Present Reality and Future Possibilities for the Rural United Methodist Church
This thesis examines the distinctive nature, specific struggles, and ultimately hopeful future of rural congregations in the United Methodist Church. Drawing from my experience pastoring various rural churches, I address a set of critical questions that every rural congregation faces: What factors allow certain congregations and their pastors to sustain and renew their mutual ministries while most other churches and ministers continue their perpetual decline? What particular constellation of approach, community, leadership, and mission enables a rural congregation to turn from loss toward growth? I argue that the pastor of a rural Methodist church, recognizing that God uses seemingly small things to accomplish great purposes, must fully embrace her call to a rural congregation, even though such an appointment is temporary and may seem less important than appointments to larger, more apparently “dynamic” congregations. To be fully present, the pastor must commit herself wholeheartedly to the congregation’s flourishing, and to learn to see and embrace the particular gifts and challenges that a rural church presents.
I make this argument by articulating six specific practices of faithful pastoral leadership in a rural church: (1) embracing the particular context of pastoral ministry, (2) cultivating the habit of active visitation, (3) establishing a broad context for preaching that goes beyond the pulpit, (4) re-envisioning leadership as a cooperative venture, (5) framing a congregation’s mission with attention to its particular gifts, and (6) promoting a culture of celebrating God’s work in the world. These six practices serve, in turn, as occasions to explore specific methods and tools unique to small rural churches, given their particular needs and gifts.
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