Knowing the Rural Church

Do rural churches know themselves?

Rural churches are typically described as dying churches- churches that do not adapt to the changing demographics around them. Rural churches are places where Christian ministry is stagnant. Because of this reputation, the rural churches are often overlooked. Renewal for the rural churches seems nearly impossible. A crude old adage captures the situation of the rural church: you can’t teach old dog new tricks.

But, Christians in the United States just cannot simply ignore rural churches. In fact, over the years rural churches have made a clear statement to the world: they are here to stay for better or worse. Despite declining membership, rural churches have stood the test of time by adapting in ways that are not always fruitful. Because of the struggles they face, rural churches are vulnerable to resorting to survival techniques that are unhealthy or theologically skewed. As a result, many blogs, magazines, books, and initiatives have tried to address these issues in rural churches. Most of the writings recommend for rural churches to “be” the church, a body of Christ and these suggestions are valuable and needed. While these suggestions are practical, it seems to overlook the first important step: knowing themselves.

Can rural churches be introspective?

Shiloh UMC

Rural churches, by nature, are small. And that’s okay. Being a small congregation does not mean that something is wrong with the church. Jesus did attract a large crowd, but he only kept a deeper and richer relationship with the 12 disciples. However, at the same time, the good news of Christ’s salvation was not meant to be held within a small group of people. The true gospel of Christ redeeming the World needs to be shared.

Rural churches are known to be family-based churches, and often find themselves filled with elderly family members. A recent trend for churches is to appeal to young families. Here, targeting young families becomes an attractive solution to the problem. However, rural churches find it difficult to attract young families because of situations that are beyond the churches’ control (i.e. job availability).

Even though rural churches may have a more difficult time appealing to young families, rural churches still have many ministerial opportunities they can pursue. For instance, rural churches are able to remind the rest of the Church that elderly members are still part of the body of Christ. Rural churches may be able to lead the Church to look for ways to minister responsibly to the elderly members of the church.

Shifting the focus away from targeting young traditional family members is important today because the family demographics of the United States is shifting away from traditional family model.[1] In addition, the population in the United States is getting older with fewer children.[2]


I am not suggesting that the church should cease our ministry to young families. Surprisingly, churches do a better job reaching out to young families who are married and have children than what the Church actually believes.[3] Instead, I am suggesting that the church to reach out to groups outside the typical 2-parent family model. Those groups include single-parents, divorced, older single individuals, and foster kids. Those groups that Church finds it hard to reach out to. For Rural churches, young families may not be around, but these churches have to realize that other ministerial opportunities still exist.

These opportunities can be realized first by knowing ourselves and by knowing where we are in our context. After knowing our context, we, the rural churches, are then able to “be” the church that we are called to be. By knowing who we are, we are also able to recognize our strengths and our shortcomings.[4] The church is then able to follow the calling, a calling to be the church that is fitting to our context.

Shiloh UMC. Far Picture

Every rural church has its own unique characteristics. Some churches may have similar challenges to what I have described earlier, and other churches may have different challenges. But, the church’s fitting and faithful response centers on the church knowing itself.

Jesus challenged the crowd and his disciples by saying, “whoever wants to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”(Mark 8:34)

For a long time, the rural churches have been accused of not following Jesus. So, in order to follow Jesus, the churches have to take up their cross. The rural churches are also told of their sin, sins of exclusivity that became a stumbling block to so many people in their community. Responding to the honest critiques, the rural churches are now denying themselves.

But, I think we are working backwards. Jesus said to his disciples that we, as followers of Christ, must deny ourselves. And in order to deny ourselves, we must know ourselves first. Therefore, by knowing ourselves, we are then able to deny ourselves,take up the cross, and then follow Jesus.

In other words, by knowing who we are as the rural church, we are then able to follow Jesus faithfully, then, we, the rural churches, may be able to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.


-James Kim
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow

[1] Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 52-53.There is a strong connection between family structure and religious involvement. This is important to point because the proportion of Americans living in traditional families, meaning two-parent-plus-children, has dramatically declined in recent decades. Compared to several decades ago, people now marry and have children later, more people do not marry at all, and married or not, more people remain childless. Looking at people between the ages of 21 and 45, the proportion who had never married more than doubled from 16 percent in the early 1970s to 35 percent in the early 2000s. Childlessness also has doubled from about 10 percent of women in 1960s, to about 20 percent now (2011).

[2] Take rural areas in North Carolina for example. Data gathered in 2010 shows that 46.5% of rural residents are 30 to 64, and 14.8% were 65 and over (North Carolina Rural Profile). Furthermore, a study done by James Johnson and Allan Parnell shows that elderly population (65+ years) in the Carolinas (North Carolina and South Carolina) increased by 28% between 2000 and 2010. The growth rate exceeds the National rate, which is 9.5%.

