Many students of congregational life focus their attention on religious gatherings in the city. It’s where the action is! Where there are exciting challenges and new opportunities. Where your innovations will get noticed and rewarded.
But what about the thousands of gatherings in tiny places that we imagine are doomed to nothing but decline? Pastor Brad Roth* has been thinking about those places and what it means to turn aside from the career ladder to stay — to abide — in such a place.
He and other pastors he has met have made a commitment to their rural parishes, even when the usual markers of “success” are unlikely to be present. They may have to serve multiple congregations or have another job. They may creatively find partners and new places to meet people. They may host unlikely groups in their buildings. Theirs is fundamentally a theological commitment. They want to be part of God’s work in a given place and to communicate hope by staying there.
I would add that it is a commitment to deep engagement in learning — studying — the culture and ecology of these community gatherings. Instead of traversing familiar roads on autopilot, do an intentional driving tour. Stop and do some strategic interviews along the way. Maybe even consider partnering with a nearby college to do a survey.
Not every rural community is dying, of course, but many are facing unprecedented population decline and economic hardship. Community infrastructure has often crumbled — schools, post offices, banks, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, are gone. A tiny congregation may be all that is left as a gathering space. But a patient and thorough inventory of the community’s social and economic resources will be essential. Where are the needs, and what resources are available – both within the community and beyond?
Sometimes those needs are hiding in plain sight, but nobody wants to name them. Professor Michael Pasquier, at Louisiana State University, studies religion and the environment in Coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta, where chemical pollution and environmental degradation are literally destroying communities and lives. Sometimes, he found, it is church leaders from small African American communities who are the lonely voices speaking out, sometimes aided by national church organizations. They face formidable opposition, but they are a reminder that sometimes those with the least power have the keenest vision. When you decide to learn more about your community, pay attention to these often-hidden voices.
*See his article in Christian Century, August 15, 2018, “Pastors who stay”
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion in the School of Theology and the Sociology Department at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org