Select Page

The Beautiful Challenge of Beloved Community

Rural church clergy help their churches contribute to thriving communities

The Thriving Rural Communities (TRC) initiative works to foster thriving rural North Carolina communities by cultivating faithful rural Christian leadership and fruitful rural United Methodist congregations. Each year, TRC awards full merit-based scholarships (sponsored by The Duke Endowment) to Duke Divinity School students from the two United Methodist conferences in North Carolina. These Rural Ministry Fellows must exhibit the gifts, passion, and signs of a calling to exceptional ordained leadership in rural United Methodist churches in the state.

In just over a decade, Duke Divinity School has prepared nearly 60 Rural Ministry Fellows for ministry across the state of North Carolina. Here are just a few examples of the ways these gifted, passionate ministers are serving in rural churches and communities.

Laura Beach Byrch, M.Div. ’11, Boone UMC

“Community is about being with one another through joys, messiness, challenges, and celebrations. It’s about showing up, sharing meals, hearing one another’s stories, and loving even when it’s hard. This happens when people are connected enough to know what’s going on with each other, and how each can contribute their gifts toward the flourishing of the whole community. It looks like neighbors dropping by, people supporting local businesses, adults caring about and standing up for youth, and kids trusting the elders around them because they know the adults love them.”

“At their best, churches are places where people experience that deep, vulnerable, community and find a place of belonging. Of course, there are also churches that encourage surface-level community, but everyone is afraid to share how they’re really doing or what they really feel or think out of fear of being judged or past experiences of being hurt or shamed. On a more macro level, churches can also play a vital role in making connections and leveraging resources to improve the community: engaging with schools, creating economic impact, and encouraging their congregation to be active in creating the changes they want to see.”

Laura in front of trailers“Lately, I’ve seen wonderful lessons about community in life’s highs and lows. First, a community has formed around a weekly meal at the church, and that led church members who own their own businesses to throw a baby shower for a couple that recently had been homeless. A year ago they wouldn’t have known each other, but now they check in regularly and care deeply for one another. Second, I live in a trailer park, and recently a neighbor passed away. He was a character—he had his flaws and struggled with alcoholism. But it was a beautiful picture of community to see how neighbors who would be labeled by many people as addicts, drunks, and dysfunctional showed up and cared for one another and for the man’s fiancee.”

JASON VILLEGAS, M.Div. ’13, Murfreesboro UMC

“I think that community is an attitude, the attitude of seeing one another as made in the imago dei, first and foremostWhen we see each other in this way, we can move toward each other—not in a way that says, ‘Your distinctiveness and your sinful culture must die before we commune,’ but in a way that says, ‘I see you for who you are, distinct and different, made according to the likeness of the Trinity, and I will accept and love and live with and alongside you.’ When we learn this kind of community, we stop fighting and start seeing each other. The door is then opened to have a meaningful conversation about the distinctives that pull and push us.”

Jason at coffeehouse“Rural churches and communities face many challenges. On an international level, job loss harms our social fabric by thinning out the resources we pour into it. On a national and statewide level, the rural-urban divide continues to grow, with our young people leaving and not returning. On a local level, the once-diluted pangs of racial segregation are growing more pronounced as we lose resources, with minority communities suffering in unparalleled ways.”

“Every town has a subset of many different communities, and often we find that churches have people from many of them. In my life as a pastor, it is the one place where I have seen people from the League of the South sitting next to and worshiping with people who proclaim on social media, “Black Lives Matter” (although, they rarely know these things about each other). If we are able to prioritize connection and love above our erstwhile identities in other communities, we may find that church is a viable place to hold in tension the different communities drifting apart. And we first must convince people that they have a seat at the Table.”

Rebekah Shuford Ralph, M.Div. ’14, Mitchell’s Chapel UMC

“Community runs deeper than just common characteristics or interests; it is a connection of hearts, minds, and souls. The community is more than where we live; it is also the people who surround us in our lives. Community is being in the dirt of life with people, seeing how they live, love, and survive in a fallen world and working together to make it a less broken place.”

“My community in Boonville is thriving because we are trying to share love with anyone who needs love. It may not make church members, but we are OK with that because it is making us better disciples and leading people to God’s love. Thriving happens when people are actively seeking and accomplishing the mission work that God has put before them. Our question for our mission team this year has been, “How do we reach the unreached?” Our willingness to seek the answer is a sign of thriving.”

Rebekah visits senior“Mitchell’s Chapel is a deeply rooted community of people that have grown up together, loved together, grieved together, and worshipped together. I grew up as a preacher’s kid in the UMC, but I have never seen such a sense of community and connection as what Mitchell’s Chapel emanates. They truly have a love for everyone around them, and nothing will stop them from helping someone in need. They will find an answer to the question, ‘How do we reach the unreached?’ It may take a while, but their commitment to making and keeping a connection with all people is what makes them such a strong community.”

James Henderson, M.Div. ’07, Sanford Circuit

“A community is all the various, ethnic, racial, social, and religious groups in the church context. A community is thriving if new people are coming and engaging the local churches.”

“Challenges for rural communities include the lack of quality, long-term, professional employment and urban and suburban creep. These communities thrive when more people move here rather than move away along with an influx of industry.”

Sara Beth Pannell, M.Div. ’14, Pittsboro UMC

“I believe community is our calling and our identity as children of God. Scripture tells us that we are all created in God’s image and, as people of faith who believe in the Triune God, community is the very nature of the One who created us. Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in relationship with one another, we are created and called to be in relationship, too.”

“We are blessed to be in a place where we can serve alongside our neighbors. Every week, our church is in ministry with community partners who are changing lives. From Alcoholics Anonymous, to Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, PUMC witnesses the Pittsboro community bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Every two weeks during the summer, PUMC partners with Chatham Outreach Alliance, our local food pantry, to host SNACK (Summer Nutritional Assistance for Chatham Kids), an incredible ministry that allows families facing food insecurity during summer months to come and “shop” for groceries in a pop-up food pantry. Every Wednesday when SNACK comes to PUMC, I’m reminded that the body of Christ is called to be an open vessel where there is room for the Spirit to move and the community to flourish.”

sara beth close-up“In January of this year, community took on a whole new meaning for me when my mom passed after a long illness. Saying goodbye to her has been one of the hardest and holiest experiences of my life, and when I look back on the journey, the body of Christ at PUMC was there with me every step of the way. Bringing food prepared with love, writing notes filled with hope, and just simply showing up, this church family has been a vessel of God’s grace to me over and over again. In Christ, Paul says, we are one body and each of us belongs to one another (Romans 12:5). Through this season of my life, I give thanks that I belong to this body–this blessed community.”

Thriving Rural Communities is a partnership of Duke Divinity School, The Duke Endowment, the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. It also is a part of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Duke Divinity School’s mission is to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world.