[3] Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 52. Combining all the General Social Surveys from 1972 to 2008, married people with children at home are twice as likely to say that they attend services at least weekly as are divorced, separated, or never married with no children: 32 percent compared to 16 percent.

[4] SWOT Analysis is one of the models advocated by Rev. Joe Mann to re-think about the ministerial opportunities for all churches. Briefly, the SWOT analysis is a method of evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved in a project.

Sabbath and Self-Care: A Conversation

Editor’s Note: As we, pastors, prepare for the busy season of Advent, the blog would like to emphasize taking ‘Sabbath’. But, what is really Sabbath? The blog interviewed Bishop Willimon about his view of Sabbath and Self-Care.

A seasoned pastor was starting his new appointment. The pastor immediately opened his Staff Parish Relations Committee meeting by mentioning that he is going to be intentional about keeping his Sabbath. He was determined to take off Mondays and Fridays. While it was good that he was setting boundaries for his profession, he did not know that he confounded two of his SPRC members who lost their jobs. They would do anything to have some kind of job that could put food on the table. They just could not understand their pastor’s demands to take days off while they were left stranded to find a job to feed their families.

How do we, as pastors, understand the concept of Sabbath?

Bishop Will Willimon shares his concern about how pastors think of Sabbath today. He says, “I’m concerned about the lack of theological grounding in much of the talk I hear about ‘Sabbath’ among seminarians and clergy these days.  Much of the conversation seems predicated on the assumption that keeping Sabbath is somehow good for you.  Taking a day away from the activity of ministry may be good for you but that is not ‘Sabbath’ in scripture. Sabbath is one of the unique aspects of Israel.  Sabbath keeps Israel as Israel. It is a day not to take ‘time for me,’ which is what I sometimes hear. It’s time taken for God.”

Bishop Willimon reflects further, “Also, much of the talk about Sabbath overlooks that Jesus was deeply ambivalent at best, and downright critical at worst, of Sabbath. He was a notorious Sabbath breaker.  I’m not sure that his attitude about Sabbath was against the abuse of Sabbath.  Somehow he seems to imply that Sabbath is an inappropriate practice now that the Kingdom of God is among us.”

Embedded in our individualistic and narcissistic culture, is there a possibility that pastors have been abusing the term Sabbath to justify our own pleasures rather than utilizing the Sabbath to take time for God?

Goodson Chapel

The concept of Sabbath needs a careful scriptural re-examination. Both Old Testament and New Testament need to be examined together to determine what it really means to take Sabbath. One thing is clear from Scripture: Sabbath is not meant to be individualistic, but Sabbath is meant for all God’s people. In other words, taking a Sabbath is a communal activity where God joins with God’s people. Yet, we, as pastors, find ourselves struggling to keep Sabbath holy. We struggle to keep Sabbath for God. Instead, we justify Sabbath for our ‘need’ – a time away from God and God’s people.

Bishop Willimon presumes that self-preservation is a source of the thought process behind justifying the Sabbath as “my” time. He says, “Someone seems to have discovered that ministry is very difficult and stressful and that Sabbath is a good way to counteract that stressfulness.  I question these assumptions.  The pastoral ministry requires work, self-sacrifice, and service to others.  But the pastoral ministry is no more demanding than many other baptismally mandated ministries.  I don’t like pastors who imply that their ministry – leading the faithful in their ministries – is somehow so much more difficult and demanding than the ministries God has given the faithful.”

Bishop Willimon adds, “In my experience, sometimes pastors are under stress, not because they are so completely committed to their vocation (there is something more than a bit self-congratulatory in pastors going around claiming that they are working themselves to death in service to God and God’s people), but rather because pastors are not working efficiently, do not have the skills required for the tasks of pastoral ministry, or have an inadequate theology of pastoral ministry.  One of my mentors says, ‘An overworked pastor is an inept pastor – or else a pastor who arrogantly takes over the baptismal ministry of other Christians.’  I don’t know that I would say that, but he does.”

Being stressed is a burden that everyone has experienced. The level of stress is depended on the job or career, so pastors should be careful when we claim that pastors are the most stressed. So, is being stressed part of our job description? Bishop Willimon certainly seems to think so. He answers, “I don’t find much evidence that Jesus is too interested in our being stressed – in fact most pastors find Jesus to be a major source of stress!  I find no interest in Jesus in the much-touted ‘balance’ that I hear discussed among us a great deal.  Some people don’t keep Sabbath because Jesus has activated them, and sent them on outrageous tasks.”

Bishop Willimon does not deny the fact that pastors do need to take days off. He admits, “By all means take a day off, or more.  Do not neglect family responsibilities.  Keep your body in good order.  But do all these things so you will have the energy to serve Christ and his people even more productively and effectively.  And please, there’s no need to sanctify your leisure and your self-care by calling it ‘Sabbath’.”

Roger Lake Photo

The concept of Sabbath is helpful in this hyper-capitalistic culture. Taking a day off is a necessary measure to remind ourselves that God is the creator. We, as human beings, are merely producers relying on the creator God.

