The Hidden Impact of Rural Churches: An In-Depth Interview with Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrand


What is the economic impact of small congregations on their communities? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff speaks with Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrandt of Partners for Sacred Places about their report on the “Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.” 

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Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church leadership, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me are two staff members of Partners for Sacred Places: Bob Jaeger, President, and Rachel Hildebrandt, Director of the National Fund for Sacred Places program. Recently, Partners for Sacred Places released a report about the focus of our podcast today is this significant report and the impact of rural churches on their communities. Welcome, Bob and Rachel. I look forward to our conversation today. Bob, could you give us an overview of Partners for Sacred Places?   

Bob Jaeger: We are proud of the fact that we are almost 35 years old now, and we’re really the only national nonprofit that focuses on helping congregations and the larger community work together to make the most of older churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques as places that serve both the worshipping community and the larger community. The buildings obviously have cultural value and architectural value. They may come to have a major presence on our streetscapes. They are places of worship and education. We have been learning a lot over the years about how spaces are shared and how these buildings really benefit the homeless, kids, the arts, seniors, and people who are hungry or in need. So, we try to help congregations and their neighbors think about ways to keep these places vital, full, alive, and cared for.   

Jessica Anschutz: Partners for Sacred places recently released a report entitled “The Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.” (Partners for Sacred Places, in partnership with The Duke Endowment and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, studied 87 congregations over two years for its report.) What prompted Partners for Sacred Places to research the economic impact of rural churches?   

Bob Jaeger: It started in the nineties when we began to ask ourselves what happens in our sacred places during the week. We know what happens on Sunday morning, but what happens the rest of the week? Who is served? How are spaces used or shared? How do congregations contribute to the health of the community? We realized that no one knew. Seminaries did not know. Religious studies programs did not know. Preservation architecture programs did not know. Denominational offices did not know. No one knew what was happening on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday night.   

So, we did three rounds of research to help tell the national story of how sacred places benefit the larger community and then help congregations tell their own story of public benefit.  

Rachel Hildebrandt: I see the goal of the report as twofold. First, it is both about empowering us to advocate on behalf of congregations and all the good work that they do. Secondly, it equips congregations with the tools necessary to speak a language that is understood widely by civic leaders. Not everybody appreciates old buildings or is a person of faith, but everybody understands dollars and cents and economic impact. When congregations are empowered to make a case for support or why their capital campaign matters or why what they are trying to do in the community matters, it is powerful to have that information on hand.   

Jessica Anschutz: Before we jump into the findings of your report, I want to invite you to define for our listeners a couple of the terms: economic halo effect and how you understood rural.   

Rachel Hildebrandt: Economic halo effect refers to the economic impact that a congregation has on its community that radiates out from there. The effect congregations have is most significant close to the congregation’s building and site where the work is done, where the congregation meets week after week and often uses the building daily for programming. The economic impact starts with the building and then radiates out from there, forming a halo. 

And then rural. That was tricky to define because there are so many definitions out there. Ultimately, we ended up going with the University of Illinois scholar Andrew Isserman’s typology. His typology can be used to classify counties anywhere in the U.S. as urban, mixed urban, mixed rural, or rural. We used that typology to assign a type to each county in North Carolina and then only used counties that met the rural, mixed rural, or mixed urban classifications in our study.   

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much for that clarification. What did you learn through the study of the Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina? 

Rachel Hildebrandt: We surveyed 87 rural congregations across North Carolina. We found that the average congregation has an economic impact of $735,000 per year. If you take out the top 10% and the bottom 10%, that number is about $500,000. 

It’s a higher number than we anticipated. We were falling victim to some of the stereotypes about rural churches, thinking they’re going to be small, struggling, focused on doing food pantries and clothing closets and not much else. But that is not at all what we found.  

Jessica Anschutz: What does the $735,000 plus economic impact represent?   

Rachel Hildebrandt: An average congregation spends about 80 percent of its annual operating budget locally — hiring local people, supporting local vendors, purchasing goods and services, and offering education programs. Several congregations we surveyed operate early childhood education programs: preschools, daycares, and K-12 schools. Congregations host rites of passage like weddings, funerals, birthday parties, family reunions, and arts events like concerts and plays. People come from all over to visit for those events, and they spend money in the area or in the adjacent town.   

Congregations also offer and host community-serving programming — programs that benefit others in the community, not just members of the church. We found that congregations in rural North Carolina do a lot of community-serving programming. They contribute tons of volunteer time to those initiatives, tons of donations in terms of food, clothing, everything you can imagine. Just like their urban counterparts, rural congregations do all those things, too.   

