Students explore rural ministry
Seminary student Joel Walther said rural ministry is his calling. But though the 28-year-old student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., is sure he wants to work in rural churches, he wonders if they have a future. It's this quest...
Seminary student Joel Walther said rural ministry is his calling.
But though the 28-year-old student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., is sure he wants to work in rural churches, he wonders if they have a future.
It's this question that brought Walther to Crookston on Friday, one of 10 seminary students participating in "Paradoxical Possibilities: Exploring Rural Ministry," a learning event sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. FTE is an ecumenical, national nonprofit that supports excellence and diversity in patrol ministry and theological scholarship.
Rural churches are hit hard as people move into more urban areas, according to FTE President Trace Haythorn, who is attending the event this weekend.
"And when a church closes, there's something not quite right about the town anymore. It's lost its sense of identity, culture," Haythorn said. It sometimes is the only place for neighbors to gather together in a small town, he added.
At a time when pulpit vacancies for rural congregations range from 50 percent to 80 percent, the question is: How can these communities attract and keep pastors?
"I'm not even sure we know the best questions, let alone answers," Haythorn said. "Things have changed from 25 years ago."
The students at the event all share an interest in rural ministry, according to the Rev. Daniel Wolpert, pastor of Crookston First Presbyterian Church and co-founder of MICAH, the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing.
They'll get advice and have time to think. They'll also get to tour Riverview Hospital and a sugar beet plant.
"Those I think will really serve as a good framework as to what's going on in rural ministries that rural pastors really have an opportunity to involved with: the economy and health of the congregation," Wolpert said.
Rev. Steve Peterson, ECLA assistant to the bishop, said the weekend is an opportunity for listening, too.
"A lot of what seems exciting that's happening in churches in bigger areas can also happen here," Peterson said. "This is a pretty exciting place to be."
What will rural churches be like in 10 years? 15 years? That's what the students want to know.
"So many people leaving rural areas are filling in suburban and urban areas. Unless that changes, there may be even fewer people in rural areas," Walther said, adding that rural ministry also may entail being in charge of several different churches. "It's an incredibly scary thing, considering how hard it is to lead one church."
Students Vince Amlin, 27, and Lindsey Braun, 25, both from the University of Chicago Divinity School, said they want to learn more about rural ministry.
"I'm here partly to find more of a broad view. What are the trends in rural churches?" Amlin said. "One of the things about rural ministry is that people's lives are a lot more intertwined. In a rural church, you would be seeing the people in other contexts; you would be buying things from them, going to them to have your hair cut. In urban areas, they can be your neighbor or live in your building, and you're not likely to run into them until you get to worship."
Braun said rural churches are facing the same issues rural communities are facing -- fewer people.
"If churches are drying up, are traditional rural ministries sustainable?" she asked.
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