September 21, 2016

In case you’re wondering where Bishop Robert Farr stands on the rural church, I had the privilege of hearing him answer that question in the few hours that elapsed in the time between his election, but before he was assigned to Missouri. 
    
Immediately after being whisked away backstage for prayers and paperwork, the second order of business for new bishops is to appear before our jurisdictional press corps with his spouse and to answer questions. In these days, most episcopal candidates have websites that offer detailed accounts of their ministry, beginning with their performance on Bible drills in their first grade Sunday school class, so there aren’t a lot of questions that need to be asked at that juncture. Plus, I had asked Bishop Farr plenty of questions in the past, so I deferred to my colleagues. 
    
I’m guessing the question from the Conference communicator about Bishop Farr’s outlook on the rural church may have come out of fear. Perhaps they knew the last church where he served as pastor was in the suburbs, had more than 1,000 in worship every Sunday, and were concerned he might not take much interest in small town and country churches. 
    
Bishop Farr responded that he knew these were challenging times for rural churches, but the United Methodist Church must do a good job of keeping rural ministry vital and helping the people who live in these areas come to know the love and grace of Jesus Christ. 
    
“If you lose sight of the towns of fewer than 2,500 people and the people out in the country, in my home state of Missouri you would be turning your back on about 3 million people,” Bishop Farr told the press corp. “We can’t do that.” 
    
So you might think that I’m about to say Bishop Farr instructed me to pursue this rural church story right away, but that wasn’t the case. So far his only relationship to the magazine is me catching him as he was on his way to a meeting in his first week and asking him if he could do a column for the magazine, him saying, “When’s it due, tomorrow?” me replying, “The day after tomorrow,” and him coming back to me the next with five hand-written pages that he had penned that morning at 2 a.m. You’ll find his message to you on page 4. Perhaps I caught him in a moment of weakness or before the hectic schedule of being a Bishop has hit him in full, but I have agreement from him to share his thoughts with you in each issue of this magazine as a new reoccurring feature. 
    
The rural church story has been on the calendar for a while. There’s a rural ministry event coming up in February being organized by some people in the Mark Twain District who are passionate about rural ministry. Although the event (they prefer to think of it as more of a movement than a seminar) has district roots, the organizers really want to have participants from every district in the Conference. This month’s cover story is the first in a series of stories that I will be bringing you that are focused specifically on the rural church, leading up to the event in February. 
    
We’re not going country altogether, though. This month you also get a couple of stories about two of our largest churches who are working hard to become larger. It’s possible for some envy to creep in when you see the big, shiny church in the suburbs, but they have challenges all their own, one being there are a lot of other big, shiny churches in the suburbs. But one thing Rev. Stephen Breon and Rev. Jim Presig know just as well as the good people in Pike County is that there is no shortage of unchurched people in the area around any of our churches in Missouri. I continue to be impressed with what is being done in churches in very different contexts to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.