Jessica Anschutz: One of the things that really surprised me about the study was your finding that churches employ on average 1.4 full-time employees and four part time, with the caveat of just a little over half of the congregations being served by a part-time pastor, which tells me that those full-time employees are not the pastors. Who is employed by these churches and what are these employees doing?  

Rachel Hildebrandt: It’s hard to answer that question in a cohesive way because it varies depending on what the church does and offers. A good example of this is Franklinton UMC in Franklinton, which is a small congregation. At the time of the survey, there were 40 people attending on an average Sunday with an active congregation of about 25. Their total economic impact is $1.2 million, largely because they offer a preschool to 40 students in the community. Their employees operate the preschool. In other cases, churches employ clergy — sometimes more than one clergy, sometimes just one part-time clergyperson — and program coordinators, teachers, maintenance staff, treasurers, and secretaries.   

Jessica Anschutz: This speaks to the role of congregations being a place of employment, reaching out to the community and supporting it that way.   

Bob Jaeger: Your casual reader might think a large halo effect implies a large membership and a large staff, but that’s not often the case. Even a small staff and a small membership congregation can have an enormous impact. Do small congregations have value? The answer is yes.   

Rachel Hildebrandt: The smallest congregation in the study was a five-member congregation and the largest was 365, so there’s a wide range. I think most congregations are on the smaller side.   

Jessica Anschutz: That really speaks to the way the report sort of debunked some of the myths about rural churches being in decline and not being relevant to their communities. Your report found the total opposite and, in fact, found that 79 percent of the beneficiaries of the rural congregations weren’t members of those churches.   

Bob Jaeger: This is a point we make when we talk to folks around the country. In effect, churches are serving as de facto community centers for most of the week. It’s a little higher with urban churches but also with rural small towns — most people served are not members. This is important because it helps a congregation say to a donor, funder, government, or someone not Methodist, “We’re really serving everybody here. We are a civic place as well as a religious place. If we need help to fix the roof, replace a boiler, or make our building more accessible, would you consider helping us?” It helps the community see the church as more than a denominational entity.  

Jessica Anschutz: You’ve mentioned childcare centers and food pantries. In what other ways are congregations impacting their communities? 

Rachel Hildebrandt: Some of the congregations in North Carolina are just so unbelievably creative. They are attuned to both the opportunities and challenges in their respective communities, and they develop programming based on those particularities.   

One example comes to mind — Swansboro United Methodist Church, which is in a coastal area of North Carolina that has a thriving regional economy because every summer people come and stay a week and golf, go to the beach, etc. At the end of the week, they leave fresh unopened, untouched groceries behind. The congregation realized this was an opportunity. So, they reached out to the resorts, developed a partnership, and now when people check in, the resorts give them a paper to sign that says: “The congregation can take the food remaining at the end of our stay.” So, the congregation sends volunteers at the end of each week throughout the summer to pick up the food and take the bags of food to local food banks. Not only are they contributing to local food banks at no cost to themselves at all, but they are saving food from being wasted altogether.   

Jessica Anschutz: That’s a creative answer to a seasonal situation that gets the food to the people who need it most. Rachel, you’ve touched on programs for children and youth and the food programs that rural congregations serve. Can you share some examples that caught your attention?   

Rachel Hildebrandt: Almost every congregation we surveyed does food programming of some kind, typically a food pantry or a monthly meal. One congregation started what they call the Hot Dog Program in 2005. They initially started it as a fundraiser to buy a church van, but it was so popular in the community that it became a permanent mainstay program. Before the pandemic, it was held every Saturday, and it was so widely known and appreciated that everybody in the community would come.   

Congregations often do benevolent giving. When somebody shows up at the doorstep in need of money for a meal or money to help pay a utility bill, almost all the congregations step up and meet the need time and time again.   

A lot of them do ramp building for the older members of their communities. As folks get older, it gets harder to go up steps in their homes and the homes must be made accessible. Groups of congregations will get together and build ramps at no cost whatsoever to the members of the community.  

Jessica Anschutz: It’s incredible when you take the time to think about the impact that these congregations have on their communities. If we were to expand the study beyond North Carolina, we would find small congregations impacting their communities all over the country.   

Rachel Hildebrandt: For sure!   

Jessica Anschutz: I know from my experience serving in the Hudson River valley of New York and serving smaller congregations that many of them are facing questions about their futures — whether they should close or merge with another congregation. In the report, you include some questions about community impact that should be considered. What do you hope church leaders will consider regarding the impact of smaller congregation on the community during conversations about closing or merging?   