However, even in this hyper-capitalistic world, Bishop Willimon challenges pastors, especially pastors of United Methodists, on how we keep the Sabbath. Jesus came to this earth to bring the Kingdom of God, which distorted the usual understanding of Sabbath. Bishop Willimon’s challenge alludes to the passage from Matthew, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:37b-38) Laborers are few, and we are working for the Kingdom of God because Jesus convicts us to serve. With Jesus present in our lives, he re-orders our priorities. Suddenly, keeping the Sabbath becomes a God thing. Sabbath becomes us laboring in the field for God as our main priority.

Photo Cred:

Photo Cred:

Perhaps, Jesus is our Sabbath. Following Jesus is keeping the Sabbath holy. For Jesus boldly claimed that “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:29b-30) and yet, there is more work to be done in the world, not for us, but for God.

-James Kim
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow

Bishop Will Willimon is a Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. The Blog would like to thank Bishop Willimon for his time and contribution.

Unexpected Ministry

Editor’s Note: As we approach the season of thanks, the blog would like to share what is happening in Faison UMC. Rev. Jabe Largen shares his inspiring experience. I hope that you find his story encouraging. Let us thank God for God’s grace and God’s love. More importantly, let us give thanks to God for moving and challenging us, the church, to reach beyond our own walls.

Faison UMC is a church that has become accustomed to transition and change. For the past 25-30 years, Faison UMC has experienced a change in leadership every few years due to being considered a student pastor appointment. Although the church is “lay-driven” in many regards, this constant turnover in pastoral leadership also leads them to a position where they are unstable. This instability has also caused the church to lack a common goal, a mission. I often heard church members joke that, “the Baptist Church does fireworks, the Presbyterian Church does a Bake Sale, and the Methodist Church changes pastors every four years.” In order to change its mentality, the church desperately needed stability and a missional focus.

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Over the past 3½ years, we have been participating in what we believe is a Spirit-led, radical, risk-taking ministry. We have taken risks, and we have made mistakes. But, we are driven by the desire to spread the love of Christ to the town of Faison, so we learn from our mistakes and we do not give up. In all, Faison UMC was challenged to develop a missional focus. After being convicted that they are to witness God in their community, Faison UMC responded to the challenge that was set before them.

After some trial and error, Faison UMC placed a missional outpost on Main Street in our town. This outpost, through God’s grace, has become identifiable in the community, which made our church visible outside of the church’s walls. The New Life Thrift Shop is a place where folks can get most of the necessity items for free. (Most of the items offered at store are free. We envision that this ministry will eventurally turn into a Free Store.) However, providing vital items for free is not the ultimate purpose of the thrift shop. Rather, the overarching purpose is to provide a space where the church meets its community.

People from Faison UMC, who are motivated to engage their community missionally, staff the New Life Thrift Shop. These “disciple-teers” work multiple hours throughout the week sorting merchandise, managing work schedules, and interacting with customers. The shop’s purpose is three-fold. First, the shop provides various items to the people who need them. Secondly, the shop provides people with excess items to donate for the needy. Thirdly, our church gets a chance to hear the stories of our neighbors, and our neighbors get a chance to hear our stories. Through the thrift shop, we are witnessing the love of God to the community. We are interacting and sharing stories with our neighbors whom we have the joy of meeting for the first time. The shop provides a tangible opportunity to interact with our neighbors in a relational way. The shop allows us to be proactive in building the relationships—the strange and yet meaningful friendships—across socio-economic, racial, and ethnic lines that have divided our community.

Moreover, because of the shop and our other efforts over the years, the church has become visible in the community. People in the town of Faison now know of Faison UMC. For example, working in partnership with the elementary school, we hosted a recent free community movie event where 280 people came together, a huge turn out.

block party 069

Through a continuous effort to build relationships with folks in our community, and through a continuous effort to let our community know that we love them with no strings attached, the church is able to grow out beyond its walls. By offering ourselves to the community and witnessing God to our community, the community of Faison has been impacted by our witness. In the month of November, the church took part in 4 baptisms, and received 8 new members. These members are the fruit of the church reaching out and witnessing to the community.

And yet, we have a lot more work to do. We still face many challenges and limitations. For example, as we begin to interact with our community, we have found a large and strong presence of the Hispanic community. Over 40% of the elementary school’s population is Hispanic. 80% of the Thrift Shop’s customers are Hispanic. We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into real, authentic relationships with our Hispanic neighbors. We are constantly seeking ideas, relationships, and opportunities to develop a relationship with the Hispanic community. We may not know yet what that looks like to reach out to these communities, but we continue to discern and discuss different ways so that the Spirit can reveal to us the vision.

