April 01, 2018

Trying to expand a ministry in a community that is showing declines in small business and other institutions can be an arduous task. When Rev. Andrew Coon of the Shelbina/ Honeywell charge introduced the speakers at the second annual Rural Ministry Now conference in Kirksville, he invoked an image of Noah, and the task Noah was given by God.

“Was Noah a boat builder? And I often wondered, when it was time to build the ark, where did Noah find the lumber?” Coon asked the crowd. “The people with us today from North Carolina are specialists at finding the lumber.”

The presenters were from the North Carolina Rural Center. The organization was chartered in 1987 to assist with community development in rural areas of North Carolina, typically working on projects like value-added agriculture and entrepreneurial development. The session was opened by Jason Gray, the senior fellow for research and policy at the rural center, offering words of encouragement.

“We believe rural America is not a problem to be solved but a place to be celebrated,” he said. “We believe many of the problems of this nation will find their solutions in our small towns and rural places.”

Gray believes a key to the path forward is for rural institutions to tap the abundance of what they already know and do, and to start doing things better by being systematic and methodical. Although they’ve worked with communities for more than 30 years, this is the first time they have worked with a faithbased community.

“The opportunities and challenges of small towns are the same dynamics faced by rural churches,” Gray said. “We can’t see how small towns can be vibrant and healthy without healthy rural churches.”

Gray was joined by Heather Kilbourne, a United Methodist pastor from North Carolina who has been working with the rural center. Kilbourne referred to Exodus 36: 6-7 and the message of having enough.

“We do have enough. God is enough. God has given us enough,” she said. “The Israelites had enough to build a tabernacle. What is God calling your church to build for your community?”

Kilbourne sees John Wesley’s ministry as one that evolved from charity to community development. Wesley did microlending to help businesses, formed cooperatives for seamstresses and tried to assist with health care.

Gray argued against a public perception of rural areas, saying that 50 years ago, urban was the code word for disfunction, decline, “those people.” He feels that has now flipped to rural. He encourages rural leaders to take back the story and tell the world what they have to offer.

Prior to coming to the meeting in Kirksville, Gray studied a lot of data on the Mark Twain District. He saw that poverty was present, but the district did not have the pervasive challenges of central Appalachia or the deep south. A few counties in the district, Linn, Sullivan and Putnam, are projected to lose a modest amount of population in the next 20 years, and a couple counties, Monroe and Marion, are projected to grow. Racially, the district is “overwhelmingly white,” but the small population growth that exists comes from a more diverse population moving in from outside of the area.

Chilton Rogers said her work in economic development has made it clear how important rural churches are to their communities.

“Churches in rural communities are foundational,” she said. “The faith community has a tremendous amount of assets. Revitalizing rural churches is not just building church strength. A church will thrive where the community thrives.”

Rogers is the director of community engagement for the center. She has a three-step process to her work.

  1. Look at the community critically/objectively. 
  2. Identify assets/positives.  
  3. Match assets with talents and partners to reach the goals/vision for the community.
The group was asked to take a few minutes to list their individual assets. Next, they were asked to work as a group to list the assets of their church. Physical assets included things like meeting rooms, classrooms, kitchen, open grounds (park, community garden), scenic location (high on the hill), ample parking, beautiful sanctuary/stained glass windows, great sound systems and fellowship halls. Assets in the area of community connections included church members who are also part of the PTA, Kiwanis, Rotary, women’s clubs, volunteer fire departments, food pantries and American legions.

Gray cautioned against churches memorializing their failures and feeling like they can’t try something that they tried 25 years ago without success.

“You should fail faster, make bigger mistakes and move on,” he said.

The meeting concluded with a few words from Missouri Bishop Bob Farr, who encouraged the pastors and church leaders there to be bold.

“You’re not going to get in trouble from me for trying something new,” he said. “You might get in trouble for not trying to do anything. Throw the ball long. Like they’ve been saying here, fail fast and keep going.” Bishop Farr advised the church to consider where they are investing their time, money and energy.

“If you don’t watch it, you’ll end up spending all of your energy on and in the church,” he said.

Bishop Farr said without rural churches, there wouldn’t be a Missouri Conference. Without rural churches there also wouldn’t be a Bishop Farr, he noted, as he grew up in and considers himself a product of the rural church. He said that church size doesn’t matter, but the impact the church is having on lives does matter. In his extensive visits around Missouri, he has been seeing a revival in many small churches. They have a new fire and are starting to grow.

Bishop Farr mentioned that Conference leaders have been working to develop a Path Out of Poverty initiative, in which churches would be more involved in helping lift people up in impoverished communities.

“If we can help people when there’s a tornado, we can surely help them when they are poor,” Bishop Farr said. In his closing prayer, he pointed to the reason. “Lord, move us from this place. Help get us into the mission field, so others can see how you desperately love us.”

20 Clues for Rural Community Survival

Presented by Chilton Rogers at Rural Ministry Now

  1. Evidence of Community Pride: Community care and attention, festivals, celebrating history and heritage. If the first things you see when you come to town is dilapidated buildings, that is not community pride. Kids want to know the history and heritage of where they grew up, and we're not telling them.
  2. Emphasis on Quality in Business and Community Life: Built to last, physically and communally.
  3. Willingness to Invest in Future: Time and energy. What we are doing today impacts the lives of children and grandchildren.
  4. Participatory Approach to Community Decision Making: Power is deliberately shared. 
  5. Cooperative Community Spirit: Successful communities devote more attention to cooperative activities than to fighting over what should be done and by whom.
  6. Realistic Appraisal of Future Opportunities: Building on assets and minimizing your weaknesses. Place-based economic development.
  7. Awareness of Competitive Positioning: What do I have that someone else doesn't: people, associations, institutions.
  8. Knowledge of Physical Environment: People are interested in quality of life, natural environment.
  9. Active Economic Development Program: Some communities try to attract a huge industry, but the chances of this are very small. It is better to build on assets, identify competitive advantages, and come up with your own plan to be successful.
  10. Deliberate Transitions of Power to a Younger Generation of Leaders: Ask young people to help.
  11. Celebrating of Diversity in Leadership Roles: Break down the silos.
  12. Strong Belief In and Support For Education: Going beyond the K-12 system to include an approach to lifelong learning that puts education at the center of many community activities.
  13. Problem Solving Approach to Providing Health Care: There are a variety of solutions to this common problem. In some places it may be having an airlift or a local urgent care clinic.
  14. Strong Multi-Generational Family Orientation: An example would be considering things like childcare at community townhall meetings so young families can participate.
  15. Strong Presence of Traditional Institutions that are Integral to Community Life: Churches and service clubs retain a strong influence in social activities as well as community improvement efforts.
  16. Sound and Well-Maintained Infrastructure: These communities have clean-up days at the local parks, business owners keep sidewalks repaired, and volunteer labor and donations help maintain public buildings.
  17. Careful Use of Fiscal Resources: Expenditures are seen as investments in the future of the community.
  18. Sophisticated Use of Technology Resources: Applying technology in business, health care, education and recreation.
  19. Willingness to Seek Help From the Outside: These communities understand the system of accessing resources, ranging from grants for infrastructure improvements to expertise about human service programs.
  20. Conviction that, In the Long-Run, You Have to Do it Yourself: Thriving communities believe their destiny is in their own hands and are not waiting for outside help to save them.