Deepening Vision and Increasing Resilience in Rural Communities

Leaders of the Moses Project share insights to enhance congregational vitality


We continue to lift up small town and rural ministries and ministers in blog articles. Today we want to share the thoughts and insights of Dr. Trisha Wheelock and Pr./Dr. Russell Lackey who are key leaders in Grand View University of Des Moines’ work in a Lilly Funded project for congregational pastors and ministers called “The Moses Project.” 

“The mission of The Moses Project is to give rural pastors a vision of ministry that will help them thrive in congregational leadership and in turn, enhance the vitality of the congregations they serve.”   

Before we get to my questions, I want to express my gratitude as a former mid level judicatory leader who encouraged people to be a part of The Moses Project. I know it was a helpful experience in their formation and particularly helpful in the recent years as we faced many different challenges for rural congregations and ministers. I was thankful for The Moses Project that provided support and encouragement in a crucial time for pastors, ministers and congregations. 

What are a couple of key discoveries in your three years of labor with The Moses Project?  

Trisha: Pastors are balancing competing realities. For example, the congregation and community are collectively decaying and dying, but the congregation wants the church to grow. Or, the church may want the pastor to invest additional resources, but the church is also resistant to change, outsiders, or trying new things. Pastors can feel pinched.

Pastors experience varying levels of support from their synods/dioceses/districts, especially during the pandemic in terms of making decisions and knowing how to respond and other issues affecting the pastors in their calls. Some judicatories provided clear guidance, protocols, and support. Others, not so much, and pastors felt burdened to make decisions on their own or without support.

As society has become divided over the past few years, so have many churches. Politics, masks, the pandemic, and the election have caused divisions and friction. Female pastors have especially borne the brunt of these rifts and are at increased risk of burning out and leaving ministry. Pastors are exhausted, isolated, and considering other employment outside the church.

This list sounds discouraging, but these concerns are why programs like the Moses Project are so important for pastors’ well-being. Pastors need community, connection, and support. All 60 of the pastors who have participated in our program are still serving in ministry. That’s a statistic I’m very proud of! One pastor told me last month, if not for the Moses Project and his mentor, he’d probably be a long-haul trucker.

What are some things you have noticed about healthy congregations and leaders?   

Russ: When I think of healthy congregations and leaders, I think of the word, “connected.” Healthy leaders are connected to their call, congregation, peers, and passion. Being connected helps strengthen resiliency.  

Trisha: Healthy congregations and leaders have built trust. They communicate effectively and honestly. They have robust conversations and sometimes disagree, but they collectively trust each other.

What are the most fruitful ways you’ve found to frame rural ministry roles and the vitality of rural congregations?  

Trisha: Rural ministry is important and it matters. Rural churches love their pastors, and they have deep traditions. Pastors who receive support to try new ideas (even though they don’t always succeed) feel more connected and appreciated. This goes back to my answer about trust. When councils/boards and congregations trust their pastor and pastors trust their council/board and congregation, together they try new ideas, think creatively, ask how the church can better serve and meet the needs of the community, and have authentic conversations about what is and isn’t working.

What has surprised you in this work?     

Russ: I have been surprised at how little attention is given within our denomination to rural ministry. This is surprising as nearly half of the congregations within the ELCA are categorized as in rural or small town contexts. There are a lot of talented pastors serving in rural settings, and there is tremendous potential in rural settings. 

Trisha: There’s a negative stereotype about pastors who serve in rural ministry that is completely false. Rural pastors are smart, creative, innovative, and practical. They know how to accomplish amazing things on a small budget and with limited resources. I’m also surprised by the diversity of their life experiences. I know rural pastors who have been teachers, day care workers, bouncers, drafters, landscapers, Marines, truck drivers, and more. These skill sets are assets.

What is something you would encourage lay leaders to remember as they serve alongside their pastor and minister?     

Russ: There is a powerful moment in Moses’ ministry when he had to face the grumbling community. It happened right after Moses’ sister Miriam had died. If you remember, Miriam had watched over Moses’ fate from the moment he was sent down the Nile as an infant. Miriam was with Moses through the Red Sea, giving voice to the events that occurred (Exodus 15:20-21). She was willing to challenge Moses even as it brought harm to herself (Numbers 12:1-2). Miriam was so beloved by the people that they would not leave their camp without her restoration (Numbers 12:15-16). In the moment that Moses faces a trial of no water, Moses fails and loses control in the presence of the people. This tells me that pastors need lay leaders who will walk side-by-side with them.

Trisha: Praise your pastor publicly and complain privately. Encourage your pastor to use their vacation time. Respect boundaries and your pastor’s private time. Support your pastor’s family and tell their spouse and kids what a good job they do and how they make a difference. Ministry takes a toll on families too.

Jon: Thanks Trisha and Russ for your insights and thoughts. We are thankful for your work of supporting small town and rural ministers and the congregations where they serve. 

Your Turn

To learn more about The Moses Project or possibly applying to participate in future cohorts, check out their website.

Recordings of Faith+Lead’s February 2022 “Cultivating Rural Ministry” Book Hub event are available for free, to watch and discuss with leaders in your own congregation on video or audio/podcast

Whatever context you serve in, the wisdom of these leaders can be translated to serve you and your congregation.

  • Jon Anderson

    Pastor Jon Anderson serves as Director of Rural Ministry at Luther Seminary. He recently completed eighteen years of service as bishop in the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.

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