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.

Photo courtesy Cedar Grove UMC
Savoring the harvest from Anathoth Garden, the Rev. Grace Hackney (third from left), pastor of Cedar Grove UMC, north of Hillsborough.

“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….”

Photo courtesy Cedar Grove UMC
Fred Bahnson D’00, manages Anathoth Garden

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.

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