Rural churches a unique start for young clergy – UMC.org


This is the 10th installment of a yearlong series that follows newly appointed United Methodist clergy as they begin their ministry.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert and Joey Butler*

6:00 A.M. EDT June 30, 2011 | PEGRAM, Tenn. (UMNS)

  The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children’s time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children’s time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert. View in Photo Gallery

Sometime around 1800, a log church was founded just inside the Cheatham County line – one of the first churches established in Middle Tennessee. That church was named Bethel Methodist. Now named New Bethel United Methodist, the church has outlasted most of its neighbors.

Tucked away in a rural community a half hour from Nashville, New Bethel and a sister church about 14 miles to the east, Centenary, are almost mirror images: stark white steeples, dark-paneled sanctuaries … and a few dozen people in the pews on Sunday morning.

The churches also share the same pastor, the Rev. Brian Rossbert, 29, who was appointed to the two charges after he completed seminary in 2009.

Rossbert graduated from United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He said fitting in with the rural congregations was easier because he grew up in a small town in the Colorado Rockies.

Rossbert’s appointment is typical for a young pastor.

“Most young clergy get appointed to the bottom of the salary level — small rural churches,” said the Rev. Lewis Parks, professor of theology, ministry and congregational development at Wesley.

Small churches don’t expect to have pastors who will stay with them for more than a few years, Parks said. “I work with small churches, and they would like to see the continuity of leadership. But often the young clergy have families and needs, and both parties expect they will move on.”

That is the case with Rossbert as well. After two years serving the two rural churches, he has been reappointed to Dalewood United Methodist, a 300-member church in East Nashville. His new appointment begins July 1.

“Brian is exceptional,” said Sandra Kingdon, a member of Centenary. “The first time I heard him, I told him he wouldn’t be at our church for very long.

“I hate to lose him. I really do. But, his talents need to be spread more than at our church.”

  The Rev. Jessica Baldyga. Photo courtesy of Jessica Baldyga.  The Rev. Jessica Baldyga. Photo courtesy of Jessica Baldyga

Unique challenges, benefits

Clergy often may not find a rural appointment appealing. The pay usually is low, and clergy have to serve two or three congregations to get full salary support. The pay may be too low for the pastor to start paying off tuition debt from years of seminary study. Spouses sometimes have trouble finding good job prospects. In many rural areas, the young people have moved away. That means few people are the same age as a young pastor, which can be isolating.

The Rev. Jessica Baldyga, 26, is in her first year at Farmington (Ill.) United Methodist Church, a town in central Illinois with a population of less than 2,500 and a median age of 40. She said she definitely misses her peer group.

“I am by far the youngest adult in the congregation by at least 10 years. It can be tough in a small town where I don’t know a lot of the people and the common social activity for people my age is to go out to bars,” she said.

A recent study by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) found less than 10 percent of seminary graduates open to serving in congregations with fewer than 100 members. An even smaller percentage of graduates said they were willing to serve in a rural setting.

Krysta Rexrode Wolfe, 23, is in her second year at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. She is a native of West Virginia and plans to return there to begin her ministry.

“I’m sure I have multi-part charges in my future,” she said. “I’m from a rural area and I expect to be put in those places, but some people are shocked when they get out of school and wind up in a rural place that they don’t have any passion for or experience in.”

In addition to often being much younger than their congregations, young female clergy may struggle with gender barriers.

Baldyga is Farmington’s first woman pastor. She said congregants often told her how “cute” she was or how much she reminded them of their granddaughters before she gained acceptance as their spiritual leader.

Wolfe said not only is she likely to be appointed to a church that’s never had a woman as pastor, she may also be the church’s first pastor with a seminary education. She said licensed local pastors in West Virginia outnumber ordained clergy two to one.

 The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, center, directs the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.  Photo courtesy of Kate Rugani.
The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, center, directs the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. Photo courtesy of Kate Rugani. View in Photo Gallery

“I know people who’ve never left the county I grew up in,” she said. “Because I moved away to study at a large school in an urban setting, when I go back, I have cultural bridges to build.”

