The secret ingredient to rural church leadership

July 19th, 2022

Rural ministry is hard these days, can I get an amen? More leaders are exhausted, burned out, and quitting the ministry than ever before. Entire congregations can fall into a collective state of fatigue. And the challenges of rural ministry can be particularly pronounced amid the realities of decline. Much of this comes down to our concept and practice of leadership.

Can rural congregations flourish again? Can new Christian communities succeed in rural areas? Could healthy rural churches catalyze a better future for their declining communities? We think so.

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Tyler Kleeberger and I attempt to provide practical guidance for these challenges in our new book, Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church

As pastors serving in rural contexts, we see the rural church as a community’s centerpiece. Not just a place where people gather to participate in meaningful rituals, but a community where we break bread together, and support each other through the joys and struggles of life with the land. The rural church is often the guiding hand for the life of a place. The church is often one of the few permanent stakeholders in most rural communities. It can be a place where people of different cultures and with different resources, can come together to catalyze significant change. A rural congregation can be the locus of God’s kingdom, a transforming instrument in the healing of the world.

Perhaps the true crisis of rural congregations is an identity crisis. Perhaps we have forgotten who we are and what a gift the rural church actually is to the world. Maybe we need to recover the insurgent form of Christianity that left a constellation of rural congregations across continents, and gave shape to society as we know it? 

In Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church we collected stories from a diversity of rural contexts across the US. We laid out a fresh theology for rural life and principles for harnessing the potential of what some consider the forgotten spaces.  

What can we learn about leadership from innovative practitioners of rural ministry? First, we acknowledge there are not “seven simple steps to successful rural church leadership.” No one size fits all. We find it a worthy investment to visit rural leaders and shadow them for a day, to see their place and watch how they interact within it. 

Christian leadership in any context starts with a deep commitment to following Jesus. Faithfulness must precede fruitfulness. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and fruit is the result of remaining in relationship, and not necessarily effort on our part (John 15:1-11). In Jesus’s way of leadership, the greatest are the least, and the strongest are the meek. To be a leader in the way of Jesus is to wash feet (John 13:14).

So, are you ready for the secret?

The foundation of leadership in the rural context is trust. We can have great ideas, and we can have wondrous mobilization efforts for teams, but we are dealing with people. Even in lateral leadership, if the people we are working with do not trust us, then none of it will work. 

To establish trust, you have to care. This empathy is not particular to rural places, but it is a heightened expectation. Our communities don’t invest their time, energy, and resources in ideas or experiences or concepts. They invest those precious gifts in relationships. It sounds obvious, but relational leadership requires that there is a relationship. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust.

The first suggestion we offer to any rural church leader—clergy or lay—is to put your telescope down and root your feet where you are. Listen. Pay attention. Care. 

Before you can lead, you must belong. Before you can belong, you must be known. And to be known, you must be present in real relationships with real people whom you genuinely care about. Sometimes that requires getting out of the way. Sometimes that means stepping aside from platform or desire to cast vision and just listen. 

We have discovered that when healthy teams of people really trust each other, all kinds of incredible kingdom work can be accomplished, including the cultivation of Fresh Expressions in rural contexts that reach new people, in new places, and in new ways.

There are some other key ingredients to rural church leadership that seem to recur across a multitude of contexts. Like a Cajun recipe, those certain ingredients must be included. As practitioners of rural ministry, we want to share some of those recipes with you. 

We hope you will gather your team and begin an adventure with us in cultivating Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church!

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