Episode 87: “Building Thriving Rural Congregations” featuring Allen Stanton

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 87: “Building Thriving Rural Congregations” featuring Allen Stanton

How can rural churches break free from false narratives and unrealistic metrics? Allen Stanton lays out a new vision for healthy rural congregations as valued stakeholders and potent agents of change within their communities.

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How can rural churches break free from false narratives and unrealistic metrics? In this episode Allen Stanton lays out a new vision for healthy rural congregations as valued stakeholders and potent agents of change within their communities.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m speaking today with Allen Stanton, the executive director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee. He’s also the author of a new book, Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations, a book that casts a new vision for the vitality of rural churches. And that’s the subject for our conversation today. Welcome, Allen, and congratulations on this really fine new book.

Allen Stanton: Thank you. It’s really good to be here. I’m excited for this conversation.

Ann Michel: You say that the ministry of the rural church is captive to several false narratives about the nature of rural life in America. Can you comment on some of the misimpressions that often characterize our attitudes about rural communities and rural churches?

Allen Stanton: Absolutely. There are two narratives that I think we have to contend with in rural places. One is the over romanticization of rural communities where we turn rural places into really idyllic communities. I call this narrative “The Agrarian Paradise.” If you close your eyes and you picture a rural community, people often think about a lovely farm town, and everyone is at one with nature and at one with the earth. And there’s a lot of morality and high virtue and high values. That’s a really old narrative. It was actually part of our nation’s founding, because people had a stake in the land. They were rural farmers as opposed to the British aristocracy. So, this is not new at all. But it sort of makes rural places into this really virtuous community. And when people think about rural communities, on the one hand, they say, “Well, those are lovely places to go and visit. I love being in a rural place and I love the idea of a rural place. But I don’t actually live there.”

The other narrative that’s really problematic is what I call the narrative of rural decline or rural decay. And this one has really taken off in the last couple of years. It’s that rural communities are places that are full of death and dying and that there’s something inherent in the culture of a rural community that is leading to that decay. In my book and in almost every conversation I have, I point to one culprit that epitomizes this narrative. It’s J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. This book was written about a very particular community in Ohio. Then it was extrapolated onto all of Appalachia and then extrapolated onto all of rural America to try to explain some of the recent political trends. And his thesis in this book is basically that there’s something in this culture that is driving decline. But when you look at data and the statistics of rural places, that’s not necessarily true.

It’s not true, for instance, that rural America has this really high rate of poverty that we often talk about. There are a couple of different ways to measure poverty. And when you look at really nuanced factors, rural poverty is actually lower than urban poverty. It’s also true that rural places have students who are at risk. But students who are growing up in a rural community have more opportunities for economic mobility. People who grew up in a rural community are less likely to be incarcerated. So, there are really great assets of being in a rural community that this narrative of decline doesn’t really pick up on.

Both of these narratives sort of bleed into the way we think about rural ministry and the rural church. On the one hand, you think about a rural parish as a place where you just want to go and love people. I was told if I went to my rural church I would later be moved to a place of “real ministry” in a few years — as long as I didn’t kill the church — because those people just want to be loved. So, it’s like a pastoral care sort of situation. Then, on the other hand, it’s that rural churches are just dying, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s nothing we can do to save it, so we should close churches. And I’ve said a little flippantly — but I’ve had these conversations with a lot with people, “I think you have to look at the nuances of the places to get beyond those narratives and see what the gifts are and address the unique challenges in rural places.”

Ann Michel: Yes, I think you make the point in your book that there really is no one stereotypical rural community or rural church, even though we tend to project a certain set of assumptions on all of them.

Allen Stanton: Absolutely. And part of this is the way we define rural. The federal government has 15 different definitions of what it means to be a rural community. We can’t even agree on what “rural” means, so we don’t really have a good understanding of what it means to be rural. I attend a rural church because I live in a rural community. And it’s a county seat church full of lawyers and the town doctors and the bankers. Then you have rural churches that are on the side of a back road that are full of 30 people or 15 people. And there’s really no way to say, “This is what a rural church is.” You have to look at the nuances of each congregation to figure out what vitality means in that context.

Ann Michel: Talking about vitality, you say some of the standard measures of what vital ministry looks like don’t really apply very well in the rural church. Can you share with our listeners why the measures of vitality might be different for a rural church? And what vital rural church ministry might instead look like?

