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Rural churches helping rural communities

Rural communities and rural Methodist churches share many characteristics and dynamics. Each want to honor their rich past and have a place in a vibrant future. Both have abundant assets; some well appreciated but others less obvious. Rural communities and congregations thrive when leaders build the diverse relationships and partnerships that allow them to see their existing assets in new ways.

The Duke Endowment is supporting the North Carolina Rural Center to partner with rural Methodist churches on a journey of discovery to see their congregational assets in new ways, and to explore opportunities to engage their communities in missional projects. The five-year Faith in Rural Communities initiative is designed to engage broadly with at least 64 congregations across the state, and then offer intensive coaching with approximately 16 congregations.

Starting with John Wesley’s legacy of his prison ministry outreach, the United Methodist Church has a deep history and tradition of engaging both the opportunity and suffering in communities. There are shining examples of creative missional engagement today. However, to maximize potential, many rural congregations need to rediscover their muscle memory of reimagining their assets and the practical steps of a more intentional community engagement.

Envision this: It’s a Wednesday evening at a small rural Methodist church. Nine lay leaders and their pastor are engaged in a conversation, guided by a Rural Center coach/facilitator. In previous meetings they have designed and then carried out a survey to better understand congregational skills and passions. They have also been briefed on economic and demographic changes in their community. In another meeting, they reached out to other stakeholders and churches that are also working in the community. There is learning, but also a great deal of active listening. The act of seeing the world differently, of building enduring relationships, always starts with compassionate listening. From this discovery process, they have identified five issues at the intersection of congregational assets and community challenges and opportunities. The meeting tonight focuses on just one of them: a large percentage of children in the nearby elementary school come from homes where English is spoken as a second language. They also have learned that the state schools are shifting to digital textbooks, and that many students don’t have access to either computers or high-speed broadband in their homes. This evening they are doing their due diligence on the topic.

  • Who in the congregation has skills to apply here?
  • Who are the other stakeholders and leaders in the community they could partner with?
  • Who are the resource people in the community or around the state that could help?
  • Are there other UMC congregations they can learn from?
  • What does success look like?

Future meetings assess other issues facing the community, and by summer’s end they conclude a systematic discernment process that informs their congregation’s missional engagement priority.

Churches, like individuals, thrive when they see their story as part of a larger story. It is a story of faith in practical action. It is also a story that testifies to the relationships between people and place. Strong, vibrant churches, like communities, are not accidental. Lay and pastoral leadership that is adaptive and wise will discover new avenues to connect what they believe to what they do. They come to learn that church is a verb, not a noun.

With deep gratitude for the support of The Duke Endowment, the North Carolina Rural Center welcomes this opportunity to be a partner of integrity to rural Methodist Churches across the state. The faith community in all its diversity is central to rural culture, and houses of worship are essential to rural North Carolina’s vibrant future. 

Jason Gray

Jason Gray is a senior fellow at the North Carolina Rural Center.