FUMC Family

FUMC Family

Without purpose, without identity, a church is just a building. Over the past few years, we have been blessed with opportunities to develop and establish our identity in the community. We are grateful to be able to reach the friends, family, and community we have around Faison UMC. We are grateful that, even though we may not know right away how to reach everyone, our mistakes are covered by the grace of Jesus, as well as the grace of our relationships. In service of our newfound missional identity, we know that we will continue to make mistakes, but we will also continue to learn from them. We are grateful that the church is moving to a full-time appointment for 2015, thus introducing a new level of financial stability. We are grateful for what God has been doing outside of the walls and inside the walls of Faison UMC. We are grateful of the hearts of the people who gather together to work together in God’s vineyard. We are grateful for what God has been doing in this place that we call “home.”

-Rev. Jabe Largen
Pastor of Faison UMC

An Uncomfortable Ministry (Part 3 of 3)

Editor’s Note: This blog post is written by Rev. Nathan Arledge, who was a part of Caminantes for past two years. Caminantes means “walkers.” Through a Caminantes program for students and one for pastors, fellow sojourners encounter Christ while practicing and honing skills for ministry among Latinos. In this post, he writes about the undocumented immigrants and ministry. His title for this article is “Tears For a Dry Land.”

“Tears For a Dry Land”

As I laid my head on the pillow that night at Casa Del Migrante the Catholic mission house in Tijuana, the only words that came to my mind were those spoken by former Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

I thought of the stream of thoughts that must have filled the heads of the people who laid on this pillow before me.  I thought of the tears they had to have cried in this very bed.  I thought of their weeping in the middle of the night for God to intervene.  I thought about the pain they must have felt for their families and their friends.  And I cried.

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

Throughout my journey to the Mexican border with other pastors from the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I thought of Archbishop Romero’s words.  I thought of his words as I looked into the eyes of those who had surely poured tears due to racism and injustice.  I thought of his words as I met people whose faces were filled with pain caused by division, hatred, and oppression.  I thought of his words as I glimpsed the souls of people that were filled with a mixture of hope and despair.  And I still think of his words today, as I cry tears for that dry land.



As the tears flow, I am reminded of the story in John’s gospel where Jesus was called to heal his dear friend, Lazarus. In order to do so, Jesus needed to return to a land filled with people who tried to stone him days earlier. Despite this hate and these threats, Jesus and the disciples journeyed back to bring light into a dark place. Jesus went back to bring hope to a desperate people. He returned to comfort those who faced persecution. Jesus went back to bring life out of death. And when he arrived, when he looked deep into the eyes of those who he loved, Jesus wept. Jesus’ tears fell one by one soaking the dirt beneath his feet.

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.

Even today I believe Jesus weeps. He weeps with those filled with pain and brokenness at the border. Jesus weeps with those lost in the desert. His tears fall for those who have died from heat exhaustion. His tears fall one by one for those who have died trying to help their family’s well-being. Jesus’ cheeks are tear-stained from the inhumanity of detaining innocent children. Jesus’ breath is short from weeping for mothers who cannot get healthcare for ill children. Jesus’ heart breaks for the fathers who break their backs to supply for their family, all to have it taken away because a farmer saw less productivity one week. Jesus weeps as the border goes beyond bricks and mortar and becomes a normative way of living for American children taught to see migrants and immigrants as less than themselves. Jesus weeps for God’s beloved children.

Jesus wept for Lazarus, and he weeps today, but his tears are not the end of the story. In one final exhausted weeping breath, Jesus looked into that dark dismal tomb and shouted for Lazarus to come out. With his tear soaked eyes, Jesus saw hope and life, love and compassion. Truly, there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.

Are we listening to Jesus weep as God’s children – our brothers and sisters – look at the dark, broken, pain filled border and cry out for their families? Their eyes become dry from weeping and crying out against the inhumanity that the border represents.   Their voices cry out during the night, and their voices cry out during the day searching and seeking to find an end to the border and all its attempts to control people. In spite of the tear stained eyes of migrants and immigrants at the border and those in the desert, there is a glimpse of hope. There may be weeping, but they can still see and feel God’s love. They may have exhausted their tears, but they are not out of hope. There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.

The reality is this; we can all sit comfortably in our Lay-Z-Boy chairs. We sit secured behind our ADT alarm systems and we rest comfortably on our 400 count sheets and plush pillows and we can see the horrid effects of the border and we can see the death maps of the lost migrants in the desert and we can shake our heads and say, “gosh that’s a shame.” Heck, we can even get a movement together at our local churches, houses of worship, and even the YMCA and collect clothes, food, and clean socks for those entrapped by the border. We might even shed a tear or two saying, “those poor kids,” and shortly later we return to our macro view of those “poor people.” We become distant again and return to our daily routines.

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried. But the question is, are we crying when we hear about children being locked up for over a year in hot detention centers? Are we crying when we hear of border patrol shooting and killing a Mexican teenager in Mexico!? Are we weeping with the fathers who have been deported thousands of miles away from their wives and children? Do we care enough to look into the dark dismal tomb of the border and cry for life to come out of the death it is causing? Are we willing to let ourselves have tear-stained cheeks for the sake of those dehydrating to death in the desert of Arizona?

