Action plan proposal aims to strengthen rural congregations

Although rural United Methodist churches make up a little more than a third of the denomination's membership, those congregations account for half the overall membership loss in recent decades.

To reverse that decline and provide other support to rural churches, an action plan to implement the denomination's National Comprehensive Plan for Town & Country Ministries has been proposed to the United Methodist General Conference, meeting April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

The goals of the action plan are to develop, support and affirm effective ministries in rural cultures and contexts and develop, strengthen and sustain effective leadership for town and country ministries.

Directors of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries heard specifics about the plan during their March 22-25 meeting in Stamford, Conn.

The Rev. Alan Rice, a district superintendent from North Wilkesboro, N.C., and a member of the planning team, told directors that more than half -- 20,203 of 35,670 -- of United Methodist congregations are rural, which means they are found in areas with less than 200 people per square mile.

Between 1982 and 2001, however, membership losses in rural congregations accounted for half of the denomination's total loss of slightly more than 1 million members. The denomination has 8.3 million U.S. members and 1.9 million members in Africa, Asia and Europe.

"They are perishing and I want to know who cares," Rice declared.

Expressing fear that UMC now stands for "Upper Middle Class," he said it is time for the denomination to make a radical change in how it deals with rural congregations.

The 2000 General Conference adopted a foundation document for Town & Country Ministries, called "Born Again in Every Place," with instructions that an implementation plan be developed over the next four years.

Dale Fooshee, a team member and board director from Topeka, Kan., said research has indicated many rural congregations feel "ignored within the connection." The action plan is not concerned with "managing decline," he added, but encouraging bold mission steps.

The action plan urges the denomination and its rural congregations to "catch fire" by moving the focus "from a survival mentality to self-sacrificing servanthood"; taking the initiative for Christ's ministry "by activating themselves for service and witness"; using resources available to them; and releasing energy and "letting it loose for empowerment and promise."

"Understanding the rural context and the varieties of rural culture is a task for the church as a whole as well as for local congregations," the plan states. While the local congregations must know their communities, it continues, denominational leaders, especially those in annual (regional) conferences with rural congregations, must "comprehend the complex realities of contemporary rural life."

The plan recommends the formation of a "general church team on town and country ministries" to promote collaboration among church agencies. A system of data collection and sharing is to be developed, and effective models of ministry promoted.

In terms of leadership, the plan acknowledges that town and country churches are "increasingly served by licensed local pastors, lay pastors, laity assigned and lay speakers. This is a pattern that is likely to continue and expand in the future, and it is out of the grace of God that The United Methodist Church recognizes and encourages the pastoral capacities of the laity."

It advocates the development of educational opportunities for both clergy and lay leadership. A "town and country ministry toolkit" is one resource suggested for training purposes.

The action plan recognizes witness to Jesus Christ in both remote areas and population centers. "Upholding and celebrating town and country ministry provides a sense of wholeness and can re-awaken the family of faith to our responsibility in all places," it says.

* Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.  News media can contact Linda Bloom at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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