Baldyga said she feels called to small churches. “This is a really good fit for me. It challenges me and, in turn, causes me to still want to challenge the congregation, which I think is necessary.”

Wolfe agrees.

“I prefer being in a rural congregation where there’s love of neighbor, visitation and work ethic. Because it’s such a big part of who we are, church becomes a very comfortable place,” she said. “I grew up with 15 moms, and these women still call me and send me care packages.”

What makes a good rural pastor?

Even though many seminary graduates are not from a rural setting, that doesn’t mean they won’t flourish there. The experience often is more about personal values than background.

Baldyga said patience is definitely a virtue for a rural pastor.

“Most often the rural churches are small and you don’t always have a lot of people who are willing to take leadership in different things. Sometimes you start new programs and they don’t always succeed because you don’t have the interest,” she said.

“Having a healthy sense of humility is important, and it’s good to have a sense of humor,” said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. “The rural folks I know appreciate someone who can laugh at themselves.

“Above all,” he added, “you need to believe this crazy gospel of ours, that Christ cherishes everyone in every community, and seeks out the one that’s lost, and sees great value in even one person showing up for a Bible study or church event.”

Proud starter church

Members of New Bethel and Centenary knew they would not keep Rossbert for long and they are OK with that. They take pride in their role as a “starter” church that serves as a mentor for pastors as they begin their ministry. Members point to the successes of other pastors who started in their churches.

“Our little churches are training churches; that’s the role that we play,” said Terry Kimbro, a member of New Bethel. “Our church has the same problems as a big church, and it gives our young pastors an opportunity to learn how to handle those problems on a smaller scale.”

 First appointments often take newly ordained pastors to small, rural churches.  Pictured here is New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn., one of two churches served by the Rev. Brian Rossbert. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
First appointments often take newly ordained pastors to small, rural churches. Pictured here is New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn., one of two churches served by the Rev. Brian Rossbert. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry. View in Photo Gallery

Rossbert agrees. “They have been able to name that for themselves that they are starter churches,” said Rossbert. “They do it not only for the benefit of themselves but also for the benefit of the churches their pastors go to.”

The Rev. Gray Southern, superintendent of the Durham, N.C., District, said many churches claim a mentoring role as part of their identity. “They will go back 30-40 years and tell you who has been their pastor and where they are today,” he said. “They proudly claim the fact that they’ve helped shape someone’s identity as pastor.”

Centenary member Sandra Kingdon said: “I think a lot of times our church is so small that we sort of have to break some of them in. We usually get the really young ones that are just coming into the ministry and we also get the retirees.”

When New Bethel had its 2010 homecoming celebration, the Rev. Cheri Parker, who was pastor at the churches from 1983 to 1990, came back as guest preacher.

While most pastors stay for only a few years, Parker stayed with the churches for seven years – the longest tenure of any pastor at New Bethel and Centenary since the 1950s. She and her husband started their family while she was pastor.

The United Methodist itinerant system appoints pastors to local churches and other ministry settings, and clergy agree to serve where they are appointed.

The common practice of sending young clergy to rural churches, only to move them to larger churches a few years later, can make those congregations feel that they are merely stepping stones to more prominent or lucrative appointments.

“When they find a great pastoral leader, it seems very quickly those clergy are called on to larger appointments,” said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. “It can leave the rural churches feeling like a second-class citizen.”

The Thriving Rural Communities Initiative offers fellowships to students who show promise in the area of rural ministry. Fellowship recipients receive a full scholarship with the agreement that after graduation, they will serve at least the first five years of their ministry in a rural community.

Troxler said too often the negative aspects of a rural appointment are seen before the unique benefits.

“Many discover a depth of community they may be unfamiliar with: living among people who’ve been living in the same place their entire life, who know its stories and its characters, being among people so dedicated to their local church, for whom the church is the center of their life.

“I’m deeply moved by the stories of pastors who have gone to a rural community and decided to stay, who’ve made their home there and committed their life there.”