Allen Stanton: Absolutely. I get in trouble with this conversation, which, if you read the book, you’ll figure out why I get in trouble when I say this. But part of this is the way we define vitality. If you gather a room of pastors and you ask them what vital means, you get all these different answers. And people have tried to come up with one singular definition of church vitality. The problem is that we often weight those towards suburban and urban churches. In the United Methodist Church, my denomination and I think the denomination of a lot of our listeners, we have something called the “Towers Watson Report” that analyzes indicators of vitality that are applicable to every congregation, whether they’re small or large or rural or not. And really, across the board, some of those are not bad metrics. But some of them really don’t make sense when you’re talking about a small membership or rural church.

One that I often point to is they say that, across the board, whether a large or small church, a highly vital church needs to have a number of small groups particularly aimed at young people. But the difference between the number of small groups in a highly vital small membership church like many of our rural churches and a nonviable small membership church is statistically nothing. Like it’s less than one, I think. I’d have to look at the stat, but it’s like 4.5 to 5.6 or something like 4.6 to 5.4 — something like that. Really, you can’t have half of a small group. It doesn’t make sense, so it’s not really an accurate way to measure what the community looks like in a rural congregation.

The other one that kind of sticks at me a lot is we have this focus as a denomination — and I think rightfully so, given the questions about the future of young clergy and young participants in the church — but in a lot of our rural communities, the fastest growing population is actually recent retirees who are moving out of their urban and suburban places into rural communities where there’s more affordable property. They have a slower pace of life. They have disposable income that will go further in these communities. So, when we’re advertising to churches, “You need to increase the size of the youth group. You need to increase your children’s programming”, we’re ignoring the single largest demographic that’s moving into these communities. And we’re really not doing effective ministry. There’s a congregation in the mountains of North Carolina. They had a denominational expert come in and say, like, how do we increase vitality? Well, the recent retiree population had grown by several hundred percent, while the young adult population and kids under 18 was growing in the single digits over 10 years.

By focusing on a population that is not actually present in that community, we miss out on the gifts that are already there. I think when we’re looking at rural places, we have to figure out: What actually are the demographics of that particular community? What are the actual changes that are taking place in that community? And then approach a conversation about vitality and not just default to what worked in a suburban place or an urban place. Because rural places are not just like little urban communities. They’re different. They behave differently.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I think the point that “one size doesn’t fit all” is a good mantra in a lot of things. But clearly it is in this case. You make the point that rural congregations are uniquely positioned to be agents of change within their communities. Can you say a bit about why you believe that to be so?

Allen Stanton: Absolutely. In rural places, we have what’s called anchor institutions. These are places like colleges and hospitals. It can be a school or a business or a faith community or whatever it is. These are organizations and institutions that really contribute to the livelihood and the life of the community. In urban places, these are pretty readily apparent, right? Like if you drive through Nashville, which is about an hour and a half north of us, you’ll see about 20 colleges, a number of hospitals. There are corporate headquarters there. There are philanthropies located there. You have public infrastructure and libraries and things like that. And those are all contributing to the success of the community. In rural places, you don’t have as many permanent anchor institutions or permanent stakeholders. Hospitals in rural America right now are declining at a really high percentage. It’s really alarming. Schools come and go. Rural colleges come and go. Businesses come and go. We don’t have major corporate headquarters in a lot of our rural places. Rural communities don’t get as much philanthropy.

But what we do have at the center and all throughout every rural community is churches. And churches are uniquely positioned in rural places because they are permanent. They’ve been there forever. They know the whole history of the community. The church I served in North Carolina was brought into the Methodist Connection by Francis Asbury in 1789. It is mentioned twice in his journal, and he doesn’t say good things about it. So, I’m hoping that we were doing better by the time I left there than we were when he rolled through. But that church has been there. They’ve seen the whole community change. They’ve seen businesses come and go. They’ve seen railroads come and go. They’ve seen a lake literally be built and change the ecotourism of the community. That church, like, it’s there, and that is one aspect of their unique positioning. They are permanent in a way that no other organization really is. Also, the members interact with the rural church in a way that is not always true of other places. The membership of a rural church is one of the few places in a rural community that represents a large cross section of the community. In any given rural church, you have teachers and nurses and small business owners and elected officials, and you’re meeting in a very relational atmosphere. They’re also trusted institutions. Institutions are not typically trusted as much these days nationally. But the church in rural communities still is. You’re seeing this right now with vaccine literacy and vaccine hesitation among COVID-19 patients. In rural places, the church is the place where you can go to get accurate information because people trust the other people in their congregation, and they trust their pastor. And that’s a really good point.

