Rural parishes don’t lack the people and resources to be the vibrant faith communities they are called to be. Local churches are called to be and do the same as parishes in other geographical settings. This includes effectively proclaiming the Good News, celebrating the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst, forming and nurturing community among the faithful, and reaching out in service and justice to a hurting world. To neglect any one of these is to fall short on realizing the mission and purpose of the local church—rural, suburban, or urban.
Still, several best practices are particularly important for rural churches. Using good pastoral practices empowers these parishes to satisfy the ever present hunger for excellence.
Offer the best
Rural parishes with small numbers do not mean their members don’t want good liturgies, effective religious education programs, or dynamic adult faith formation offerings. The best is what people expect.
A reminder of this comes from Minnesota author Carol Bly in her book Letters from the Country (Harper & Row). Many years ago, Bly bemoaned rural leaders who wanted to dumb it down and start where the people were at. Bly responded: “The people are, as they ever were, at the point of starvation for excellence.”
Understand the community
To provide the best, another practice comes into play: knowing the social and economic context in which the parish operates. Who belongs to the parish? What do parishioners do for a living? Where do people shop or recreate? What school districts are families aligned with? Who is available to volunteer for various ministries and programs?
Too often clergy and other pastoral leaders presume that most parishioners still engage in farming when perhaps only 1 or 2 percent fit that work profile. Today, many rural residents have moved to these communities from urban areas and don’t identify with traditional rural roles, especially in parishes that are relatively close to urban or regional centers.
Know your neighbors
Many rural residents take pride in knowing their neighbors. Relationships are important! Pastors and parish employees or volunteers must take the time to meet and know the people they serve. Developing these relationships is helpful for inviting people to sign up for liturgical ministries, religious education, or other programs in the parish. Inviting someone with whom you already have a good relationship is likely more effective than a bland bulletin announcement.
Rural pastors often care for two or more parishes, making it difficult for them to develop these necessary relationships with parishioners. One way to address this is to form a committee of lay volunteers to assist the pastor in getting to know parishioners and to stay abreast of what’s happening in the parishes.
Be creative and positive
Size and distance do not mean parishes should lack good Sunday worship services. Nor do they mean parishes cannot sponsor parish programs that help parishioners deepen their faith and feel they are part of something both exciting and spiritually satisfying. Yet size and distance in rural parishes do mean they must creatively and willingly seek new ways to realize the parish’s mission. There is nothing sacred about hanging on to programs and practices that have been around since “my grandfather was a member of this parish.” Respecting traditions in the parish is important. Equally important is acknowledging that some programs from the past must yield to new approaches to make a local church a vibrant faith community.
There are many ways to help make this happen. One is to work closely with neighboring parishes to staff programs important to all the parishes in the area. People and resources may no longer be available to allow every rural parish the luxury of having its own set of programs independent from neighboring churches. Parishes could also join local churches of other denominations for programming such as social ministry or Bible studies.