The Rev. Gail Ford Smith, director of the Texas Annual (regional) Conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence, pointed to a number of student pastors who are finding great success in rural settings in her conference.

One pastor started with only two in worship and now there are 18, and another church grew from eight to 24. “And this is a congregation that didn’t want a young pastor; they didn’t want too much change,” she said. “But now they think maybe a young pastor is OK.”

From the pulpit, she reminisced about having her babies in baskets at the altar beside her when she preached.

“You taught me to be a pastor,” she said. “I will be forever thankful.”

The churches, Parker’s first as lead pastor, were a good match for her. “They were like family to us,” she said.

The Rev. Gail Ford Smith, director of the Texas Annual (regional) Conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence, echoed Parker’s sentiment. She said the first congregation she served “knew I did not come to them fully formed. I wouldn’t be the pastor I am today if not for those incredible people.

“You have to observe and respect the rhythm of that community,” Smith said. “You’d better go to the school football game on Friday night. At my first church, I learned how to can, went to cattle auctions, rode in hay balers. You need to be part of the community. A preacher that had no intent of living in the community would never be accepted.”

Experience needed

But not all rural churches may be happy about being seen as a training ground and might feel resentment that they’re relegated to inexperienced leadership.

Respondents to a March 2010 survey by the United Methodist Rural Fellowship cited a lack of qualified pastoral leadership as a central concern.

This also concerns Wolfe as she prepares for her first pastor role.

“It’s not fair to those local congregations that they don’t have a more experienced person than me,” Wolfe said. “What do I know? I’ve been in a classroom for most of my life.”

Wolfe thinks smaller and rural churches are the ones most in need of proven experience at the pulpit.

“Those places are in danger. They’re losing resources, money and population. The notion that as you gain tenure, you gain larger appointments is a futile way of doing ministry. We’re basically putting ourselves out of business by doing that.”

As Rossbert prepares for the next step in his ministry, he says he’s ready for whatever God has in store for him.

“I can’t put my thumb on what ideal ministry would look like. When we get caught up in the ‘I need to be in the big first church,’ when we elevate ourselves as pastors to that place, we kind of get in trouble and we stop serving in the way that is to the glory of God but start serving to the glory of ourselves.

“I want to be used. I want to be an instrument of grace and peace and love and pastoral presence and the body of Christ.”

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Rural churches a unique start for young clergy – UMC.org.

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3 thoughts on “Rural churches a unique start for young clergy – UMC.org

  1. This is an excellent article. I have spent almost my entire ministry in rural churches. Some have questioned why a man with a Th.D. doesn’t move to a “better” position. But the idea that bigger is better is an American idea with no basis in Scripture. Rural America represents one of the greatest mission fields and offers some of the greatest blessings. I pray that many young ministers will consider God’s calling to this field.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

    • Thank you for the comment Terry!
      It seems to me that the mission field of rural America is truly ripe for the hearing of the Good News of Christ and is open to the relationship offered by the church ~ no matter the letters before or after the name of the one representing Jesus Christ. The key to building those relationships rests on authenticity, not educational level.
      I join you in prayer that many young pastors will again respond to the call of these churches.
      Blessings,
      Pat

  2. “Those places are in danger. They’re losing resources, money and population. The notion that as you gain tenure, you gain larger appointments is a futile way of doing ministry. We’re basically putting ourselves out of business by doing that.”

    This is a revealing article, Pat. Thanks for posting it. I have done a ton of research over many years on the subject for my book and can certainly understand the above quote. This is exactly like minor league baseball. The big stars eventually make it to the show, and are blessed with pastoring giant, affluent congregations. Some never get out of the minors. Is this really ministry? I would think all believers need good, solid ministry regardless of congregation size or location. I appreciate the young ministers willing to work within the small, rural congregations, but rookies would be better served first working with mature ministers to gain maturity and wisdom, as portrayed in the New Testament. Of course, the New Testament also says we are all supposed to be ministers, and should minister together. That’s the real meaning of koinonia.

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