In the district that the Rev. Joseph Bishman oversees in southern Ohio, just at the edge of Appalachia, only two of the 159 United Methodist churches are what he would call “fiscally sound congregations.”
That’s a polite way of acknowledging the economic reality of the Shawnee Valley District, part of the West Ohio Conference. In two of the district’s counties, for example, the average income is only $18,500.
Still, while neither the churches nor their members would seem to have a dollar to spare, United Methodists there have miraculously raised nearly $650,000 over the past few years to support church planting half a world away in Vietnam.
That success, Bishman believes, started with a decision to regard the entire district as one large congregation, creating a sense of connection beyond the requirements of the denominational structure. The goal was to get them to move a mountain “one shovel, one basket, one cart at a time.”
After interviewing Bishman and hearing him speak at the recent Board of Global Ministries meeting, I have to wonder: is the idea of bringing together a whole district as if it is one congregation another possible way to address the rural church crisis in our denomination?
UMNS has spent considerable time looking at rural churches over the past year. Although such congregations still view themselves as the backbone of The United Methodist Church, on a practical level many are struggling to maintain old buildings, pay pastors and serve their communities with an aging, shrinking membership.
More significantly, many members of rural or small town churches are feeling abandoned by those in denominational leadership – from district superintendent to bishop to national agency staff. A 2010 survey conducted by the United Methodist rural fellowship showed these congregations are seeking encouragement and affirmation from the larger church to show their ministry is still valued.
Models to help renew rural churches are being implemented in some cases– I saw how a combined parish of five churches in northwestern Ohio seems to be working – but it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Maybe the idea of the one-congregation mindset for a district of small churches would be a good fit in some conferences.
In the Shawnee Valley, that concept has led to a unique form of connectionalism that seemed to be missing before. And it supports what rural experts say is necessary for any congregations hoping to survive into the future: the ability to look outside themselves and be a mission presences in their communities.
Even communities on other continents.