Guest Blogging on Leaving the Herd

Ben Rigbsy, a recent guest blogger on Heartlands, got me thinking about moving and relationships for his site, Leaving the Herd:

http://leavingtheherd.com/2018/04/20/7-ways-to-stay-in-love-in-the-midst-of-a-move/

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people.  In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive

This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.

But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?

If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?

If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.

  1. Find a mentor or coach

As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.

In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

 

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby.  You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.

The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years.  Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)

In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.

It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start. 

Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.

Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?

I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.

Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?

Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”

  1. “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith

In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.

Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”

Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.

89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was first published in the U.S. in 1885.

Earlier this month I had written an essay for the publication FaithLink* called “Religious Satire” and included Mark Twain as arguably the greatest American satirist.    In the research for my essay I couldn’t resist going to my favorite literature website, Shmoop, and watching the short videos on satire on their ShmoopTube (a.k.a. Where Monty Python Meets Your 10th Grade Teacher).  I found three videos about Huck Finn that I wish school board members in Duluth would watch:

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  (2:33) informs viewers that Huck Finn has 220px-Huckleberry_Finn_bookbeen on the top 100 banned books in the U.S. for several decades and frequently makes the top 10.  The main reason for the novel’s notoriety among censors is that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular and used offensive language–specifically the N-word–219 times.  Yes, bad boy Huck started out a racist.  He learned it from his culture but he changed.  His spiritual journey with the slave Jim parallels their journey down the Mississippi.  If racist readers commit to that journey with Jim and Huck, there’s a good chance they will change too.

“American Literature: Finn: Racism”  (5:44) makes the points that anti-racism is the point of this novel and that the novel takes on systemic racism.  It’s pretty amazing that a white man born in 1835 in Missouri understood that racism is systemic and had the ability to put readers inside a racist society so that they could feel the offense.  The video mentions that a publication of a version in 2011 replaced the N-word with the word “slave” and comments about that attempt to be less offensive:  “It’s supposed to be an ugly word. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.  Hiding it just waters down what Twain was trying to say.”

“American Literature: Huck Finn: Satire”  (5:38) explains satire in general, and the satire in Huck Finn in particular, as a way of exposing human foolishness and sin.  It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

Shmoop Tube videos are designed for 10th graders by grad students in literature who know how to “speak” High School Student and their humor is commensurate with their audience’s level of maturity.  Nonetheless, I think adults who want to ban books, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird could learn a thing or two here.

 *Though FaithLink is a curriculum available by subscription from Cokesbury, the essay portion of an issue is sometimes picked up and posted on the Ministry Matters site.

–Jeanne Torrence Finley

Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

Rural Soul: Confession – Guest Blogger Sara Keeling

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues as guest host this week, while I am in Israel & Palestine.  Today: a confessional look at the journey of call.

I started a blog in 2003.

Blogging—was THE social media platform of its time—we were a few years away from facebook, twitter was still confusing, and instagram yet to be imagined. The form of sharing our souls on the internet was not through selfies and humble brags, but longish journal style entries logging the ordinary excitement of our days.  

So when Alex (and others) recently jumped back into blogging, I thought oh how 2003. We’ve done this before.  

My blog was all about me: To document my life and the call to ministry. Without irony, I called it The Bold Journey. Because it so reflected how I felt. Called and crazy, selfish and selfless. I hoped to make sense of this change and call, and find others along the way or explain myself to others.

My call to ministry, felt fiery and intense, a demanding God finally laying hold of me, like falling in love, which I also did at exactly the same time, intensity of emotion for another human being and for God intertwining, playing off of one another, creativity and dreaming and desire all tangled up together, flesh and spirit, hopes and visions . . . The Bold Journey indeed. As terrifying and real and new as any major life changes we make in our early 20s.  

The affair of my calling ended. Crashed and burned, we might say. Leaving behind a friendship with its own lines and contours. Which is just as well. Because it made way for a marriage and family and a future that otherwise would not have been. Any connection can initially feel intense and bold, but the truth of marriage, as anyone who’s been married for 10 minutes can tell you, is it’s mundane and ordinary.  

Sara Porter Keeling

The bold journey gives way to everyday life. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of marriage is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the weekend and retirement someday. It’s figuring out what to eat and earning and living and staying entertained and happy. It’s life.

Likewise, most days, my call to ministry has not lived up to the hype. It didn’t crash and burn, but ignited and stayed alive, though its more like smoldering embers. The essence still alive, but the intensity faded.  

Because the truth of ministry is that it’s mundane and ordinary. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of ministry is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the next Sunday and all of the ones after that. It turns out, every week has a Sunday. It’s life.  