When we take the time to hear the weeping mother and father tell stories of their children with blistered feet, dehydrated bodies, and broken hearts; when we take the time to listen to the young woman weep as she shares how the coyote (human trafficker) raped her; when we take the time to listen to the young man who shares how he was beaten and robbed by those he journeyed with, those he thought he could trust; it is when we hear our neighbor’s stories, we will learn their names. When we learn their names, it is then that we cannot help but to acknowledge them as beloved children of God. And as we are all beloved children, our calling is one of acceptance and support in this unjust and broken world.

Just as you would never let your own child, your nephew, your niece, your grandchild or even your child’s friend be treated inhumanly; just as you would never let your wife, husband, uncle, aunt, brother or sister or your favorite coworker be treated inhumanly; I call you to take action so that our brothers and sisters on the border aren’t treated inhumanly. Take time to pray for the migrants and immigrants. Make sure the products and foods you purchase are humanely prepared. Reach out to your legislatures, reach out to support groups and reach out to your local church to form support and raise awareness for those dying, hurting, and weeping. When we stop pretending that these issues are not our concern as the Body of Christ, then we will be able to see through the eyes of those who have cried. Jesus wept.

-Rev. Nathan D. Arledge
Associate Pastor of Front Street United Methodist Church

An Uncomfortable Ministry (Part 2 of 3)

Refugees and the Rural Church

When the Office of Field Education announced that I would be serving a summer field placement at a rural church with a large population of refugees from Myanmar, I was both excited and terrified. I was excited for a unique opportunity, but I feared that I lacked the ability to connect with the refugees. I was unsure that I would be able to minister to the community effectively because I had limited experience in multi-cultural context. I arrived at Rhems UMC insecure, but I left Rhems UMC transformed.

The history of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a rocky one. This country is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand to the southeast and China to the northeast. The country is home to 135 different ethnic groups. In 1813 Adoniram Judson, a Baptist missionary, became the first missionary to bring the gospel to the country. In 1850 the first Methodist missionaries arrived. The proclamation of the gospel has led to a thriving Christian community in Myanmar. In 1948, the country received their independence from Great Britain. The largest ethnic group, the Burmese, stepped into the vacuum left by the British government and took control of the country. The Burmese initiated land grab campaigns, marching into villages in order to take control of the land. In 1949, a civil war broke out between the other ethnic groups and the Burmese army. The Burmese army killed villagers and burned the villages to the ground. Survivors from these attacks fled to refugee camps, such as the Mae La Camp in Thailand. Many children can narrate horrific stories of soldiers entering their village and shooting their family members before their eyes. In 2011 a cease-fire treaty was reached, but the conflict is far from over. There are between 30,000-40,000 people living in the Mae La Camp. Refugees in this camp experience cramped living conditions while waiting for passage to the United States. Refugees seek passage to the United States in the hopes of creating a new life for themselves and their families. Refugees are processed through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an organization whose mission is to re-settle refugees. A branch of this agency exists in New Bern. As a result hundreds of refugees, mostly from the Karen and Kareni tribes in Myanmar, re-settled there. The deep, unwavering faith of the Karen and Kareni people that has sustained them through immense suffering and hardship.

June 1, 2012 - Source: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images AsiaPac

Mae La Camp. June 1, 2012 – Source: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images AsiaPac

The painful history of these peoples has intersected with the history of Rhems UMC, a small but faithful rural. The families in this church have lost their children to the job market in the cities. This migration caused the church to find itself in a situation where it was growing older. The church held a belief that there was no one to whom they could entrust the future of the faith community. Feeling lost, a group of women in the congregation came together to pray daily that God would send them children. The answer they received was unexpected. Before long, Karen and Kareni refugee families began attending Rhems. Drawn to the small church atmosphere, the refugees began spreading the word, and more and more refugees began attending, bringing their children along with them. Their presence initially caused great tension in the church. But, the church came to realization that the presence of these Karen and Kareni families was the work of the Holy Spirit answering their prayers. The church opened its mind, its heart, and its door to the strangers among them, whom they now recognize as friends. More than that, they welcomed their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Church became a place where English, Karen, and Kareni worship together.

They offer praise to the Triune God who has knit them together in loving, mutual relationship. The church with different backgrounds became one body of Christ.

English families offer Sunday School classes for the refugee adults and children. They also offer ESL classes, teaching refugee families English. The previous members of the church also work closely with the Interfaith Refugee Ministry in downtown New Bern to provide financial, housing, educational, medical and cultural resources for the refugees’ transition into American life. The Karen and Kareni families offer their own witness to the work of God in the midst of their difficult lives by encouraging, teaching, and inspiring the church members. Their presence and participation in the life of the Rhems community has expanded the church’s vision of God’s kingdom.

