by Jeanne Hoeft, L. Shannon Jung and Joretta Marshall Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minn. 189 pages
REVIEWED BY MARY HARRIS TODD
I grew up in the 1960s in a dairy farm family and in a tiny rural church where everyone had ties to farming. The congregation shared a pastor with three other small congregations. I remember hearing my father, the clerk of session, report that the pastor thought that all the churches should close and become one large church in a central location, about fifteen miles from our farm. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t understand.” I realized then that the pastor didn’t understand the realities of farm life, and I realize now that he didn’t fully understand the sense of place that shaped our lives and our modes of caring for one another in community.
“Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities” is an essential book for all who want to understand and to care faithfully. The authors challenge the whole church to learn from the wisdom that comes out of rural and small-town communities. Moreover, they issue a powerful reminder of why it is crucial for the body of Christ to maintain a presence and witness there.
Throughout the book, pastoral care is a practice of the whole faith community and not just the work of the pastor. This care addresses particular needs, but it also addresses issues of justice and the well-being of the community at large.
There are many different kinds of rural communities, but the authors discern four common themes:
- Care is shaped by place: the “where” of care truly matters.
- Care engages community: this is both the people who live and worship together and the ideal towards which God is drawing them.
- Care and public leadership intersect: church leaders must practice public theology because people’s needs interconnect with social, economic and cultural issues.
- Care responds to multiple diversities: this includes differences in ethnicity, class, economic status, theology and the tension between newcomers and old-timers.
The authors develop the themes in depth and then apply them to poverty, domestic violence and health crises in rural areas. Case studies illustrate the themes and ways of addressing issues theologically, as well as sociologically. I especially appreciated the chapter on place and the pointers on how to listen for what makes farm families’ minds, hearts and souls tick. The chapter on leadership speaks directly to small church realities and includes excellent advice for leaders seeking to get to know and understand a particular small congregation and the surrounding community. Readers need to be prepared to slog though many statistics and citations of the work of many social theorists, but I urge them to persevere.
I will turn again to this book as I seek to help the small, rural congregation I now serve as pastor to engage more fully the much-changed community around us. Moreover, it could form the basis for learning modules for town-and-country study groups in our presbytery where many small congregations are trying to serve faithfully. Which is why I’ll also be mentioning it to my dairy-farmer brother and the other elders in my congregation back home. The church’s light still shines there on a rural community much changed from our childhood, and still greatly in need of the healing, transforming power of Jesus.