Rural ministry, I suspect, is among the most of the mundane and ordinary. As is rural life. Even in its richness, its legacy, its complexity and simplicity. Most of the recent drama has come to us through our television screens and social media. Nazis have yet to march through my county. We haven’t quite decided if we’re going to do something about the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. We did enthusiastically watch the eclipse and will send donations to help in Texas. The Nashville Statement didn’t hit the radars of any in my congregation.  

I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to change the world. A decade a half later, I wonder, was this such a bold journey?  Perhaps the Mundane Journey. Which sounds awful and boring and yet . . .

Mundane also means common. Day-to-day. Ordinary. Practical. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. Earthly.

We spend most of our Christian year in Ordinary time. We spend most of our lives in the common and the practical.

Even the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, God incarnate, is also mundane: ordinary, earthly. Made of dirt, like the rest of us. And yet, even in our dust, we are made of the same stuff as stars, in the image of God. Our lives, our work, our marriages, our ministry are ordinary, practical, earthly, and therefore, necessarily: mundane.  

Saving the world looks like praying words over a funeral. Changing the world looks like naming racism and sin from the pulpit. It can also look like staring at words on your screen and wondering why your coffee cup isn’t fuller. Or why there isn’t enough time or never seems to be nearly enough grace and compassion in our world . . . Ministry is slow, peacemaking work. One meal, one conversation, one hug at a time.

Because what is a mundane life, but a true gift of God? When there are no bombs overhead. No flood waters threatening. There’s a lady in my congregation who prays every Sunday for “ordinary days,” because she knows all too well the days of health scares and school shootings and all of the other terrible things that can go wrong and throw us into chaos.

Which is all that that was about anyway . . . an ordinary life that is lived boldly . . . a never-ending journey of boldness.

Guest Blogger – C. Christopher Smith: Stirring the Economic Imaginations of Churches

 

I’ve learned a lot about books from C. Christopher Smith.  Chris is not only the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, to which I occasionally contribute.  His press is also the publisher of my book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine

He’s a great observer and interpreter of where the church is and what it could be in the 21st century.  He’s also charting new paths by caring about books and the people who write them, or as he puts it: “We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”  Today he’s guest blogger on Heartlands:

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C. Christopher Smith

As I’ve traveled across the US talking with churches about my recent book Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison), I’ve found that many mainline churches and some evangelical ones – largely in urban or rural places – are struggling with shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets. Many leaders of these churches are bordering on despair, because like most people in the Western world they have been formed by an economics of scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around.

A careful reading of the scriptural story, however, reveals a God who abundantly provides for the health and flourishing of creation. Maybe we can no longer fully rely on meeting our budgets by passing the offering plate, but this economic reality in many churches does not mean that we have to despair.  Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us. Specifically, our churches should reflect on the assets God has provided in our people, our buildings, and our land.

Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us.

I’ve been fortunate to see and hear stories of churches across North America that are thinking creatively about these resources and drawing upon them as a means of sustaining themselves economically. In order to get your own imagination moving, I wanted to briefly share some of the creative economic activity that churches are doing.  (I don’t expect that all of these ideas will be applicable to every church situation, but hopefully there might be an idea or two here that might have potential for adaptation in your church.)

Human Resources: What has God provided in the gifts and skills of your congregation (and/or your neighbors)?

And how can these gifts be leveraged in a way that benefits the church, the neighborhood or both? Many churches are starting businesses that draw upon skills in their congregation or neighborhood to bring in additional income.  Some churches start coffeehouses, restaurants or gathering places. University Christian Church in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, for instance, has started the very successful Roh’s Street Café.

61DJ2UqrooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, we have started half-a-dozen businesses over the last two decades, each of which began on a very small scale with the intersection of a gift that we had in our congregation and an opportunity to serve others in our neighborhood (or beyond).  Our businesses include an early childhood education center, an affordable housing operation, a hydroponic farm, and our magazine The Englewood Review of Books. Other churches have started businesses in catering, cleaning, and painting among other things.

Building Resources: What has God provided in the building(s) that we own?

While there are many missional advantages to owning a building, we should always be mindful that many churches through the ages – including most in the New Testament stories – have flourished without owning a building. Selling your building may be the most extreme case, and may not even be possible for some churches, given their denominational arrangements, but it is good to be reminded that churches can survive without owning a building.

Many churches are finding creative ways of sharing their buildings, and the cost of their operation. Sometimes these creative uses intersect with businesses that the church has started (such as Roh’s Street Café mentioned above). With careful coordination of schedules, some churches share their buildings with other churches. Other churches make space in their building available for rent: for office or co-working space for non-profits or entrepreneurs; for studio space for artists; for meeting space for neighborhood groups; or if they have a commercial kitchen, for catering or other food-based entrepreneurs.