Ann Michel: I think the point about a cross section of the community being present in a rural church is so relevant. Because in larger churches, that’s less and less the case because people can shop for a church full of people just like them. Whereas in a smaller community, if there’s one Methodist church, one Baptist church, one Presbyterian church, in that church there are likely to be people from many different walks of life sitting in the same pews. In this day of polarization, that’s a huge advantage, I think.

Allen Stanton: Oh, absolutely. And then even when you start talking about what kind of ministries and missions can we do, what kind of impact can we have on the community, well, you have all this expertise sitting in the church. So, if you want to run a health care ministry, well, your doctors and nurses are there. Your health care administrators are there. But, also, you have the teachers who can connect you to students. You have your school principals. And so much of what we do at the Turner Center runs through our area churches because they are the access points we have into the community. And that’s kind of the only access point we have in the community in some cases. So, it’s a really phenomenal thing. I always joke that I was at an event maybe five years ago now with a large rural economic development center and the person leaned over to me and said, “I really wish we could have a group like this with all these different job sectors represented every week.” I’m like, “Oh, I do. That’s my parish. That’s my congregation.” So, what if we leverage that in the rural community to really effect community change?

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Ann Michel: You use the language of anchor institution to describe the role that churches play within rural communities. I think that’s just such an important point. A good portion of your book is devoted to exploring a different approach to evangelism and a different approach of mission that’s built less around membership recruitment and more around community engagement, taking seriously this idea that the church is an anchor institution in the community. I wondered if you could describe this a little bit. Maybe give an example of what that really looks like in practice — to think about your evangelism and your mission in terms of engaging the community?

Allen Stanton: The way I define evangelism in the book is a little bit different. I’m not necessarily looking at how do we attract people into the congregation, like you said, or how do we just … I grew up Southern Baptist and the term was winning souls. But we want to do what Mortimer Arias says, to enact the kingdom of God or announce the kingdom of God. That’s part of our mission. We want to form the community in a way that the kingdom of God is visible, and the people are able to live into that.

Evangelism is the ability and the practice of recognizing the kingdom of God, cultivating the kingdom of God, announcing the kingdom of God, and inviting the wider community to participate in that kingdom of God. And in the book it’s kind of lining up with asset-based community development and, sort of parallel, the ability to recognize what God is doing in your community, to see the resources that are already there and see how God is already at work, to name the assets and then cultivate the assets. To go in and start helping these resources get a little bit bigger, better, and stronger and learning how to utilize them well and partner and form partnerships. We talk about announcing the kingdom of God, the ability of a congregation or a person to say, “This is how I’m living out my faith and how I’m connecting this to the wider world I’m living in.” And then inviting people to participate in helping them name that as well.

An illustration in the book is the story of my friend, Tim, who is a pastor here in Tennessee. I sat down to talk with him about the assets in his congregation and community and how they can be used to further the kingdom of God. And Tim’s assets were a bunch of angry contractors in his community, electricians who were angry because they didn’t have the workforce they needed. And then he had a bunch of high school kids who weren’t going to go to college but — and this is his quote — “They didn’t know how to swing a hammer.” So, he had two components … right? … that needed each other but were also in conflict with each other. And Tim said, “This is a resource from the kingdom of God. God is up to something in this particular moment.” And the other thing that Tim had was a building that was just kind of a shell of a building. Tim recognized that God was up to something, that God had given these assets in the community. And then he began cultivating them. They went to the contractors, and he said, “Look, you guys need employees. We have these youth that need mentorship, not just for job skills, but for their whole selves. And we’re going to start a youth ministry anyway. So why don’t we have you mentor them?” Cultivating those connections and then putting it into practice where he was bringing them into a building every Thursday night where they would have a devotion to talk about how God was at work in their world, to talk about how God does that work in these students’ lives to help the students grow in their own discipleship and help the mentors grow in their discipleship. And then they learn the job skills.

