When I tell people where I serve in ministry, or go to a new setting, the next question is, “Where is that?” I then describe the geographic location to give the person some vague idea of the whereabouts of the people I serve. Once after telling someone of my time working in Winston-Salem, I was asked, “Is that where they burned the witches?” Or when people learn I serve in Andersonville I am asked, “Is that the Confederate prison?” I explain that one was in Massachusetts while the other is in Georgia. When fell particularly pedantic, I point out that no one was burned in Salem. And the “prison” was a Prisoner of War camp for United States soldiers and is a memorial for all US POWs.
I am surprised that few people where I live know much about their surrounding area. Also, I wonder what is implied by the question, “Where is that?” Why not ask, “Where are they?” Could it be we have unacknowledged assumptions about the people in rural places? “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
A New Look
Rural people, suburban people, and city folk all have assumptions about the others. The assumptions are often coupled with resentments. In a recent “deep listening” workshop, I played the role of the white male skeptic. The other role players were trying to recruit me into an organized attempt to take action about the schools. I both made people laugh playing the stereotype and pissed people off by again playing the stereotypical working class redneck. But what got the attention of some was when I claimed, “Woke people think they are better than us, smarter than us, and even more moral.” The eyes of my opposing role-player widened considerably at what I said. He actually heard me. It was also discussed by the group later. How we speak to people often betrays assumptions we have about them.
Getting a new look at ourselves is an important part of being of service to others. My friend, the late Andy Anderson, once said the definition of an expert was “a guy from out of town.” But that is not usually true in a rural setting. The new person is assumed (correctly) to be a stranger who “knows nothing about us.” This outsider is proposing changes in how things are done. Rural people are suspicious of that. Why be suspicious of expertise? Rural people have survived and sometimes even thrived on the old ways. How do I present myself is as important as what I need to say.
Disaffiliation As Holding On
A lot of small rural churches have disaffiliated because of fear and not just fear of who may become their new pastor. The congregations are afraid of dying. This fear of death manifests itself in other fears. “The conference wants to take everything away from us,” is one of the claims. Another is “the conference does not care if we die.” Such fears cause drastic and often unhelpful reactions such as disaffiliation.
Our rural congregations do consider themselves conservative for the most part. Many have not or not yet disaffiliated. They often feel like the leadership of the Annual Conferences send them the least qualified clergy. “When we get a good one,” they claim, “the conference takes them away after a few years.” Pastors in whom they have confidence have persuaded many of these churches to leave with the tacit promise from the pastor to stay with them.
The New Ministry
I begin a new ministry at Heiskell United Methodist Church in addition to the one I began in February which is somewhat like one I had 20 years ago. People ask, “Why aren’t you in a big suburban church by now?” My response is, “I don’t know.” Other people make those decisions. I serve where I am sent. I keep the covenant with the people I serve while I am with them. In a sense, I become a person as a part of that community. The world may not be my parish. But the parish becomes my world for a time.
St. Patrick complained to the soldiers of Coroticus, do you mistreat us because “we are Irish?” Patrick was from Briton. His call was to minister in Ireland. New ministry requires a new desire to hear, listen, and learn to love. It is who we are.