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Relationships Rule in Rural Ministry

The recent Rural Ministry Mobilizer made it clear: if rural ministry is the calling, then relationships are the answer.
If missionaries and leaders attending the Rural Ministry Mobilizer came away with one thing from this week’s conference, it’s that relationships are key — to the success of the church in the community and to the longevity of the minister.

Billy Thomas, senior director of U.S. Missions Church Mobilization (formerly U.S. MAPS) originally imagined that the mobilizer would be more of a discussion-based event with a handful of missionaries responding. Instead, more than 50 missionaries and leaders registered, eager to learn more about the latest insights to effective rural ministry and assisting rural ministers and ministries.

They were not disappointed as many of the speakers challenged pastors’ and missionaries’ current way of thinking and approach to ministry with new — or perhaps previously not considered — revelations during the three-day event held July 11-13 in Springfield, Missouri.

U.S. missionary Daniel Robertson and his wife, Elisha (pronounced “E-Lee-sha”), who are the Church Mobilization RV coordinators for Indiana and Ohio, attended for the express purpose of better understanding on how to bridge the communication gap between rural churches and their districts/networks.

“We wanted to know what the current thoughts were and what the experts had to say concerning rural ministry,” Elisha Robertson said. “There’s a real struggle to connect rural churches to their districts and we want to help create a bridge between the two nationwide.”

Although nearly all those in attendance were U.S. missionaries, the focus wasn’t on planting a rural church, but on coming alongside rural pastors and congregations and helping them achieve success as defined by being healthy, whole, and well-resourced.

U.S. missionary Rich Greenwald, executive director of Rural America Ministries (RAM), shared his personal experiences, but made it clear that for rural pastors — and those assisting them — they have to become part of the community.

“Every rural community is a little bit different,” Greenwald said, “but the school is the doorway to everything — if you’re not attending school events, you’re not part of the community. You can’t be a rural pastor in Wyoming and not go to the rodeo. You have to be aware of the heartbeat of the community and plug into what’s going on . . . people have to know you love them and love their community.”

Greenwald advised attendees to be sensitive to the fact that “rural” is defined much differently from one state to another; even one person to another. He also listed statistics, noting how 43% of pastors in America considered quitting following COVID due to isolation and loneliness — a statistic that is only increased for the rural pastor.

Paul Richardson, pastor of Licking Assembly of God in rural Missouri, followed Greenwald and two of several key points he made had to do with finances and relationship.

“Mounting student loan debt is what’s keeping younger people from saying yes to pastoral and rural ministry,” he said. “And this next generation is resistant to the loneliness of rural pastoral ministry.”

Richardson explained that students are coming out of Bible colleges with huge student loans that are handicapping them and keeping them from accepting rural pastorates. He urged leaders to find solutions that provide no-to-little debt, which places graduates under far less financial strain and enables new ministers to consider positions where salaries can often coincide with the current size of the church (small).

He also noted that today’s young adults aren’t afraid of doing the hard things or going to the hard places, like many accuse them of, they just want to do it with someone — to do things as a team. Encouragers are key to seeing the next generation invest in rural ministry.

“It’s biblical — Jesus surrounded Himself with a team,” Richardson pointed out. “Surround future and current rural pastors with relationship and find ways to encourage them . . . ministry is hard, ministry by itself is deadly.”

After an innovative session on the importance and implementation of media and technology in the rural setting by Michael Harris, the founder of Harris Mission Media & Technology, U.S. missionary David Bennett of Converge Group Discipleship and Coaching broke open a new window to evangelizing and discipling the next generations while continuing a theme of relationship building.

“In the post-Christian culture of America today,” Bennett stated, “Disciplemaking plus coaching plus the Holy Spirit equals fruitfulness.”

He explained that the current generation, rural or not, doesn’t want to be told what to believe or why, but they want to discover it. In fact, many young people today think it’s wrong to try to get someone else to change what they believe.

However, Bennett has found that through building healthy relationships, asking good coaching questions, and allowing those being discipled (or evangelized) to be in control of the conversations while on their own unique paths to discovering the answers, the next generation is responding positively to that path to Christ.

“The disciplemaking process needs to be more like Jesus did and less like Plato did,” Bennett says. “Jesus was a master in the art of good questions.”

Rural Compassion founder Steve Donaldson advised those in rural ministry to become “communitarians” and influencers by choosing to develop relationships with the community’s influencers.

“Build relationships before building programs,” Donaldson advised. “All ministry happens at the speed of relationships.”

Trust and relationship go hand-in-hand, and that’s what opens the door for ministers and ministries to get into schools as a trusted partner, get asked to serve on boards, and turned to in times of need.

“You will have open doors because you make connections with people,” Donaldson said. “You’re not just pastoring your church, you’re pastoring the community.”

In the final session, U.S. missionary Tim Ware of Advancement Coaching and Consulting, spoke about the changing dynamics of rural America and its impact upon “the harvest” — for rural communities as well as ministries.

Ware noted that the internet has not only brought technology to rural places, it is bringing highly educated urbanites to rural communities — those fleeing the city and can now work from home. In short, money is moving to rural America.

However, as money goes rural, property values go up and taxes go up, which can cut deeply into farmers’ and ranchers’ profit margins — possibly even destroying the viability of some farms, ranches, and even communities.

“If we want to be on leading edge of rural ministry, we can’t afford to live by previous assumptions,” Ware stated. “With every change in rural America, there’s potential change to the harvest. The harvest changes, if we don’t pay attention, we miss the harvest and people go to hell.”

For Church Mobilization Director Billy Thomas, the event can only be heralded as an overwhelming success. He hopes to use the presentations from this event to create resources for those interested in rural ministry to access in the future.

Drawing from the overarching, but non-scripted theme of relationship that emerged through the conference presentations, Thomas urged attendees to follow Christ’s example and that the Church Mobilization team cared deeply about those involved in rural ministries.

“Instead of waiting for someone to come alongside you, call someone to come — just as Jesus did,” he said. “Remember, you’re not alone. We are here for you and we care.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.