Supporting Rural Clergy
Another week is coming to a busy end for the Rev. Teresa Holloway. She spent Thursday at the hospital with a member of her congregation – and because Holloway’s church is in a rural part of North Carolina, the round trip drive took four hours. On Friday, she had a sermon to write, phone calls to return, Bible classes to plan.
“As pastor of a small church, I’m pretty much ‘on’ all the time,” Holloway says.
For years now, she has looked forward to an annual event that brings together clergy from rural United Methodist churches in North Carolina. Called the Convocation on the Rural Church, the retreat is held every summer in Myrtle Beach, S.C. By combining free time with special programming, the event is restorative in more ways than one
“It’s invigorating,” Holloway says. “It’s just a wonderful chance for renewal.”
The Duke Endowment helped launch the retreat in 2004 and assists with planning each year’s schedule. The Endowment also makes it more affordable for participants.
In 2010, the Convocation focused on “The Grace of Rural Ministry.” The agenda included worship services, lectures and small group discussions. Workshops covered “Radical Hospitality,” “The Art of Consensus, The Grace of Conflict” and “Ministry Beyond Loneliness.” In “Come and See” sessions, clergy shared ideas about programs that work well in their congregations. And each day included time for dining out, relaxing on the beach or reading by the pool.
Learning From Each Other
The goal is to support rural pastors as they serve their communities. In North Carolina, 85 of 100 counties are classified as rural, according to the N.C. Rural Center, and slightly under 50 percent of the state’s total population lives in rural areas. In 2009, the poverty rate for rural residents was 19 percent.
“Some of our churches exist in areas that have seen dramatic changes over the years,” says Jeremy Troxler, head of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School, which partners with Duke Divinity Continuing Education to create the Convocations. “Family farms have been sold. Manufacturers have moved. Some of the social fabric that has defined these communities has frayed. At the same time, new populations of people have moved in from different places and there might be tension between natives and newcomers.”
Rural churches can play a pivotal role helping communities find new opportunities for outreach. But far away from family or colleagues, rural clergy sometimes feel isolated. They struggle to find resources for their ministry. They might have a hard time introducing change in places tied to tradition.
“During the Convocation, pastors can learn from each other and see that they aren’t out there alone,” Troxler says. “It’s also a way to tell them they’re important – that we see the value in what they do. What a gift it is to do this work!”
With rare opportunities for fellowship and rest, the Convocation attracts a capacity crowd – usually within hours after registration opens.
“Our biggest challenge is the fact that there is so much demand to attend,” Troxler says. “This is something that is deeply valued by the people who come.”
Teresa Holloway agrees. “It’s nice to share with people who have the same issues and challenges,” she says. “I always come back feeling restored – and with new things to try.”