Rachel Hildebrandt: This is especially important for denominations that are hierarchical, where the judicatory itself has a lot of power in deciding whether a congregation stays open or not or merges with another or not. Judicatories tend to focus on worship numbers, membership numbers, budgets, whether they are meeting their annual apportionments, things like that. You also must consider: What is this congregation doing in its community? What is the impact that it is having in its community? If this church goes away, what programs and what people will be impacted by the absence? You can’t displace important programs or leave a community hanging.  

Bob Jaeger: If denominational leadership is thinking about a church that’s small but there is some evidence of impact, another approach is to work closely with that congregation to help it articulate that value in new ways and develop new sources of support. One thing we learned nationally is that most congregations are not terribly good at articulating their larger value. They don’t even know their value. They haven’t learned how to document and tell that story. Once they do, they can work with local donors and funders, the community foundation, the city office to help them sustain their presence and their building, even if it’s still somewhat small.   

Now, of course, that’s not possible everywhere. We know some congregations will have to close and buildings will have to transition to something else, but there are cases where congregations, with some help to broaden fundraising and to gain new sources of support, can sustain themselves, and those important programs and outreach do not have to be dislocated. That’s something for denomination leaders to think about.   

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you, Bob, for highlighting the importance of telling the story behind the ministry and what congregations are doing and the importance of partnering beyond the denomination or beyond the congregation to really become a resource for the community.   

Bob Jaeger: We encourage congregations to invite the community in, even for a simple cup of coffee over an hour. Walk them around the building and talk together about ways that the building can be more fully used and fully supported. We see time and time again that civic leaders are delighted to come in and talk. They have never been invited. If they come in, they will often have their own ideas and connections they can make to help the congregation make the most of their building and sustain it.   

Jessica Anschutz: The power of invitation cannot be overstated as far as welcoming visitors into the congregation or community partners. When we think about church buildings, I know that there are any number of church buildings in this country that are underutilized. They are great spaces that could make an impact on their communities but perhaps need to be reimagined. What are some creative ways you have seen congregations reimagining their space to better meet the needs of their community?   

Rachel Hildebrandt: I have thought long and hard about this. Among the rural churches in North Carolina, I’ve concluded that I don’t think they’re doing the best job of that now. It’s a huge opportunity for the rural congregations in North Carolina.  

Bob Jaeger: Both in North Carolina and elsewhere, we believe in asset thinking and asset mapping — seeing the building as a cluster of opportunities and strengths and inviting the community to come in to think together. We often bring in architects who can help a church reimagine how spaces could function, still respecting the beauty and the character of that church. It may not be the sanctuary, but it may be the parish hall, the fellowship hall, the kitchen, or the dining room that could function in new ways.  

There’s a Presbyterian church in New Mexico that is much smaller than it once was, and they wondered if they could survive the next 10 or 20 years. They started a process of engaging with their community, and what is emerging now is that they will likely become the home for the state’s most important orchestra that was looking for a home, with good acoustics. So, the church will probably use a different space as their worship space and partner with the orchestra to make better use of its building. Now, that is a dramatic case because it’s an orchestra and not every town has an orchestra. But this idea emerged from a community engagement process. Whether it’s a large process or a small process, it’s something that almost any church can do.    

Rachel Hildebrandt: I have found that the process of being on site with the congregation and asking the survey questions jogs their memory. Do you share space with other organizations? How about this kind? How about that kind? Doing the survey seems to inspire congregations to give some things a try. Bringing up ideas they may have not heard about before has an unintended side effect. I have finished the survey, and they’ve said, “Wow! You gave me some really good ideas about things we could try or things we might want to do in the future.” Space-sharing was one that was very common in North Carolina. At least two of the 87 congregations, after the process of being part of the study, have been very intentionally exploring the possibilities for underutilized space on their properties, so, really, we inspired a little bit of that.    

Jessica Anschutz: What a wonderful unintended outcome of the study!   

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yeah.   

Jessica Anschutz: When we think about community engagement for congregations that perhaps haven’t really thought about engaging partners or potential partners in conversation, how might a congregation begin that conversation?   

Bob Jaeger: I think the place to start is to bring together a little task force of leaders from the congregation — lay people and pastors or staff — and start to brainstorm about the people they already know who may not have been in the building. Somebody may know the mayor. Somebody may know a leading civic activist or donor. Someone may know someone active in a neighborhood association or a county arts agency. You can start with some of the people you know and then branch out from there.   

Start with the two or three degrees of separation between the church folks and those in the community. One person can lead to another, and you might say, “Here are the six people who make sense for us. Let’s invite them in for an hour and reintroduce them to the church and begin to talk about what they see.”   

