The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, who oversees the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School, offers these insights and lessons learned:
- Recognize the power of partnership. A spirit of genuine partnership among the stakeholders has been crucial to Thriving Rural Communities. Getting the right people around the table, seeking “win-win” scenarios, ensuring avenues of communication, sharing decision-making responsibility, and reaching out to other potential partners have multiplied the initiative’s impact.
- Identify and invite the outliers. Beginning with the assumption that one congregation can inspire another, the initiative began with a deliberate effort to identify rural North Carolina United Methodist churches that already show signs of thriving. It is always good to ask: “Who already is doing this well, and what can we learn from them that might apply to our unique context?”
- Start with a committed core group. The initiative began by focusing on a core group of the Rural Ministry Fellows and the partner Thriving Rural Churches. By fostering a communal identity within this group, a critical mass has been created that will draw others into the work.
- Speak the word of grace before the word of challenge. Rural congregations and communities are places of great gifts and beauty. Many rural churches and communities suffer from low self-regard, and need first to hear a message of their own worth and power. They also need to be listened to. Only then can a word of challenge and change be heard. Empowerment happens when acceptance, affirmation, respect and challenge are offered in the right proportion.
- Plan for flexibility. Undertakings such as Thriving Rural Communities rarely follow the initial blueprint. They must learn from successes, failures and new opportunities, and then discern the right course corrections.
- At the same time, keep the end in mind. Amid the unexpected experiences that are part of any endeavor, it's important to keep the end goal in mind.
Since the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative began, 42 Rural Ministry Fellows have been selected for the program. Of these, 24 are from the North Carolina Conference and 18 are from the Western North Carolina Conference. Thirteen have graduated from the program and 11 have been appointed to serve in rural churches. One Fellow has been appointed as director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. Another was serving in a rural church, but has been reappointed. Duke Divinity School projects that a total of 35 Fellows will graduate by 2015.
Fellows form a close-knit group, and attend activities such as monthly Rural Ministry Colloquia and an annual retreat. They also have encouraged their peers on campus to attend colloquia and learn more about rural ministry.
The connections between the Rural Fellows and the model churches taking part in the Thriving Rural Churches program have proven valuable. Fellows report that the field education they receive at the model churches prepares them for the issues and concerns facing rural congregations.
Model churches have reached out to their communities in many ways using available funding from The Duke Endowment. Seven of the eight, for example, received grants totaling $204,500 for community projects, ranging from feeding local sports teams before games, to creating a summer camp for children living in poverty, to creating an off-campus informal worship space for those not comfortable in a formal church setting.
Clergy throughout North Carolina who participate in Thriving Rural Communities Initiative activities — either hosted at Duke Divinity School or conducted by the Conferences — consistently rate them as very valuable to their competence as pastors. Leadership from rural churches within the conferences has increased; one former model church pastor was appointed to the position of District Superintendent and a Bishop’s Cabinet post.