Allison and Friends

Jesus says in Matthew 25:35, 40 “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This passage is more than just a call for the church to open its doors to those who are different so that they may experience the love of Christ, although this is certainly true. This passage is also an invitation to the church to open its doors to those who are different so that Christ may transform the church that opens the door!

I went down to New Bern thinking that I was going to open myself up to the opportunity to minister to persons of a different ethnic background. What I didn’t realize is that in opening myself up to the opportunity, I was going to be ministered to!

I was shown powerful hospitality when I was invited to a birthday party for one of the Karen members. The whole Karen membership from Rhems was present at this party, and they held a worship service of song, Scripture reading, prayer, and giving thanks to God for the life of the birthday boy and for God’s providence in his life. Then they brought out all the food and set it down in the open floor, as was their custom, and they proceeded to fix my plate. I sat and shared a meal with them, listening to them talking and laughing – just enjoying being together. In being present with them, I saw Christ in them. They taught me about radical hospitality. Through their strong faith, Christ taught me something about making yourself open and vulnerable in a world of violence, hate, and discrimination. They came from a world of violence and hate, and yet they had the deep faith in Christ to open their door to me, a stranger! Imagine that…

The Three Amigos

As products of American society, many of us live such insular lives. But there are refugees among us, many of them in rural areas of North Carolina. They need our help as they struggle to adjust to life in America. At the same time, we, the rural church, need their help. We need them to breathe new life into our concept of what it means to be the church participating in God’s mission in the world. The Rural Church is uniquely placed as the potential breeding ground for loving relationships between American-born persons and refugees characterized by mutual learning and sharing. The Rural Church has the opportunity to be the arms of Christ that welcomes the stranger into its midst, while simultaneously allowing itself to be the house guests whose feet Christ washes. God calls us into a way of living that destroys boundaries of male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, American and refugee. The Rural Church is called to embody that way of living, so that all of us may be drawn up more and more into the life of God.

Allison and Chrissy

The witness of Rhems UMC invites us, rural pastors, to reflect our respective ministries: What can we do to raise awareness within our congregations about the circumstances of refugees? How might we begin to have conversations in our churches that name the fears, concerns, and prejudices about welcoming the stranger? What Scriptural and theological work needs to be done in our churches to cultivate an evangelistic ministry that includes welcoming the stranger and being open to the Holy Spirit’s transformative work within that interaction?

-Allison DeLargy
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow

An Uncomfortable Ministry (Part 1 of 3)

I was both excited and nervous as I unpacked my boxes in the parsonage to begin my first year as a pastor. It had been a busy day with people coming in and out of the house, but after a while I was sitting alone and I looked around my new home trying to decide how I was going to arrange my furniture. As I moved and pushed my furniture about, I felt prompted to look out through the front door to observe the community in which I would be living. I peered out of the window and there was a house diagonally across the street that caught my attention. It was a small white house with an overgrown yard and a large yellow old school bus parked in the gravel driveway. I grew up in a semi-rural area of North Carolina for most of my life, and I was pretty sure that I knew what the yellow bus was all about. However, I did not know that this discovery was going to lead to something that would forever change my life, not only as a pastor, but also as a Christian.

I became curious about the bus across the street, and so I began to observe it. During most days, the bus was gone and would come back to the house around 9:30 or 10:00 at night, and I awoke early to discover that the bus would leave around 5:30 in the morning. Each day, a fairly large group of Hispanic men would get on this bus in the morning, and then return late at night. I knew from my short observance that these men were working very long periods of time, and in the evenings they looked very tired as they got off the bus and slumped into their house for the evening  As I watched this, there was something inside me that troubled me. It was a deep feeling that stirred within the bottom of my soul that convicted me from the core of my bones. Jesus said in the gospels that the greatest commandment is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).”

It so happened that I found myself in a situation where I did not get to choose who my neighbors were, and so I knew that the stirring within my heart and soul was God calling me to go over to that house and speak with these men. This calling that I felt in my heart terrified me, not because I was worried that these men would hurt me, but I was terrified because I had no idea what to say and even if I did, I would not know how to say it because I do not speak any Spanish.

The calling that stirred in my heart persisted, making me uncomfortable and troubling my heart to the point that I could no longer resist. So I called some friends of mine, one who was another pastor and fellow student in seminary from Mexico, Ernesto, and another who was a good friend from my first year of seminary, Cindy. Both of them agreed enthusiastically to come and so I prepared a dinner and my two friends came. We ate our meal and then sat in my living room waiting for the Hispanics to return for the evening.  At about 9:30, I watched as the bus pulled into the driveway and the Hispanic men started spilling out of the bus and they quickly went into the house to settle in for the night.

