D.Min. Fellows Impact Rural CommunitiesA unique cohort of fellows addresses complex issues of access, resources, and isolation in rural communities
A unique Duke Divinity School fellowship program brought pastors in rural North Carolina together to develop projects that address challenging problems in their communities, and then launch those projects in their home parishes.
The Rural Church D.Min. Fellowship, a three-year one-time pilot project funded by The Duke Endowment and The Parish Ministry Fund, began in 2020 with a cohort of 16 students, all United Methodist pastors, who journeyed through the D.Min. program together to work on practical solutions to issues in their communities.
The fellowship showcased a special partnership with the Ormond Center at Duke Divinity School, which used its expertise to support the cohort by journeying alongside the fellows, recruiting church and community leaders for advice and feedback on fellows’ projects, and uniting theology and practice by teaching and participating in three of the required program courses.
“Coming into the D.Min. fellowship really helped give me some thought partners, stimulate my own thinking, and give me an opportunity to explore how we remain faithful and effective to continue the mission of the church despite the challenges.”
— The Rev. Cathy Kearney
Rural Pastors Impacting Local Communities
Through special courses and their individual real-world capstone projects, the fellows addressed complex issues of access, resources, and isolation in rural communities, bringing their theological formation into real-world practice.
Projects included “Hope for Healing,” a project that invited an ecumenical community to attend a retreat discussing racial identity, what racial identity means to attendees, and what they believe is needed to move forward; “Upstream Solutions for Community Thriving,” a project focused on fostering spaces for conversations on food insecurity, transportation, and mental health; and “Vitality through Storytelling,” a project which helps individuals form a deeper connection with God, one another, and their community through storytelling, allowing them to narrate their stories and root them in the larger narrative of God’s story.
“Being a part of the D.Min. program at Duke has renewed my passion for the rural church. It has created renewed passion and energy to see ways that my experience, my history, and my gifts are connected to the ways God is calling me in the future.”
— The Rev. Nicole Jones
The Rev. Cathy Kearney’s “Hope for Healing” project centers on the idea that the church in rural communities is a vital player in the life of the community and can be an agent of change around challenges like race and racial division. “Coming into the D.Min. fellowship really helped give me some thought partners, stimulate my own thinking, and give me an opportunity to explore how we remain faithful and effective to continue the mission of the church despite the challenges,” she said.
The Rev. Darren Crotts, whose “Upstream Solutions for Community Thriving” project is targeted at addressing justice issues before they become bigger problem, says the fellowship has helped shape his calling. The former pastor of Smith Grove UMC in Mocksville, N.C. is now a project manager for the NC Rural Center. “I cannot say enough about how the Ormond Center and Duke Divinity School have equipped me for this conversation,” he said. “The spaces Duke has allowed me to be in has inspired me to do this work on a larger scale.”
Said the Rev. Nicole Jones, “Being a part of the D.Min. program at Duke has renewed my passion for the rural church. It has created renewed passion and energy to see ways that my experience, my history, and my gifts are connected to the ways God is calling me in the future.” Jones sees a vibrantly creative and innovative nature in the rural church but also identifies a need for connection. Her project, “Vitality through Storytelling,” helps people connect with the stories of their churches and communities, highlighting the connection that all people share in God’s story.
Hope for Healing
Rev. Cathy Kearney local church is in Warrenton, NC, one of the oldest communities in the state. The church plays a vital role in the wellbeing of this neighborhood and has a rich history with a beautiful agricultural landscape. Her project, “Hope for Healing,” created an opportunity for dialogue around race, as she invited an ecumenical community to attend a retreat and discuss racial identity, what racial identity means to attendees, and what they believe is needed to move forward.
Upstream Solutions for Community Thriving
As a pastor at Smith Grove UMC, Darren Crotts was constantly connecting with those in his community, looking for grants, and advocating for justice issues. He became a D.Min. fellow in order to be better equipped to respond to the challenges of his rural community. His project provided upstream solutions by fostering spaces for conversations on food insecurity, transportation, and mental health in his community.
Vitality through Storytelling
For Nicole Jones, creativity, innovation, and collaborative ministry are at the heart of rural church communities. As a D.Min. Fellow, Nicole learned the importance of connection and storytelling. Her capstone project, “Vitality through Storytelling,” helped narrate the stories of local churches and communities. At the same time, she rooted these stories in the larger narrative of God’s story and showed why the local stories of churches matter, while empowering local congregations to be faithful storytellers within their context.
Serving Community by Selling Church Property
Pastor of Biltmore UMC in Asheville, Lucy Robbins always had a passion for getting out of the church building and connecting with the marginalized in her community. When her congregation faced a dilemma of whether to sell their church property, they ultimately decided to sell in order to better serve her neighborhood. For her project, Robbins helped lead her congregation towards a mindset of abundance in the resources they held—the abundance of seeing the possibility that selling the church property could create for the community.
