Rural Ministry Matters
Five years ago, Bryan Jarrett lived what most Assemblies of God pastors would have considered the ministerial dream. His suburban Dallas Northplace Church, with more than 2,400 worshippers filling pews on Sundays, had become a megachurch success story.
The church, and its locale of Sachse, Texas, both had far humbler origins. When founded in 1921, the then-fledgling congregation served a relative handful of mostly white and fervently Pentecostal parishioners in a town that wouldn’t top 300 souls until 1960 (today, the suburban bedroom community of Sache has a population of 25,000).
And Jarrett? While watching both congregation and community grow during more than 14 years as Northplace’s pastor, he says he never lost his country heart, having grown up in a small Arkansas farming hamlet.
So, in 2015 Jarrett and likeminded AG clergy and laypeople launched the Rural Matters initiative, dedicated to recognizing the plight and needs of small, struggling fellowships and their pastors who serve the nation’s thousands of small farming, ranching, mining, timber, and fishing communities.
The Rural Matters movement has since exploded in both vision, program entities, and participation. Through its Water Tower Leadership Network, Jarrett overseas hosting of “cohorts” of 20-25 rural ministers brought to the Dallas area every other month. Participants find help in a variety of areas, including financial assistance, bivocational job training, health insurance, investment planning, technical and leadership training, and staffing assistance.
While Jarrett still runs the cohorts for the movement’s seminal Water Tower Leadership Network (named as a nod to the landmark structures typical of so many rural communities), the wider Rural Matters umbrella itself has grown beyond the Assemblies of God to include various other, mostly evangelical, denominations.
“It’s truly become a national conversation, bringing rural ministry to the forefront,” Jarrett says. “We’ve been able to elevate the conversation to one of rural missiology, broadly written for the whole Church, not just my own denomination and brand — and this conversation about reaching rural churches and pastors is touching far more people than I ever imagined.”
Jarrett credits much of that metamorphosis to the support for the cause from author, church planter, researcher, and educator Edward Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church at Wheaton College. The Illinois institution now hosts the movement’s new associated Rural Matters Institute – inspired by Water Tower Leadership Network, but with a broader outreach that includes rural clergy who hail from Southern Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Vineyard, Church of God, and other backgrounds.
Through the long-running Rural Compassion U.S. Missions nonprofit, the Assemblies of God has long offered continuing education scholarships through its Global University, along with training, mentoring, and training to rural pastors. What became the Water Tower Leadership Network grew out of that, according to Jarrett, who sees the Wheaton-based Rural Matters programs — and rural ministry courses and degree programs now being offered at Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and multiple other colleges and seminaries — as spiritual siblings.
Back in Texas, both the Water Tower Leadership Network and the ministerial outreach of Northplace — and of Jarrett and his wife, Haley, personally — have multiplied as well. The key: what Jarrett calls the miraculous 2015 acquisition of Lonesome Dove Ranch, about 20 miles northeast of Dallas.
The ranch not only hosts the network’s rural pastoral cohorts, but is offering a free bed-and-breakfast getaway for pastors and their families, along with “counseling and healing from burnout or heartbreak due to the unique challenges of small town and rural ministry,” Jarrett says.
Lonesome Dove also has taken on a new and expanding role as a refuge for up to 50 abused, neglected, or orphaned children a week. In cooperation with social service child protection agencies, the ranch helps, where deemed appropriate, to prepare its young charges for foster and permanent adoptive placements in Christian homes.
That latter mission is especially close to the 46-year-old Jarrett’s heart, and fuels his commitment to dedicating the “last half of my life to helping brokenhearted children, children who grew up like me, sexually exploited, or abused, neglected or abandoned,” he explains.
Financing for much of the purchase came from AG Financial and generous donations — including from the Jarretts personally — to underwrite operations at the charity formed to own the ranch. Jarrett — while still serving as Northplace senior pastor — is founder and director, and shares administrative duties with Haley.
“We are burning the candle at both ends at bit,” Jarrett acknowledges. “But this is an incredible opportunity. The joy is that our congregation got hold of the call of the rural mission field, and now a lot of kids also get to be adopted by people in the church.”
The ranch is staffed by more than 100 thoroughly vetted, though unpaid, volunteers, whose skill sets include cooks, groundskeepers, counselors, crafts and arts instructions, therapists, anglers, and yes, cowboys. After all, Lonesome Dove is a working ranch, complete with 10 therapy horses, a growing herd of donated cattle, bunkhouses, a rodeo arena, and a barn renovated to serve as a 250-seat chapel.
The Lonesome Dove and the Water Tower initiatives are valued, integral parts of the AG’s Rural America Ministries Network, along with the Fellowship’s Rural Compassion, Acts 2 Journey church revitalization initiative, the Church Multiplication Network, and other outreaches, according to RAM Director Wes R. Bartel.
“Both are excellent ministries and definitely are a blessing to rural churches, pastors, and families,” says Bartel, who founded RAM in 2017. “They are, in fact, indispensable resources for rural churches, and it is my hope to see more of our districts and churches involved in their ministry.”
Lonesome Dove, the Water Tower Leadership Network, and other RAM organization members are evidence of the AG’s growing commitment to small-town pastors and congregations for too long delegated to second-class status. AG pastor Karl Vaters has also become a small-church pundit across the nation.
“We need to inspire new rural pastors to see their ministry as a lifelong calling” instead of just a rung on the career ladder to pastoring ever larger congregations, Bartel says.