Having Fellowship with Migrant Workers

Having Fellowship with Migrant Workers

Ernesto, Cindy, and I walked across the street. In some ways it seems that the house of my neighbors was so near, and in other ways it was so far away because I doubt that anyone from my side of the street had ever ventured over to welcome our migrant neighbors. My nerves fluttered like butterflies in my stomach as I knocked on the door. There were two men who answered the door.  They looked confused, and anxious about our presence. I said, “Hello, I live across the street from you and I just wanted to meet you and say hello. “ Ernesto translated for me and they nodded their heads and smiled a little, but it was clear by their expressions that they were still anxious about our being there. I pressed a little further, “Another reason why I wanted to come by is because I know that you work very hard, and I wanted to tell you that I really appreciate the work that you do. Thank you for what you do.”  Ernesto translated again and then they began to loosen up. In fact, they started having a conversation with Ernesto and they started laughing a little. I have no idea what they were talking about, but while they were talking I felt God laying it on my heart to go beyond just greeting them at their doorstep. So I interrupted the conversation and said, “I was wondering if I could serve you lunch one day?”  Ernesto paused and then translated for me. They stared at me for a few seconds as if in some sort of disbelief, and then they nodded their heads. Ernesto gathered some information for me, he told me that there were fourteen migrant workers living in this house, that they were all from different parts of Mexico, and that they come home earlier on Sundays. I asked if I could serve them lunch the following Sunday, which was only a few days away, and they nodded their heads and told me that they would be home by three o’clock.

After agreeing to be there at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon, I felt the panic sink in because I had just promised to serve lunch to fourteen people, and I did not want to bring Stouffer’s or sandwiches over. The microwave and spreading peanut butter is about the limitations of my cooking, but I knew that I needed to give them something good, something that they would remember. Ernesto gave me a few Hispanic recipes and we went to the grocery store and bought the ingredients. I recognized my need for help so in the following days I made phone calls to different people in the churches I serve, and on that Sunday I preached on mission challenging the congregations by inviting them to be in mission with our Hispanic neighbors. I was blessed to meet very little resistance, and five people showed up at the parsonage after church to help me prepare lunch for the Hispanics. The ladies from the church took over the kitchen and kindly asked me to get out of their way, while I wrote a prayer ending with the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the church volunteers happened to be a Spanish teacher and she graciously translated my prayer into Spanish, along with a few greetings. I literally wrote an entire script for my visit, and the first words were “Hello, I am really sorry but this is the best that I can do with speaking Spanish.”

We boxed the food up and when my neighbors arrived on their bus, two people (one of them was a very enthusiastic and willing youth) helped me carry the food over to the house. We brought it inside, the men gestured us to their kitchen and I sat the food down on their table. I pulled out my script and started reading to them. Some of them laughed a little. But when I invited them to pray with me, all of them bowed their heads and removed their hats. I prayed my prayer asking God to bless them and their families, to protect them, and to sustain them through the days that they toil in the fields. And then when I began praying the Lord’s Prayer I experienced one of the most powerful things that I have ever witnessed because each and every one of these men began to pray with me. In that moment and in that place, we were not Mexicans or Americans, white or Hispanic, privileged or underprivileged, legal or illegal… we were Christians united together in one voice praying the same prayer that our Lord Jesus taught us. We were experiencing a glimpse of the kingdom of God in which “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” we were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Having fellowship with Migrant Workers

Having fellowship with Migrant Workers

It wasn’t long after that when my neighbors left to return to Mexico. The harvesting season was over, and after the harvest they return home. I wasn’t sure when they would come back, or even if they would come back at all. I prayed for them over the next year, and then summer came. I watched everyday for several weeks waiting anxiously to see if the yellow bus would return. I had also gained an interest in learning more about the lives of my neighbors, so I went on a trip to Mexico to learn about the border and immigration. I walked on migrant trails, met people who had been deported, prayed with people who had been separated from their families, saw the fence, and had lunch with legal and illegal immigrants in the United States. I was moved by my trip and what I had learned. By that point I was worried that my neighbors were not going to return at all. I was praying about this on the flight home, and God placed it on my heart to bring water to my neighbors on a regular basis because Christ said, “whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again (John 4:14).”

And so I returned from the airport, pulled into my driveway and as soon as I stepped out of my car, I noticed that the yellow bus was back. Chills ran down my spine. It was as if God was saying, “Here they are, now what are you going to do about it?”  So, I got back in my car and went to the grocery store to buy them bottled water. I walked over and brought the water to them and I was very nervous, as I had been before.  This time I did not have the luxury of a translator so all I could say was, “Hola! Como Estas? Agua!” which literally translates as “Hello! How are you?  Water!” I felt like an idiot, but my neighbors seemed to appreciate it.

