The full story of rural North Carolina’s churches and towns can sometimes be lost in a barrage of bad news and worrisome statistics.
Manufacturing jobs have disappeared by the tens of thousands in the last decade. The poverty rate is significantly higher in rural areas than in the rest of the state—45 percent higher among children. Hundreds of rural churches struggle to pay their bills, and some have closed or been forced to consolidate as members moved away or simply stopped coming.
Yet, even as they face great challenges, North Carolina’s rural areas are home to some of the state’s most vibrant ministries, says Jeremy Troxler, director of Thriving Rural Communities, a Divinity School-based program that works to support and strengthen rural congregations.
“Sometimes there is a view that we don’t have much in rural North Carolina—that it is a place of barrenness, loneliness and loss of economic opportunity,” says Troxler D’02.
“But it also is a place of beauty and abundance.”
Consider Solid Rock United Methodist Church, which opened in 2001 in Spout Springs, just a few miles north of Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army base near Fayetteville. Worship attendance at the church, housed in a blue metal building, has grown from a single family to more than 300 on most Sundays.
Solid Rock’s ministries include two daycare programs; Angel Food, a pantry that feeds nearly 500 people each week; and a prison ministry that reaches 240 inmates. At a time when churches worry about aging parishioners, Solid Rock’s congregation, which includes many military families, has a growing membership of those 20 or younger.
“Part of my job is to inspire people to believe that they can do big things right where they are,” says Gil Wise D’88, lead pastor at Solid Rock. “They’re making a difference in the Kingdom, and they don’t have to go to a bigger place for that.”
The Thriving Rural Communities program works to inspire and lift up congregations, and to help rural pastors meet the unique challenges of their vocation. Funded with $4.8 million from The Duke Endowment, the program represents a partnership of the Endowment, the Divinity School, and the two conferences of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina.
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.
Model congregations for Thriving Rural Communities were nominated by district superintendents and selected with help from a committee including representatives from all partners in the program. The committee considered criteria such as how the churches addressed rural issues, whether they were able to accept Duke Divinity students as interns, the strength of lay leadership, and the strength of the pastors as mentors.
The idea is not to push change on rural congregations, or to portray Duke or the model churches as ideals to be copied, Troxler says. Rather, Thriving Rural Communities is working to spur conversation among churches, encouraging pastors and laity to share stories of success that spark the imagination.
“Every one of these churches is living its own mission,” Troxler says. “There is not just one way to be the body of Christ in a rural setting.”
Growing ‘outside the box’
Whereas Solid Rock can supply insights about starting new churches, Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in northern Orange County brings the wisdom of 175 years as a congregation.
Cedar Grove is that rare congregation flourishing on two levels. The church is ministering to longtime members who remember well when tobacco was king, and, at the same time, reaching newcomers looking for a quieter lifestyle.
“I think there is a deep desire (in the church) to be faithful, and a willingness to think outside the box,” says the Rev. Grace Hackney, who has served as Cedar Grove’s pastor since she graduated from the Divinity School in 2003. “There’s an understanding that God doesn’t confine us to a building.”
A signature ministry is Anathoth Community Garden, named for the city in the Old Testament and inspired by Jeremiah 29: 5-7: “Plant gardens and eat what they produce…Seek the welfare of the city….”
At Anathoth, the congregation raises everything from lettuce to garlic for fellowship gatherings, and for use by the needy. The power of the ministry comes through the labor, says Hackney. People from the church and the community unite on this patch of land to work side by side.
The land itself was a gift. Scenobia Taylor, who lives in the Cedar Grove area, had dreamt that God wanted her to give land to the community. She was unsure of how the land might be used—until she learned of the Cedar Grove congregation’s vision for a communal garden. The two dreams converged with her gift of five acres for Anathoth.
Cedar Grove has been part of Thriving Rural Communities for about a year—long enough for the church and the Divinity School to work closely together. Hackney has spoken to classes at Duke about life in a rural church, while adjunct professor Joseph W. Mann, also director of The Duke Endowment’s Rural Church Division, has brought his divinity school class “Town and Country Church” to visit Cedar Grove.
Duncan Martin, a second-year Divinity School student from Newton, N.C., is assigned as the rural fellow to Cedar Grove for the academic year. Martin spends 10 to 15 hours each week at Cedar Grove, occasionally preaching during Sunday worship. He’s been impressed by the depth of the liturgy and by the warmth of the community’s welcome: “It seems like every week there are two or three invitations to come out and eat,” he says.
When Cedar Grove’s sanctuary was destroyed by an accidental fire six years ago, things might have fallen apart. Instead, the congregation rallied to build a new home. A $2 million building, which opened in late 2005, has been paid for through the generosity of the congregation, community and The Duke Endowment.
Worship attendance, which has doubled to 100 in recent years, is another sign that Cedar Grove is thriving. “The growth reflects how unique and evolving ministries serve as a source of further inspiration,” says Hackney. Cedar Grove hopes to begin offering bilingual services, which will help reach a growing Spanish-speaking population, and is planning a mission to Haiti.
Showing what’s possible
Roughly 130 miles to the west, just outside the small town of Newton in Cabarrus County, is another Thriving Rural Communities model: Friendship United Methodist Church. While this area northeast of Charlotte is struggling to transform itself after the decline of the textile and furniture industries, the church and its ministries are flourishing.
The Rev. Brad Thie D’98, who came to Newton in 2005, says average worship attendance has been steady at more than 200. Half the congregation has completed Disciple Bible Study classes. Some 100 church members have completed Walk to Emmaus, a three-day spiritual retreat designed to deepen stewardship. Adults and youth have taken mission trips to Costa Rica.
Friendship, which dates to 1881, was cited by Catawba County United Way for its support of a shelter for battered women. United Methodist Women at the church have made youth and senior citizens their priority. Six lay ministry teams provide practical and spiritual care for the homebound, chronically ill and others in need.
In recent years, Thie says, the church’s focus on helping neighbors has emboldened members to live their faith with more conviction every day.
Thie credits long pastorates with providing continuity—the three Friendship pastors before him stayed 10, six and 17 years, respectively. He himself describes a deep calling to serve in rural communities, where a single church can have a great impact.
Thriving Rural Communities has fueled the congregation’s enthusiasm, he says, and validated that “in serving one another and the community, we are serving God.”
That’s the kind of reaction the program wants to generate. Troxler says he’d love to hear more stories about small congregations thinking big, and about ministers who choose to stay with them.
“We want to overcome the sense that the rural church is nothing more than a ‘training ground’ for ministry,” he says. “The goal is to hold up the gifts that are here and show what’s possible.”