What Rural Churches Can Learn from a Small College’s Turnaround
The November edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education includes a fascinating profile by Scott Carlson of new President G.T. “Buck” Smith’s efforts to lead a turnaround of tiny, debt-ridden Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia.
Buck Smith is a college President who works for no salary, picks up litter on campus, judges hamburger-cooking contests, mails favorite books to prospective students, helps 20-year-olds fix their broken toilets – and who is helping his small rural school march proudly into the future with its head held high.
According to Carlson’s article, Davis & Elkins College was once trapped in what a professor referred to as “a death spiral.” Located in a small, remote Appalachian mountain community, the school had suffered stagnant enrollment for years. A lack of financial resources led to mounting debt. Campus buildings were in disrepair. Students were even starting to leave, producing what one professor called “a rats-off-a-sinking-ship” feeling.
When Buck Smith was hired to lead the school out of its morass, he refused to take a salary. “It’s not a job: it’s a mission,” he says of the decision to come to the school. “I wouldn’t do it if it was a job.”
Smith’s primary strategy to turn around the college’s fortunes was so “simple and earnest,” Carlson writes, “it may sound naïve to the jaded.”
“The underlying thing for me is relationships- hardly anything important happens that doesn’t have to do with relationships,” Smith says. So, the new President regularly meets with faculty and simply listens to them. He and his wife attend cultural events sponsored by members of the campus. He has actively sought connections with needy students, the lowliest employees, and with the local community.
“It’s getting to know people, being interested in them . . .” Smith claims in the article. “Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.”
Depth of relationship is a gift that a small college such as Davis & Elkins can offer its students. Smith does not view the college’s small size as a drawback, but rather as the source of its power and appeal. In this Smith was influenced by his mentor, small college President Herbert Lowry. Lowry once wrote, “The small college has a superb asset, one that is subtle and not easily measured or explained. It answers to one of the deepest of human needs, the need for belonging. And the only way to do justice to the sense of community that a college can confer is to make an almost preposterous claim for it – namely, that this is something which no larger institution, however excellent and richly blessed, can confer in the same measure.”
Buck Smith has not only focused upon the gift of relationship in his own leadership, but has sought to “institutionalize” this emphasis throughout the college’s life. For instance, faculty members are allowed to eat for free in the campus dining hall in order to encourage their interaction with students. Davis & Elkins also cancelled its mass mailings and its indiscriminate advertising campaign. Instead, those funds are now used to allow recruiters to visit high schools in the seven surrounding counties, and to attend three times more college fairs than before. At these settings recruiters pass out the president’s personal business card, and urge them to call him on his cell phone. Other students who make inquiries get a personal response within 24 hours, often from Buck Smith himself. The people in admissions who talk with prospective students learn their names, their parents’ names, and their dogs’ names: conveying, Carlson writes, “that at this college of 700 students, you are part of the family.”
As a result of this focus on personal relationship, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the freshman class was up 50% this fall. The number of applications was more than seven times higher than it was in 2007.
Buck Smith’s leadership has helped to turn the school’s small size, once thought by some as a hindrance, into its greatest asset. As a result, Davis & Elkins College is beginning to thrive.
We live in an increasingly impersonal culture, where interactions take place at fiber-optic digital distance. Text messages outnumber cell phone calls almost four to one. Relationships often delve no deeper than a surface-level of acquaintance. Individuals claim to be more connected than ever: and yet seem to feel lonelier than ever at the same time.
In such a milieu, there is much that the small membership rural church can learn from Scott Carlson’s complete article and from the experience of Davis & Elkins.
The family-like small church can also intentionally turn its size into its greatest asset. The congregation can challenge one another to offer personal invitations to church events that they believe in. Visitors can receive a phone call and a note within 24 hours of attending worship. The church can focus and lavish love upon a few specific people or households who are in particular need or who might show promise or interest in the faith. New people can be invited into gatherings where they may share their stories: their names, their parent’s names, their pets’ names. Long-time members can be given this opportunity, too, because close proximity does not automatically mean people really know each other. In everything the congregation does, there can be an intentional focus on fostering the gift of authentic relationship.
With Buck Smith's example in mind, I imagine the pastor of a small rural church standing up each week at the beginning of worship and saying, “Grace and Peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome to Little United Methodist Church. We know we’re not the biggest place in the world. We know that there are other, larger congregations nearby that offer a greater variety of wonderful opportunities for all kinds of people. But what we are is a church that believes in the power of authentic relationship, of knowing one another in Christ: and we believe we do this as well as anyone can. This is a place where you can get to know people of all ages and seasons of life, because we do things across generations. This is a place where every person in the congregation will know the names of your children and watch out for them. This is a place where we will listen to and remember the joys and prayer requests that you share each week. This is a place where you can have a personal relationship with the Christian sister or brother who is your pastor. This is a place where you can discover your gifts by offering them to others, because this is a place where we need what everybody has to offer. All of this isn’t easy: genuine relationship is never easy. But we believe this is the way God would have us to be church – and we are thankful to be a part of that together.”
In Scott Carlson’s article, Buck Smith summarizes his leadership: “It comes down to whether you are going to look at your future based entirely upon your past or what others are doing, or whether you are going to look at the fundamentals, the principles, the basics, and have the discipline to stay with those.”
He is right. Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When a rural church turns its size into its greatest asset- when it stays with the fundamentals, the principles, the basics of community- when it builds on the gift of authentic relationship in Christ, and has the discipline to stay with it . . .
there are no limits.