Pilgrimage of Hope
As co-ministers, Kevin Bates and Kevin Miller desire to help people encounter God by falling deeper in love with creation. They believe in the importance of bodies to experience God and the holy, and that pilgrimage and walking move people to a deeper connection with God that goes beyond the head. Their project, “Pilgrimage of Hope,” brings pilgrims through the Upper Swannanoa Watershed in Black Mountain. As people journey through the local watershed, they become grounded in a sense of place, awaken to the holy, and learn to care for creation.
The Ormond Center and Student Formation
The Ormond Center’s mission, which centers around equipping churches and communities for thriving, made driving the Rural Church D.Min. Fellowship a natural fit.
Said Dr. Linda Coley, executive director of the Ormond Center, “It is important for Ormond to engage these D.Min students because fostering thriving clergy, congregations, and communities (particularly rural communities) is the mission of the Ormond Center. We are able, through the generosity of the Duke Endowment, to put these projects into our ‘Pathways of Repair’ process and use our resources, talents, and gifts to help our students, who become our alumni, get to the finish line of implantation in their respective communities.”
“The church, as an anchor institution at the community level of the economy, needs to become an agent of thriving, addressing barriers to thriving such as oppression, poverty, injustice, inequality, and inequity.”
— Dr. Linda Coley
Most of the projects will continue long after the cohort graduates from the program. This semester, all 16 graduating students submitted their final capstone projects for approval to an audience of their peers, funders, Ormond Center leadership, and invited guests who were invested in the success of the projects from start to finish.
After spending years advising, supporting, teaching, and helping build networks for the students, the leadership at the Ormond Center will evaluate their final project presentations. Said Coley, “I’m looking at the work with an eye for of missional innovation, community economic development consideration, and ability to implement. Moving forward, Ormond’s purpose would now be to encourage that implementation.”
The Ormond Center’s mission is “to foster renewed imagination, will, and ability among clergy, congregations, and communities as we journey together, becoming agents of thriving.” Linda Coley says the Ormond Center’s work is particularly important in rural areas because “the church, as an anchor institution at the community level of the economy, needs to become an agent of thriving, addressing barriers to thriving such as oppression, poverty, injustice, inequality, and inequity.”
More D.Min. Fellow Projects
Jason Villegas: Co-Laboring in Church
Villegas’ project worked to better connect a small rural UMC that has recently gone from being all white, English-speaking to roughly half migrant, Spanish-speaking.
Ken Spencer: ESL: Empathy as a Second Language
Spencer’s project seeks to build cross-sector collaborations in Lincoln County, NC to help citizens become community stakeholders.
Kennetra Irby Brackett: Real Talk
Brackett’s project engages Christians of African ancestry in conversations about end-of-life.
Cathy Kearney: Healing for Hope
Kearney’s project is pushing for ecumenical and intergenerational dialogue around racial memory through storytelling and creative writing.
Darren Crotts: Upstream Solutions for Community Thriving
With empathetic conversations and policy around food insecurity, transportation, and mental health, Crotts seeks to find solutions that are upstream of these issues.
Brad Hinton: A Broader View of Mission and Ministry
Hinton’s project seeks to help Christians think creatively about the ways the places they live, work, and play are places to be in mission and ministry.
Nicole Jones: Vitality Through Storytelling
Connecting people with God and community, Jones’ project helps individuals and congregations narrate their story with hope and empowerment.
Rebekah Ralph: Celebration of Foster Families and Resources Fair
Ralph’s project involves a resource fair to help build stronger and healthier families.
David Blackenberg: Appreciating God’s Gifts
A practical field guide for clergy and laity to assist in developing a vision mindset for faith communities.
Kevin Bates & Kevin Miller: A Pilgrimage of Hope
Helping people fall in love with creation, this project guides people on a pilgrimage of prayers, blessing, lament, and liturgy.
Debbie Matthis: Thriving Stedman: A Community Experience
A once a month series of outdoor festivals that promote community thriving with farmer’s markets, thrift stores, and various vendors.
David Joyner: Who Are We?
Joyner’s project seeks to assist the local church in identifying who they are in relation to the community around them.
Lucy Robbins: Assets of Abundance
A resource guide for churches to discern creative and sustainable ministry solutions rooted in their fixed assets.
Richard Booker: Hope N.O.W. Youth Coalition
This coalition of government agencies, local businesses, and non-profits working with at-risk youth will launch a youth-run thrift store.
Jim Bolyard: Moving Moore
Bolyard’s project works to increase the availability, affordability, and reliability of healthcare transportation in Moore County, N.C.