So, they started doing the wiring in the building. They started learning how to lay pavers outside. They put up walls for the building. They were learning these really important job skills and they’re getting mentorship. And the whole time Tim is very adamant about this, he’s like “This is workforce development, but it’s also about us forming disciples and forming the whole person because that’s who we are as a church.” So, it’s really great to see him move through all these steps. Recognizing, cultivating, announcing, and inviting to the point where the county recognizes what Tim was doing was the primary means of workforce development in his town. Tim actually became a recipient of a grant from the county, a recurring annual grant to do this workforce development. And he’s creating a job pipeline. But he’s also developing the entirety of the students and changing the lives of the mentors, too. It’s a really phenomenal way that I’ve seen him invite people.

And there are countless stories like that, where I’ve worked with churches who have brought a rural family out of homelessness in six months through the same sort of process, recognizing the assets of their congregation and inviting people to participate in what God is doing. So there are really cool ways that people live that out.

Ann Michel: It’s identifying needs. It’s thinking about creative new partnerships, new ways of engaging people beyond the doors of the church but in ways that are very contextually defined.

Allen Stanton: Absolutely, yeah. But I always want to make sure I emphasize that it’s not just like a charity work, right? It’s not just getting people to see that their churches can be leaders. It’s also recognizing that this is an important and pivotal component of the kingdom of God, and so I tie this back to our Wesleyan DNA. You know, when Methodism took off in the United States, it was through small membership churches who were starting schools because they recognize that education was important to the development of a discipleship, to the development of a person. They recognize that health care was deeply tied into our spirituality, our theology, because these were things that God cared about. And so, it’s not just saying, “We need to develop a workforce.” We absolutely can develop a workforce. But it’s also pouring into the whole lives of these people and saying, “You matter. Your work matters. Our community matters in the kingdom of God. And this is part of it.” And in that, you sort of start to name practices that are essential in the kingdom of God, as well. Right? We learn how to confess together. We learn how to offer repentance together. We learn how to join in communion together and what it means to sit at the same table. And we name those in our everyday life. So, it’s both about the mission and the work and the outreach and about how that’s forming us for discipleship.

Ann Michel: So, it occurs to me that in our post-attractional era, when so many churches are struggling, these ideas are not uniquely applicable to the rural church. I think a lot of the same vision and the same advice is also very relevant to churches in urban and suburban contexts, as well.

Allen Stanton: Absolutely. And there are actually a lot of parallels between a small rural church and a small membership urban church. Some of the places where I’ve seen this done best are in urban places. I always give a shout out to my friend Megan in Florida, who is in Sanford, Florida, and she has a large homeless population outside of her congregation. They do weekly meals and now they have a startup meeting out of the neighborhood. Coworking space basically for all the nonprofits in that community that they’re launching — she’s deeply tying that back into her vision for what it means to be the church. One of the reasons I always tie this back down to the rural church is because rural churches in a community that has a stable population or a population that is not experiencing rapid growth are really unlikely to grow. They’re not going to increase their average worship attendance by a significant amount. If you’re in a town of 950 people, or you’re in a town of 7000 and you have 47 churches, the odds are that you’re not going to have a church of 955. You’re not going to have a 3,000-person church. It doesn’t work out like that. So rather than spinning their wheels trying to attract people, I tie back to the rural church in particular just to say, “Look, you have something that no one else in this community has. You have the ability to help bring about the kingdom of God for the entire community on a very real level. If you can teach every third grader in your community, which is not unreasonable or outlandish, to read at grade level, you can fundamentally alter your community and the church can be a leader of that. And it’s a cool way to see the church live out their vocation.

Ann Michel: Absolutely. I find it a very, very compelling vision for ministry. So, for listeners who are in small or rural churches, what are some first steps they can take toward this vision of vitality grounded in a community engagement?

