Will small, rural churches have a voice in a reconfigured United Methodist Church?
That's a concern of the United Methodist Rural Fellowship as the 2012 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
While the fellowship has not taken a formal position on the "Call to Action" report and its recommendations, said the Rev. Roger Grace, president, "the reality is the focus seemingly is almost always on the fast-growing areas where there are lots of people," leaving town and country congregations overlooked.
Grace believes that size shouldn't always matter. "If churches want to be centers for making disciples &ellipsis; they can do that with a small, core group of people or they can do that as a larger church," he added.
While some struggling rural congregations across the United States have been forced to close, rural churches still represent an estimated 20,000 of the denomination's 33,500 U.S. churches. Rural congregations also are part of the United Methodist global landscape.
The fellowship, which was founded to provide a voice for rural churches within the denomination, is a regular fixture at General Conference. For 2012, however, the group has dramatically scaled back the number of petitions it has submitted, said the Rev. Peggy Paige, legislative co-chairperson, who has attended most of the quadrennial assemblies since her student days in 1976.
"We decided with all the big issues coming before General Conference this time &ellipsis; we'd rather be a voice and a presence there to help," she explained. "We worked hard on the statement of values."
'Health, vitality and sustainability'
In its "values" statement for General Conference, the fellowship declares that "the health, vitality, and sustainability of each local congregation should be held as the primary value of the denominational structure."
Rural communities offer an important context "for mission, ministry, and the making of new disciples for Christ," the fellowship points out. "We hold in high value the welfare of rural people worldwide, including access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, clear water, education, spiritual care, economic development, and systems of justice."
For the Rev. Ed Kail, a field outreach minister in Iowa and a United Methodist elder since 1979, the key word for the denomination's future is "revitalization." The fellowship's immediate past president, he has served the church in many capacities, from pastor to district superintendent to seminary professor.
"Rural churches and churches of any size are in the same boat regardless of context," he said. "The need for vitalization or revitalization is critical all over."
While rural churches "stand in common cause" with those committed to vitality "for the sake of the mission of Jesus," there is concern about some of the methods and structures being proposed, he noted.
In particular, the rural community is wary "of what they're calling metrics" as a way to measure vitality in a congregation. "Folks in small rural churches have gotten kind of suspicious of numbers," he said, explaining that statistical trends tend to be used against them.
Kail said he also knows markers like worship attendance or professions of faith "can be fudged or interpreted in different ways" and may not be accurate drivers of vitality. He hopes credence will be given to testimony or stories of transformation in ways that could help focus a district or annual conference's resourcing to increase vitality in as many places as possible.
"In the end, the only driver is the spirit of God active in the lives of the people," he said.
The United Methodist Rural Fellowship plans to make its presence known at General Conference by setting up offices and a hospitality room at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk; engaging volunteers to monitor legislation and perform other duties; publishing a daily bulletin, also available online, to track rural concerns; and inviting visitors to a noon luncheon April 24 at the Sheraton.
The fellowship's executive committee may respond to legislation as the legislation is revised, said Paige, who oversees a two-point charge in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Part of the goal is to serve as a voice for small congregations, both nationally and globally. "We are such a diverse church," she added. "I celebrate that and really don't want to lose that."
The limited legislation that has been submitted by the fellowship includes a recommendation to delete language making small urban churches more vulnerable to closure and shift the focus of the assessment process of "local church vitality" from the number in attendance to the capacity of a congregation to transform its community.
Rural churches share more similarities with urban churches than with suburban congregations, Grace pointed out. "In some cases, if you come out of a suburban setting and go into a rural setting, it's almost a cross-cultural appointment."
A pastoral leader needs to be trained and equipped for the rural context, the fellowship believes. In addition, there must be "consistency across the connection regarding standards, assessment, and judicatory intervention into ministries and local congregations."
Other proposed new language would allow a church that has been abandoned or closed to be transferred as a gift to a local nonprofit with values consistent to the denomination "that will begin, enhance or continue the work and vision of ministry with the poor in that community."
That petition was affirmed by the United Methodist Appalachian Ministry Network during its March 22-23 meeting in Charleston, W.Va.
In many rural communities, Grace pointed out, schools, post offices and other businesses have closed, so that "the only place that is suitable in the community may be the church. It's the only thing left."
The same situation applies to urban neighborhoods. "Many times people are doing similar ministries, but they don't have the funds (to buy a building)," he noted.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].