Rachel Hildebrandt: Congregations should be inventorying what they have, trying to step back and look at their properties with new eyes. Sometimes when you are there week after week, you don’t think about what’s right in front of you. Maybe for the most part the congregation thinks the building is well utilized, but perhaps it’s not. It’s important to take a new look at your property and what you have before you can start envisioning new possibilities.   

Bob Jaeger: We’ve been doing this work in Indiana. We walk around, trying to get people to think in this fresh way, and they will say, “Oh, that’s where the women’s group meets.” Or “That’s where the third graders are.” When you really probe, you find out the women’s group only uses it for an hour a week. And the third graders don’t use it anymore because there’s no third-grade class anymore. They are relying on their memories, and it’s very affectionate because they love the memories of how these spaces have been used. When you really get into it, you realize that most of the building is used very little. As Rachel says, organized rethinking and reminding them of what spaces are used now is a good place to start so they can realize, my goodness, most of this incredible resource is vastly underutilized. We have a huge opportunity.  

Jessica Anschutz: Opportunity and tremendous potential to make an impact in the community in a positive way that can fulfill the mission of the community of faith.  

Bob Jaeger: Exactly.   

Jessica Anschutz: Where can people find the report? What do you hope congregations will glean from the report whether they are in rural spaces or more urban or suburban?  

Rachel Hildebrandt: You can find the report on our website,, under publications.

In terms of what congregations can glean, I hope that congregations and their leaders will see themselves in the work and be encouraged by it. I’m the director of the National Fund. It’s a grant-making program helping congregations undertake significant capital projects. And in that role, I so strongly believe that the building is an asset for ministry. The building is important to your congregation, but it’s just as important to the community and those you serve. So, when you are raising money to support your building or become sustainable in some way or another, invite the community to be a part of that. I want congregations to be inspired to reflect on the impact that they have, and then ask others to support them in their work.   

Jessica Anschutz: Rachel, you mentioned the work of the fund. I want to invite you to take just a moment to share a little bit more about what the fund is and how it may be a resource.   

Rachel Hildebrandt: The National Fund is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust. We offer grants ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 for significant sacred places across the U.S. We fund core preservation projects like your roofs, repointing, things like that. But we also fund projects that make space more usable or accessible for congregations and communities. In addition to the capital grant, we offer a range of services to ensure that our projects are successful, including training, group training, in-person technical assistance, small seed planting grants, and planning grants.   

Bob Jaeger: It’s available to rural and urban, to all denominational traditions, and it can be a modest project, or it can be a major project. But, as Rachel says, we want to provide a whole bundle of services to help ensure that every project is well planned and well executed.   

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yep, and there’s a separate website for the fund if people are interested in learning more about the program. It’s

Jessica Anschutz: As our time draws to a close, Bob and Rachel, I invite you to just offer words of wisdom or hope for struggling small church leaders out there. What words of encouragement do you have for them?   

Bob Jaeger: One thing is that there is reason for hope because you can do this if you don’t do it alone — by this I mean keeping your building active, keeping it well cared for, doing your good work, worshipping, educating, serving in this building, which may be facing some repair issues.   

Don’t do this work alone. Connect to your community, invite them in. Think together about how to make the most of this building. Think together about how to invest in the new furnace or replace a roof or fix the windows because generally communities respond when congregations call for help. Talk together. There’s no reason to feel alone or to do this alone.   

Do it with your community. There are lots of tools and techniques and approaches. A lot of what we do is offer resources and tools, because we want small congregations to last and to be healthy. So, I think there is a lot of hope to offer.  

Rachel Hildebrandt: Small does not necessarily mean struggling or unhealthy. Small can be healthy and vibrant. Small congregations do vital, important work, so don’t fall into the trap of playing the numbers game and being obsessed with those numbers.   

“The Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina” by Partners for Sacred Places and UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. This 2021 report is available through Partners for Sacred Places.

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About Author

Bob Jaeger

A. Robert Jaeger is co-founder and president of Partners for Sacred Places. He is the co-author of Sacred Places at Risk (1998) and Strategies for Stewardship and Active Use of Older and Historic Religious Properties (1996), and author of Sacred Places in Transition (1994).

Rachel directs the National Fund for Sacred Places and has played a key role in Partners' economic impact research, which focuses on congregations across the United States that are stewarding older and historic properties. She co-authored a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities as well as Partners’ guide to transitioning property, Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories.

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy. She is also the co-editor with Doug Powe of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024).

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.