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The changing landscape of rural ministry

Story and photos by Richard (Skip) J. Shaffer Jr.

Effective and vital ministry happens when the rural pastor moves out into the community.
Effective and vital ministry happens when the rural pastor moves out into the community.

Whenever  I visit  a rural community, I am reminded of the power and depth of the relationships that I encounter there. To the untrained eye, a trip through the rural countryside is a quiet and peaceful experience, largely devoid of people  and basically populated by scattered herds of farm animals and large expanses of land, sometimes cultivated, often not. The occasional visitor sees only these outward trappings and assumes that life in this place is slow and bucolic, without challenges and dreams, except for the constant work of making a living from the land. And even when they know better, images from Grant Wood immediately spring to mind.

But that is not the life that we rural pastors know.

While the land is important, even essential to our existence, the life in our context is found in the men, women and children who call this place home. Each community, each congregation, each family has a story to share. Their lives are full of challenges and dreams, sometimes filled with disappointment, anger, grief and struggles — but often balanced by hope, celebration, joy and promise. And into those lives we step, called to represent Christ through the church in personal and very real ways.

Throughout our history, rural churches have been essential to the life and mission of the Presbyterian Church and they continue to provide vital and important ministry as we look to the future of our denomination. In spite of changing demographics and increasing competition for our resources and our attention, a significant percentage of Presbyterians in the United States are part of a rural congregation. According to Presbyterian Research Services, 48 percent of our congregations self-identify as being located in a rural area or small town. An additional 20 percent are located in a small city or large town, with at least a portion of those communities in largely agricultural areas. While the population of our country continues to drift toward urban areas, there is little doubt that rural churches still influence the faith and work of the PC(USA).

Reshaping rural America
It is difficult to speak of any one model of rural ministry, since the factors that characterize our rural communities and even the rural economy vary from region to region. Employment opportunities and economic conditions vary widely across the country and it is important to note that land that is considered rural is not synonymous with agricultural use. Rural churches are located in every state of the union, from the cornfields of rural Iowa to the forests of West Virginia and the deserts of New Mexico. Employment opportunities and economic conditions are as diverse as the landscape, so it is difficult to focus on any single strategy or solution to the problems that impact these congregations.

Calf 1As the country has developed, so has the landscape of rural America. In 1950, 50 percent of the nation’s population was considered rural. By 2010, that number had decreased to 19.3 percent, in spite of the fact that 95 percent of the land was classified as rural. The obvious reason lies in the opportunities that exist in communities with a higher population density. However, the changes that have marked the countryside have been both progressive and subtle, occurring over many years and combining significant advantages for some, while eliminating a way of life for others.

Advancements in technology have had an undeniable impact on agriculture, leading to higher yields, greater efficiency and larger farms. Precision planting, satellite technology and computerized automation are but a few examples. Tasks that once required a team of workers can now be accomplished by a single operator with an obvious economic benefit. It simply takes fewer farmers to do the same amount of work. As people move off the land and into the cities, businesses in the adjoining small towns are similarly impacted. With fewer people across the countryside and fewer dollars to spend, grocery stores, gas stations, insurance agents and even churches feel the crunch.

Vitality amidst the changes
While there are notable exceptions, the PC(USA) is becoming a denomination of smaller churches. In 2014, the last year for which there are complete statistics, 56.2 percent of PC(USA) congregations had fewer than 100 members, the level at which supporting a full-time pastor becomes difficult. Of those 5,502 congregations, almost half (2,581) were listed as without pastoral leadership. Another 1,531 of these congregations were served by leadership other than an installed pastor. While these are not all rural churches, it is obvious that finding creative ways to provide leadership for our smaller churches is a significant issue and that encouraging exciting, vibrant ministry becomes increasingly difficult.

So how do the leaders of rural congregations serve Jesus effectively in the midst of such change? There are many rural churches where excitement and vitality are norms — congregations that demonstrate a desire to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their constituencies with passion and meaning and pastors who are engaged in the lives of their members with the kind of care, concern and faith that must bring a smile to God’s face. Active and vital rural churches do more than just hold worship services and provide pastoral care, although those things are important. They also think beyond themselves, reaching out into the community in unique and special ways.

The members of Elliott Creek Presbyterian Church live out their faith by reaching far beyond the walls of the church.
The members of Elliott Creek Presbyterian Church live out their faith by reaching far beyond the walls of the church.

