Learning From and With Rural Ministry Leaders

Discoveries from conversations with rural leaders.

Mom and child looking at animals behind a fence on a farm.

 …to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…  
Ephesians 4:12 NRSV 

Gathering wisdom

Do you remember the last time you saw the face of a child figuring something out? I recently experienced the joy on my seventeen-month-old grandson’s face as he built a tall tower. We too can have that same kind of wonder as we explore what’s happening across the church, particularly in rural contexts. May God bless us with discoveries and joy as we listen, ponder, and learn about rural ministry. 

Luther Seminary hosted listening sessions this fall for ministry leaders who work with small town and rural contexts. The leaders were mostly professional clergy, but some lay leaders participated as well. They shared their perspectives on what matters most to their ministries right now. Their stories inspired and challenged us as they talked about different models, experiments, and experiences. 

To go deeper, you can download the full reports here: Rural Ministry Leader Report and Lay Ministry Leader Report. I encourage you to read and share this information. For a broader overview, here are the highlights of what we heard from this group of leaders. 

How we can better serve the Mission of Christ Jesus in rural and small town communities

Listen to those serving in rural contexts. The purpose of our listening was to name and explore the challenges and opportunities facing rural and small town Christian communities and their leaders. Hearing from people in contexts outside our own and sharing what we are seeing in our own context transforms and enriches everyone.  

Notice that rural ministry leaders are especially weary. We know everyone is weary, but we heard a different and deeper weariness present in these leaders. The journey through the pandemic, social unrest, political polarization, and uncertainty has piled up in the lives of rural leaders and the people they serve. Church leaders in rural contexts are exhausted and need sabbath. They feel isolated and stressed. They too often feel their concerns are dismissed or misunderstood by the larger country and culture. 

Understand that rural people live in complex and intense change. Those in rural contexts are often portrayed as resistant to change—some are. Yet change impacts all rural households, communities, and congregations. Finding ways to lament losses and notice longings redirects frustration and creates positive energy. 

Consider the value of the past in rural contexts. In rural culture, the past is remembered and valued while the future comes with a lot of uncertainty. Today’s challenges have escalated differences within rural communities as well as diminished community resources. As rural populations decline, age, and in some areas, increase in ethnic diversity, these communities face an unknown future. Several of the rural church leaders had helpful hunches and practices about leading change. One pastor said their community of faith had made headway in shifting their collective mindset from a focus on memory towards a hopeful future “by repeatedly asking what God might be up to in their community.”

Recognize deep and often familial relationships. Rural communities have deep roots and extended family connections. It is not uncommon for congregations to be more than a hundred years old and have their identity tied to their building and place.While this brings strengths, it can also mean ministry leaders or new people to the community can feel like outsiders. 

Respect the prevalence of oral culture in rural contexts. In oral cultures, traditions are not captured in writing for new ministry leaders to read. New leaders need to invite people to share their traditions and important memories. Stories from the past, along with stories about potential futures, empower people to follow Christ today. 

Notice the blurring of community and congregation. We heard that many community leaders are also church leaders. Congregations can be important catalysts to better steward the life of the community as church gatherings often form the social hub of a community. These realities enhance relational ties, but they can also erode the call to discipleship and the spiritual growth of the congregation. When congregations tend to their communal sense of calling or vocations, that effort creates focus. As one participant said, “[It is] supporting their members both in the congregation and community. It is discovering where the gaps are.

Affirm a multi-generational approach to growth. The pandemic has diminished the relational bank accounts of communities, congregations, and families. In times of frustration, people can become reactive, with relationships damaged and friendships lost.Yet ministry leaders reported finding new pathways for deepening connections and new muscles for managing change. Congregations, they said, are called to develop “meaningful relational connections in a world where the old ways no longer work.” Ministry leaders must envision a “future that’s positive and hopeful.” Reconciliation work and building shared vision take time, but inviting all generations to share their longings creates deeper engagement for everyone.

Realize that change is both an opportunity and a threat. We heard repeatedly about the importance of changing the model of ministry and mission to better serve the current mission field of community and congregational needs. While change can be perceived as a threat, wisely pruning away the unnecessary prevents people from burning out and creates room for the fruit of opportunity. Change creates opportunities to recalibrate and let go of things that have stopped working. Challenges are not new to rural contexts; many communities and leaders are resilient and good at experimenting. Rural congregations are stronger and more flexible than many understand.

Focus on Christ, community, and mission. Congregations do best when they are clear about their center: proclaiming and embodying the Good News in and through Jesus. When Christ holds the center, we have space for imagining and trying new ministry models or strategies. We heard rural ministry leaders talking about structural ways to serve God’s mission and their community through: bi-vocational ministry exploration, ministry collaborations, parish models, and practices around radical hospitality. As one ministry leader noted, “Thriving grows out of following Jesus and meeting the true longings of people in the community.

Discover ways to help rural leaders thrive. Investing in your congregation’s leaders will bear fruit. Thriving leaders help congregations thrive. Rural ministry leaders thrive when there is a focus on mission outside the congregation, they are being supported and using their gifts, and the congregation is empowered to share in ministry.  Tending these three independently has a collective impact. Pastors and councils working together, along with lay leaders and deacons serving out of their unique callings, multiplies the opportunities to join God’s mission in the world.

Your turn

I hope you will go back and read the full reports. Stew on what was shared and captured. Invite people into conversation around it. Provoke a different conversation at a council, committee, or leadership team gathering. Pray about your congregation, wrestle together to discern priorities, and then act on your community’s vocations as a body of Christ. Remember and re-imagine how the church can be a place that speaks to the spiritual, relational, and mental needs of people with grace and love. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What would I reinforce as important in the reports?     
  • Which core challenges and opportunities do I think are facing rural and small town congregations? 
  • What practices or shifts do I see as most urgent? 

Be curious about rural and small town ministry. Let’s keep listening to God, to our neighbors, and to one another persuaded that God has blessed small town and rural leaders and congregations to be blessings for God’s whole Church. 

Further Reading: Pandemic Community for a Multi-Point Parish, Sustainable Small Town and Rural Ministry

How to get involved: 

If you are interested in participating in future ministry listening sessions hosted by Luther Seminary, click here to share your contact information.

  • 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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