The program recently named seven United Methodist churches across the state, including Solid Rock, as partner congregations. While they are all in rural settings, these churches exhibit diverse and creative approaches as they minister to the needs of their communities. They have also agreed to serve as sites where divinity students, clergy and laity grow as leaders and can be inspired by the gifts and possibilities of rural ministry.
The churches work with the Divinity School’s Field Education office to offer internships for students who have received Rural Ministry Fellows Scholarships funded by The Duke Endowment. Six students per year for six years will receive the full-tuition scholarships. In turn, these 36 students commit to serving a rural congregation for at least five to eight years after graduation.
Regular sessions with divinity school faculty or other experts on the challenges and opportunities of rural ministry will be provided for students, pastors and laity. There will also be events and a website where pastors and congregations will be encouraged to share their stories.
“At the heart of Thriving Rural Communities is our belief in a God of abundant grace who is present in these communities and churches,” Troxler says. “All of us will be strengthened in our ministries and in our witness by sharing the gifts and the stories of what God is doing here.”
At Solid Rock, children are not only encouraged to join their parents in worship, but they’re allowed to act like, well, children. Parents can focus on prayer without fretting over whether a son or daughter is sitting still and keeping quiet. Children at Solid Rock sometimes stand up, sing, walk in the aisles or approach the pulpit. One little girl has been known to preach alongside Pastor Wise, and that’s fine with him.
“We call it church like you’ve never seen before,” Wise says. “Some folks had been asked to leave other churches because they couldn’t keep up with their children during worship. They find a home with us because the children are part of our service. When I’m preaching, I have to be careful where I step so I don’t step on children.”
The prison ministry began six years ago with letters written to a single inmate: a member of Solid Rock’s worship band who had landed in Moore County jail. Over time, members of the congregation began writing to his cellmates as well, and the program grew. Now Solid Rock sends individual cards and letters, as well as a weekly newsletter, to inmates across the state and beyond. Often inmates tell the letter-writers that they receive no other mail or support.
This ministry expanded to include a regular Bible study at Harnett Correctional Institution and visits with families of prisoners. Some inmates have joined the church, and they tithe by sending postage stamps—their only currency—to Solid Rock along with prayer requests.
The church also organizes monthly birthday celebrations for the guards.
Wise and lay leaders periodically host visits from other congregations to talk about their ministries, share ideas and dream about possibilities. “This is a time to come and see and find the inspiration to do what it is that God has called you to do,” Wise says.