Elliott Creek Presbyterian Church of Bronson, Iowa, is a 37-member congregation in a town of only 322 people, five miles off the nearest highway. There are no notable businesses in town and little hope for community renewal. Yet the feeling of life is palpable when you walk through the door. There is a true caring for one another and an obvious love of Jesus Christ. Since the mid 1950s, this congregation has hosted a food stand at the Woodbury county fair. Not unique in itself, but the attitude that accompanies the homemade pies and sandwiches is very special. While the stand is a fundraiser to be sure (the church finances much of its budget through fair sales each year), there is also a recognition that the church has a higher calling in the community. No child ever goes away hungry, and prices have been known to fluctuate toward the end of the week when their spending money is stretched a bit thin. It is a simple thing, really. Sell food and tell people about Jesus. And over the years it has done two things: raise the profile of this small church in the larger community and provide a sense of excitement and stimulation to the life of the congregation that inspires and motivates the rest of their life together.

Members of rural churches face a special kind of challenge. They usually live and work and socialize in close proximity to one another. Your fellow members are also your neighbors and often the people you work with. You see them at the post office and sit next to them at the high school football games. Unlike an urban context where members may come to the church from another neighborhood, in a rural community the town itself is your neighborhood. Like Cheers, not only does everyone know your name, but it is likely that they may know much of your business as well. And while there may be times when that closeness becomes a bit inconvenient, it is also one of the rewards of being in a rural parish. Under the right circumstances, it brings the opportunity to know one another beyond a superficial level and to pray and care for one another, much like the model of the New Testament church community.

In rural churches the gospel is often reflected through hospitality. Conversation over pie and coffee often leads to more significant ministry.
In rural churches the gospel is often reflected through hospitality. Conversation over pie and coffee often leads to more significant ministry.

Hospitality is at the heart of the rural church. It may seem obvious, but the church should be a welcoming place. And in many ways, our time together with the Christian community should be an opportunity to take refuge from the rushed existence of our culture. That is why so often we find ourselves sharing together around the table, whether for a meal, a cup of coffee or even to experience the love of God through the Lord’s Supper. Every year I remind my students that hospitality is the language of rural life and food is its currency. Eating is never an end in itself, but a means to a deeper kind of relationship. Food provides a bridge for conversation, relationships and even pastoral care. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie that would have never been expressed in a phone call or an email. In rural churches we learn to value that time together, whether in the coffee time after worship, a meal following a funeral or even a special night out with our fellow members. The form that fellowship takes is less important than the rewards it brings.

One of the loneliest places in a rural community can be the church office. Rural pastors quickly learn that most real ministry happens when we interact with people in their daily lives and are aware of the places they frequent and the problems they face. It might be where they work, where they have coffee or where they socialize. In the small western Iowa town where I received my first call, there was no home mail delivery. Everyone, residents and businesses alike, had to send someone to the post office every day to collect their mail. Nearly every morning it would amaze my wife that a short four block trip could take two or three hours. Why? Because inevitably this relatively quick task would put me in contact with several church members and even more non-members from the local community. While running to get the mail may have seemed like an inconvenience, it turned into an opportunity. It was a chance to visit and pass the time of day and in many cases, to talk about something much deeper. Many a conversation moved from the weather, to “since you are here, I was wondering ….” Discussions that started over coffee in the café often led to more meaningful topics of concern or a quest for counsel from individuals who might never find their way inside the church doors. As time went on, the people in town knew that the pastor got the mail every morning and I came to suspect that our chance encounters on the sidewalk were often more than just a coincidence.

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Interpreting context

Skip Shaffer leads a group of students on a rural immersion trip
Skip Shaffer leads a group of students on a rural immersion trip

It is not necessary for a pastor to come from a rural background in order to be successful or to lead a vital ministry. What is essential is that regardless of our community of origin, we need to become students of our context. Every year the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary sends students on an immersion trip to experience life in a rural setting. They meet the people, listen to their stories and visit in their homes. Along the way, they begin the process of exegeting the community and the church with the same care that they would exegete the Scriptures. It is a process of discernment that every rural pastor and every church member would be well served to follow.

There are fewer people in rural communities these days. It is a dynamic that is largely outside of our control. But that doesn’t mean that the work is less important, that care of these members should be less of a priority, or that God’s presence is less essential than it once was. People in every context and every setting need to hear the good news of the Gospel, and men and women of faith continue to be called into the mission field that is rural ministry. It is a calling that is filled with challenges, but also one that is blessed with rewards. For the rural church is ground zero for an intimate kind of grassroots faith, one that puts a premium on personal relationships, spiritual care and experiencing the wonder of creation in close proximity to the one who created it.

Richard J. (Skip) Shaffer Jr. is associate dean and assistant professor of ministry at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where he also serves as director of distance education and teaches classes in Reformed Worship and Rural Ministry. He serves as a resource for pastors and other leaders of rural congregations through his web site,