embolden them to develop a new kind of leadership.

The shift from family farms to corporate agribusiness dealt a crushing blow to the rural church as congregations thinned out and pastors became hard to attract.

But adversity also brings opportunity. Some rural church watchers think the time is ripe for a new kind of rural church leadership.

“Today there’s an opening for a kind of entrepreneurial leadership that bivocational ministry embodies,” says Trace Haythorn,  president of the Forum for Theological Exploration and an expert on the rural church.

Haythorn thinks the question is not whether the rural church will survive, but what shape it might take. Instead of a full-time, resident pastor, churches in the American breadbasket might attract part-time pastors from among those already living in the community. A man who works in animal husbandry Monday through Friday, or a woman who labors 9-to-5 as the town librarian, might find church work a secondary calling.

“We have elevated the 3-year master’s of divinity as the benchmark degree, and the residential piece as the way to do it,” says Haythorn. “But the economic crisis has opened up possibilities. We’re in a time of experimentation.”

Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, recently launched a distance education program tailored for people who may want to consider bivocational ministry. It also offers a certificate in Town and Country Church Leadership. In addition, the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary offers a Lay Pastors Training program.

These programs are a response to the disappearance of mainline Protestant clergy from rural areas. Of the 804 congregations in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 440 churches are not served by pastors. The majority of those are rural congregations. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), nearly a third of the 11,000 congregations are without pastors, most of them among small and rural churches.

“The single-pastor, single-church default position doesn’t hold for too many rural churches,” says Shannon Jung,  professor of town and country ministries at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

Jung discourages divinity school students from rural assignments if they see it as a stepping-stone to something else.  He thinks the best candidates are those deeply committed to rural life and eager to understand it.

“The thing that determines their success or failure is the degree to which they’re alert to the fact that the rural church is a different context,” says Jung.

Jung says the rural mindset is more relational and familial than the cosmopolitan mindset, which is more task-and goal-oriented.

He encourages new pastors to study the context of the church and learn its dynamics. He recommends that congregations compile an inventory of their skills and activities in the community and he encourages them to partner with other churches and organizations that can help increase a sense of connectedness to the community. Books such as The Power of Asset Mapping by Luther K. Snow can help.

Those already a part of a rural community may be in the best position to understand what it means to be a citizen of that place. Rural pastors might understand their role in a more ecumenical fashion, stitching together disparate parts of the community by creating a safe and welcoming gathering spot.

“You can live in a large city and go through a day without knowing anyone’s name,” says Haythorn.

But living in rural Nebraska, Haythorn adds, “I could only go through the grocery story twice before I had to know the checker’s name. That’s what it means to be a neighbor. Being in a small town often demands being socially engaged in the community.”




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