Allen Stanton: The very first thing I encourage churches to do is to really sit down and figure out who they are. That’s number one. What are you trying to do and where are the strengths of your own congregation? You might discover that you have a lot of teachers in your congregation and you have a lot of nurses in your congregation. Beginning with that in mind, here are the natural strengths. I also encourage churches to think about other indicators and other metrics that they want to measure. I don’t believe we can just jettison metrics and measurement because the typical standards haven’t worked for us. We have to find something to measure our progress and to measure what we’re doing, so come up with indicators that are really good for your congregation. One that I always recommend is to say every year you should take stock of where people in your congregation are volunteering, so if you have a lot of people who are volunteering in the hospital, you should know that as pastor. You should know if you have a lot of people who are working on the board of the United Way. You should know that those are natural gifts and then begin reaching out to those congregations in a way that’s not just trying to say, look, we want to lead a program. I think that kind of what the church likes to do sometimes is to say, “I want to partner with you and I want to lead something with you.” But to find out where people are already at work and just start to join in that work, build that trust, and then let whatever happens — let the Holy Spirit work in that moment. And those are not hard things to do. They take time and it takes the ability to listen to the community and really listen to what people in your congregation are saying. And sometimes that means stopping the plans you already had. But I think it can lead to a really great place.

Ann Michel: You mentioned bi-vocational ministry as a potential new ministry model for some rural churches. I know it’s not a major focus in your book, but it’s of particular interest to us at the Lewis Center because we’re engaged in a major study of changes in the religious workforce. So, I wonder if you could say just a bit more about bi-vocational ministry and the rural church and perhaps what it means in terms of future approaches to ministry?

Allen Stanton: One of the harsh truths about pastoring a small membership rural church is that you probably can’t sustain a full-time minister in several of these churches. If you are trying to hire a full-time elder in a church of 13, you need to put several congregations on that circuit, right? And so the way we can sort of fill this gap is looking at unique ways of, for lack of a better term, “staffing” our churches. I think that has to be done with some care sometimes, so it might be that you have a job as a teacher and then that translates back into your context as a pastor. Or, we have a bi-vocational pastor here at our college who works in financial aid and then also works in the local church. And there are some really creative ways to do that. I’ve also seen really creative ways where a district here was exploring what it might be to have a pastor who was actually leading community development for 50 percent of their week and then the other 50 percent of the time was devoted to the church. But the harsh reality is that it’s better to use the resources you have for something that will actually further your mission than just try to scramble for a full-time pastor. So being creative about how your church is structured I think can open up a lot of doors. It just takes some imagination. I think for sure when congregations are spending such a huge proportion of their financial resources and their energy just trying to support a pastor, it doesn’t leave a lot of energy or money for anything else, so I think it’s not just economy, but it’s a way of maybe just sort of directing the focus of the church in other ways beyond just maintaining, you know, maintaining payroll, if you will.

Ann Michel: In closing, I wanted to give you an opportunity to speak to why you think the future of the rural church is important. To just cast a little bit of a vision about what the rural church can be and why it’s critical.

Allen Stanton: I think the largest reason that I am so passionate about it is because, whatever denomination you’re in, the majority of our churches are rural congregations. And I think, you know, when I’m in the United Methodist Church, I sometimes feel like that’s overlooked a little bit because we focus on what is kind of sustaining our institution. The rural church is not seen as important to sustaining the institution, the United Methodist Church, as larger churches or suburban churches are.

But these rural churches really make up the fabric of who we are as a denomination. Like I said earlier, it was actually one of the things that built us into the denomination we are today. Just in terms of the pure numbers, the majority of pastors are going to serve a small membership church. At some point, we have to figure out a way to train pastors to do that work. But then on the flipside of that, I do think that rural congregations and rural communities have unique challenges right now. There are a lot of struggles in rural places. Health care in rural communities on the whole is not really that great. Rural hospitals are closing. Rural education is not always as good as an education in an urban area. If we’re going to really address these challenges, I think churches are a place that can do it. And they can do it well. And they can do it much more efficiently than waiting for someone else to do that work for them. To me, just the ability to effect change in a rural place is one of the most important things. As someone who grew up in a rural community, who lives in a rural community, I trust the rural church to be doing meaningful work. So, I would love to see rural churches answer the call to transform their communities.

Ann Michel: I want to really thank you for giving voice to that. I know from the work we do at the Lewis Center that smaller and rural churches are so hungry for advice on how to do their work. And yet at the same time, so many of the ideas and strategies and resources come out of a large church environment. And they don’t necessarily fit their context. I think you’ve done a tremendous service to really identify some of the strengths of the rural church and suggest a way forward. So, thank you, Allen, for that.

Allen Stanton: Thank you for the conversation today.

Ann Michel: Again, the book is Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations. Thanks, Alan.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Doug Powe speaks with Mikka McCracken, executive director of innovation for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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About Author

Allen T. Stanton is the executive director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.