And building assets might include more than just the traditional church building. Some churches own parsonages or other residential buildings. If these residences are empty or under-utilized, they could be sold, rented out through a traditional lease, or even operated on a short-term rental basis through services like AIRBNB.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we have a former 5-bedroom parsonage that we have renovated and use as a hospitality house for retreats, for people who are visiting us from other places, and for other situations where friends need a short-term place to stay.

Land Resources: What are the assets God has provided us in our land? 

Many churches are starting community gardens that provide good, home-grown food for church members or neighbors.  Community gardens may not be the most profitable venture, but there are ways to generate small profits from them.  In addition to selling some of the produce, there are many grants available for community gardens, and some of these may allow for a portion of the grant to go to the personnel who administrate the grant, or for a minimal lease of the land being used for the garden.

Some churches like Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta have allocated part of their land as a nature preserve. Under-utilized portions of church land could be developed or sold, particularly if doing so would benefit their neighborhood. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, BC realized several years ago that it had more parking lot than it needed, and in one of the highest cost housing markets in the world, they are in the process of developing affordable housing on this land, which will be affordable because the land – the most expensive part of any development in Vancouver – was already owned by the congregation.

———-

God has indeed provided abundantly for us, and for the flourishing of our neighbors in this place! 

May we have eyes of gratitude that see the riches God has provided for us, and imaginative minds that discern how to use these resources in ways that sustain and bless our congregation and our neighbors. As our eyes and minds are opened to God’s provision, we will be led out of despair and into hope.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He and his family are members of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris’s most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).

Rural Soul – guest blogger: Sara Porter Keeling

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Sara Porter Keeling can tell you about many things, but today she goes Across the Street to shed light on how community is built in a small town.  Sara is the pastor of three United Methodist Churches in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  She’s also got some truly excellent preacher boots:

This is God’s country, we say, beautiful and preserved, just pay no mind to the power lines.  Rappahannock County boasts a view of the mountains, twisty curvy back roads, and an unyielding commitment to environmental protection.  Unlike so many rural areas, our economic struggles are encased in beauty.

A closed orchard is still lovely in its own haunting way.  It still produces fruit.  There’s a sense of dignity in a run down farm house or a hollowed out barn that is absent in a closed down factory or barren strip mall.  There’s tension here between growth and development and the way it’s always been.  Tension between the native “been heres” and the arriving “come heres.”  No Walmart here, no affordable housing, and please don’t complain about your cell phone not working or lack of internet service because you knew what you signed up for when you moved out here and it wasn’t to stream 5 episodes of Friday Night Lights on Netflix.

In the bustling village of Flint Hill where I reside, I’m in walking distance to the bank, the post office, one of my churches, the local firehall, and a smattering of restaurants—all of which are essential places for community connectivity, but none so much as the humble gas station which sits directly across the street from the parsonage.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.  Someone over there has the answer to whatever question you might have.  The solution to every craving or inquiry.  Across the Street is where you go for last minute things: Baking and you ran out of sugar.  Having a party and you need chips.  Had a hard day and you need a beer or ice cream.  Nail in your tire: have Travis fix it.  Motorcycle needs inspecting: Travis, once again.  It’s about time for a new truck: go talk to Bubby.  You go Across the Street.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.

It’s also the place to go for information.  We found a dog sitter.  A job for my teenager.  A source for local, grass fed beef.  The latest updates on who is in the hospital, who is getting a divorce, who is moving or going into the nursing home and of course, everyone’s exact opinions (like it or not) on the Current Administration.

There’a table in the back and a bench out front for when it’s warm where the old(er) men gather.  I can’t tell you here what they call themselves, other than to say it’s a little obscene and they were hesitant to tell me, but I know their secret.

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Sara Porter Keeling in her preacher boots

Everyone greets them, but some are reluctant to plop down and join them, especially the women.  I’ll tell you that it helps to be a pastor who is comfortable plopping down and chatting with just about anyone anywhere, but the real trick is that it helps to have a baby on your hip, which I’ve had twice, through the six years here.  Whoever said men don’t like babies never met these guys, as they compete to make fools over themselves for a little one’s attention.

You can walk into any Starbucks in any American city and speak only to the barista.  If you walk into a cafe in Rappahannock, you will see at least eleven people that you know, and two of them that you’ve been meaning to call.  Grabbing a latte also means getting an update about that ill neighbor and checking in on funeral arrangements.

The heart of rural life, of rural ministry, is not the land, or the preservation, or the lack of jobs, or the resistance to new technology.  It’s the people.

There’s immeasurable joy in the connectivity of community.  A connection that I worried might’ve been lost in our nation, in our church when I served an urban parish . . . and a connectivity that I will surely grieve when my time here has ended.