How to help country church folk feel like they matter

October 8th, 2021

When I talk with country church folk about their experience with their sponsoring denomination, I hear stories with metaphors such as the “red headed step-child” or “paying the franchise fee, but not having support from the head office.” One story stays with me. A United Methodist laywoman attended Annual Conference for the first time. She was very excited. There were reports, celebrations, votes, and worship services. But very little of it celebrated or pertained to the small rural church, and the experience even felt antagonistic toward small churches. Afterwards, she came to me, and said, with heartbreak in her eyes, “I never realized how much we don’t matter.”

This perception echoes through my mind regularly. It's almost verbatim what researchers hear when they interview rural residents about the loss of a plant, mill, or mining operation. Yet this was about the leaders in her denomination. It's about my denomination. Feelings of rural disparagement and abandonment are not new. Since the late nineteenth century, United Methodism, among other denominations, has regularly focused on urban and suburban growth. Donald Haynes acknowledges that since the 1930s the Methodist churches knew this was happening.[1] During this period, the denominational Town and Country movement had developed enough influence to convince seminaries and theological schools to devote one faculty member to rural ministry. However, by the merger that forms The United Methodist Church in 1968, most of these faculty were retired, and the schools did not plan to replace them. He further notes that the ministry methods these scholars taught often did not line up with the reality that pastors in rural parishes served on average 2.3 years and regularly served at more than one small church. These cultural forces are not entirely the fault of the denominations, because the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, and globalization shifted the realities of the rural world. Yet I will acknowledge that the United Methodist connection continues to neglect rural churches. 

In many ways, we operate under “trickle-down connectionalism.” Our information and resources are generated and held by the General Conference, the General Agencies, theological schools, and to a lesser extent, the annual conference office. The current thinking seems to be that resources should be passed to the annual conference, and then to the clergy and laity of the local church for engagement within their context. However, there is a disconnect, and regularly the message is not translated well to the rural setting or it is only a whisper of what it is supposed to be by the time it reaches the local church. To overcome this disconnection, particularly given how the internet bridges distances immediately, direct communication is a key remedy. Cokesbury, The Upper Room, Circuit Rider, and other official and unofficial agencies bridged the diffused bureaucracies for years prior to the internet through magazines, newsletters, advertisements in devotional and Sunday school curriculum, and mail-order catalogs. With the rise of the social internet, and the attempt to create ease of access, now each General Agency, the Annual Conference, and caucus groups are active on many platforms, along with providing their own website full of resources, information, and places to connection.

However, both fee-for-service or paid products and subsidized approaches to connecting in ministry lack an understanding of rural context and the energy to connect with rural folks. The trickle-down approach focuses on the clergy, laity, and churches that give the energy back in the form of membership, money, and engagement with the leadership. While some of these churches exist in rural areas, most are in urban and suburban spaces, usually have multiple staff, and are growing in the traditional money and membership models in which many of our institutions find themselves embedded. The direct approach is passive, and assumes people will go looking for United Methodist or denominational content, or even know where to look for it. Resource providers assume pastors have the time to devote to prioritizing which resources and information to share and promote, and then convert into something useable for a small rural church (which comprises nearly two-thirds of the available audience), when most information is not geared toward those demographics or lifestyles. In response to these broken connections, I offer suggestions for new possibilities through engaging rural forms of faith formation, communication, and connectionalism. 

 

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First, instead of providing passive and semi-active forms of communication, conference and general-agency staff should work to develop relationships with rural clergy and laity that is less about presenting a product and more about engaging in a context. This approach looks something like the regional Cokesbury representatives who were visiting local churches. However, instead of attempting contact with the pastor or laity throughout the week (even though some churches rarely have staff present), the representative of the resource provider should attend worship—maybe even lead worship—and have a meal with people. In this situation, they don't try to sell the product or service, and instead get to know the community and how the Holy Spirit is moving within it. This must be an active relationship, not a passive one, waiting for churches to call on them. 

The second means of reconnection is learning to produce materials and resources that are geared toward rural communities. This includes an understanding of oral culture and rural values. This is particularly true for resources that focus on the common good, global issues, or social justice. Rural communities regularly see themselves excluded from the Global, American, or Methodist “commons.” Instead, they feel as if rest of the world views them as leftovers, as flyover country. Resources and communications should focus on the communal good, instead. Whether it is formational, worship, mission, justice, or administratively oriented, the resource or communication must support the local church and community, lifting it up as the primary locus of ministry and formation. Rural people are not opposed to learning about and engaging with other aspects of society, but it must not come with the expectation that they are to sacrifice or abandon their place and experience.

Third, empowering the laity of these local churches, including direct and ongoing communication with these laity, is crucial. Historically the laity are the key ministers and actors in the local church, and the current United Methodist polity praises the role of the laity. Yet so much our structure is geared toward professional development for clergy, empowering the clergy, and the process of sustaining the clergy. Yet, if the tenure of a rural pastor is regularly short, the laity must be the ones to carry out the ministries of the church. This might include both the formal Lay Servant and Certified Lay Minister tracks and informal relationships with through regular engagement with the various volunteers in church life. It can also include regular and intentional communication with district, conference, and even general-church representatives.

Finally, all this direct communication is only possible if we rework our top-down approaches to communication, leadership, and formation. Priority should be given to the rural churches and other disenfranchised congregations within the denomination. Instead of a list of closing churches at each annual conference, I want to hear about rural churches that are thriving, doing good work, and furthering the Kingdom of God. This restructuring requires relational over bureaucratic means of engagement, and it expects all parties to commit to the mission of the church within the context of the local church. This looks like less focus on metrics and goal settings, and more like engagement with context and story. Instead of expecting local churches to create a unified, managed discipleship or mission plan, we can teach how to identify and enhance the already present activities. Narrative based evaluation and community-oriented connections can and will allow for an exploration of the needs of the community, a natural connection with the denominational bodies, and a furthering of the mission of the church.

I understand that I'm proposing an expensive and time-consuming reconfiguring of communication. However, if The United Methodist Church truly expects to transform the world, to overcome the urban/rural polatrization, it must be willing to do the work, foster the relationships, and create the networks that will further this goal. It does not require that each person in the process have a professional theological degree, but it does expect that each person be open to the Holy Spirit, learning new ways of communicating, and nurturing a hope that God and the Church are not done with rural places.



[1] https://firebrandmag.com/articles/methodism-how-we-went-wrong?fbclid=IwAR2D3LGxdBpCHK0Gui9ImjsyqTu-yFW4c6VKvkrgOo0ykUtt1o-zfVQazBY

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