What will happen to our rural congregations?

May 29th, 2019

As conversations happen around the future of the United Methodist Church, I have been wrestling with this question: What will happen to our rural congregations?

Rural congregations occupy a strange role in The United Methodist Church. There is a tendency to speak about them with disdain. Will Willimon, a retired bishop and professor, once wrote that he agreed with his friend who said, “The best view of small church is through your rearview mirror as your car kicks up gravel on your way the hell out!”[i]

Our denominational leaders are usually formed within large membership churches, normally found in metropolitan areas. Decisions are often made with medium-sized to large-membership churches in mind: bishops meet with church leaders from the largest congregations, district superintendents are selected from medium-sized congregations, and many fresh expressions and innovation strategies are rooted in urban renewal practices.

We plant new congregations in places where the population is growing. In some cases, as rural areas transition to suburban areas, we plant churches in places where healthy congregations already exist, undercutting their potential for ministry.

Shaped by a misinformed national narrative of rural communities, we talk about rural congregations in monolithic terms — they are small, conservative, poor, and dying. This narrative fails to understand the complexities and nuance of “rural,” which cannot be described with such generalities.

Even as our practices favor metropolitan congregations, it is our rural parishes that comprise the bulk of our United Methodist congregations. In the Nashville Episcopal Area, almost two-thirds of congregations can be considered rural. Most of our clergy, based on sheer numbers, serve in rural places.

There’s an historical reason for this. As the prominent religious historian Nathan Hatch writes about early American methodism,

Most Congregational ministers, educated at Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth, simply chose to remain and serve congregations in "civilized" areas. While Methodism retained a stronghold in the seaports of the middle states, Asbury hammered its organization into one that had a distinct rural orientation, adept at expanding into thinly populated areas. "We must draw resources from the centre to the circumference," Asbury wrote in 1797.[ii]

"The Gifts of the Small Church" by Jason Byassee. Order here: http://bit.ly/SmallChurchGifts

American Methodism blossomed in large part because of our commitment to small-membership churches in rural America. That commitment had a profound effect on society. Methodism helped, as multiple historians have pointed out, to increase social mobility, establish rural schools and hospitals, and helped lead the fight against slavery.

My life has been shaped by the small membership rural church. It was the place where, as a teenager, I learned important leadership skills. As a seminarian, rural churches provided a community. The college where I currently serve, a small Methodist rural college, began in the basement of a nearby United Methodist church, established so that the founder’s daughter could attain her dream of going to college. Today, our college is the only four-year school in our region, and a large percentage of our students are first-generation college students.

As a rural pastor, I know that rural congregations are places where vital ministry happens. My previous congregation was filled with brilliant and committed disciples. They led missions in the community. Our youth and young adults filled vital leadership roles in our congregation. They actively sought to live out their faith in their lives.

Still, rural churches are viewed as places of lesser ministry. They are places where we send young clergy to grow before moving them to suburban and urban congregations, or where we place clergy who are guaranteed an appointment by the Book of Discipline.

How is it that rural congregations are both foundational for our formation as a movement and as a denomination, and yet are largely forgotten in deciding its contemporary policies?

As the conversations about the future of our denomination advance, I frequently hear the phrase, “multiplying Methodist expressions.” After leaving St. Louis, I asked friends in the WCA and in more progressive caucuses if, when our numerous rural congregations falter without denominational support, they would plant new missional congregations in those communities. The answer was usually an awkward silence.

I supported the One Church plan because I believed it was the best route for my congregation to continue its vital ministry. Now, as I look at the congregations with whom I work — congregations that are supporting literacy programs in education deserts, funding scholarships for first generation college students, and providing access to food and healthcare throughout our region — I wonder whether that work will be noticed, celebrated, and supported in whatever new Methodist movement emerges.

As we look at the future of our denominational structure, I wonder what will happen to our rural congregations. Will we value the work of evangelism and justice found in these communities? Will we embrace our historical DNA that values the overwhelming majority of our churches? Or will rural congregations become collateral damage in a denominational war?

[i] Willimon, Will. “Afterword.” The Gifts of the Small Church, by Jason Byassee, Abingdon Press, 2010. 11

[ii] Hatch, Nathan O. “The Puzzle of American Methodism.” Church History, vol. 63, no. 2, 1994, pp. 175–189., doi:10.2307/3168586.

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