My own idiocy, inadequacy, and helplessness remained a terror for me, but somehow God worked through the struggles of my own shortcomings to bring about a powerful ministry. I consistently brought water to my neighbors, and over time my neighbors became friends. We began spending time together, and our time together developed into a relationship of discipleship building. Our times together gradually progressed into times of Bible study, Holy Communion, and worship. We broke bread together and prayed for one another, we talked, laughed, and we cried. The power of God was moving through us, both when translators and experts were present (by the grace of God), and also when it was me alone having no idea what was going on or being said. The fact is that God was somehow present, even when it seemed that my friends and I had so little in common that we really had little to offer one another, and little common ground to stand upon.  Because of God’s moving Spirit and grace, we became very close friends. I will never forget when one of them said with teary eyes, “People here think that we are bad. But you have shown us that we can have friends and because of that, you have shared the Gospel with us. Thank you!”

I never really thought that I had anything to teach them, and this was never my approach. But I always felt that I had something to learn from these men who had traveled long distances with the hope of helping their families, wives and children, to survive in a place rotting with poverty and starvation. Their scars and pain was much deeper than my own, and I found within those scars and pain an image of Jesus like I have never seen before. Perhaps they were the ones sharing the power of the Gospel with me and I was being transformed alongside my friends who I (with the help of others) shared about the scriptures and the story of God’s love for all of humanity. Their faces and willingness to receive is the story of God’s love and it is people and experiences like this that make the words of scripture come alive in a world that is in need of God’s healing. We can have opinions about immigration and politics, right and wrong, legal and illegal; but let us never forget that as a people of faith we are called to live into kingdom that is intended to be shared with all.

Communion with Migrant Workers

Communion with Migrant Workers

The time came for my friends to leave because the season of the harvest was over once again.  The night before they left, I heard a knock on my front door. It was Salvador, one of my new friends. I let him in and he handed me a book. It was tattered and beaten, and by the title I could tell that it was a book for learning English written in Spanish. Salvador handed me the book and said in broken English, “A gift for you.  I wanted to come and say goodbye. You are our best friend. You are my family, and when you come to Mexico you can stay with me and my family. Thank you friend.”

I did not expect this kind of ministry when I started my appointment as a local pastor of a rural two-point charge in the United Methodist Church. When we are willing and humble enough to listen to and follow the movement of God’s Spirit, God will always lead us to surprising places that bring us to the heart of the Gospel. Jesus said before ascending into heaven, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…I am with you always, even to the very end of the age (Mathew 28:19-20)!” It may seem overly idealistic to carry out a ministry based upon the belief that the kingdom of God belongs to all people, but as a people of faith in Jesus Christ it is an ideal that we place our hope in. Maybe the ideal of Christ’s kingdom belonging to all people is an ideal worth standing for and furthermore, worth staking our lives upon.

-Rev. Brock Meyer
Pastor of Stem-Bullock’s United Methodist Church
Rural Fellow Alum

This article first appeared in


Ferguson and the Rural Church: Moving Forward (Part 3 of 3)

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:1-5)

Hauerwas’ reflection on this passage offers helpful insight into our struggle of understanding racism and its implications. He writes, “Jesus has called his disciples not from the elites, but for those without status. Those so called are, like any of us, tempted to turn the gift of discipleship into a status. Status seekers ask, ‘Who is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ But that question itself is a stumbling block suggesting the need for a status that the kingdom does not invite.”[1]

As disciples of Jesus, we are not called to order ourselves in the church based on our status. The kingdom of heaven that is present on this earth does not call us to set ourselves apart from one another. Status should not exist among Christians, no matter the social expectations. So then why do we, as followers of Christ, try to distinguish ourselves with status? Why then do we justify “moral” status by judging people’s behavior during the fallout of Ferguson?

Photo Credit: Getty Images and Associated Press

Photo Credit: Getty Images and Associated Press

As you may have noticed, this blog series on racism did not seek answers, or solve the problem of racism, or explain the tragedy in Ferguson. Instead, the blog series attempted to ask more questions.

Is it then foolish to explore the issue of racism when there is no clear answer?

I do not think so.

If we put all our efforts into finding the truth, we are blinding ourselves to the truth. If we focus our energy on finding the truth, we will be hurt. We will be hurt because of sin. Sin prevents us from arrive at the truth. Because of sin, we must relentlessly ask questions to redirect our thoughts and our false truths.

It is possible to arrive at the truth by asking the right questions. But, to assume that we can correctly ask the right question from the starting point is ignoring our shortcomings and sin. First, we need to start asking questions so that we can ask the right questions.

Why do we ask questions?

We ask questions instead of coming up with answers because answers over stand the truth. In contrast, asking questions allow us to understand the complexity of the truth. Answers can only lead us to set our minds on one possible way of thinking, but asking questions can lead us to realize that there are difficult and complex issues at hand.

In rural churches, the discussion of racism can move forward by asking questions; moving forward not as moving on from the subject of racism, but moving forward as in digging deeper into the issue by asking the right questions. By asking questions, we are moving forward from our own prejudices and shortcomings….

-James Kim
M. Div. 2015, Rural Fellow

Please be on the look out for another 3 part series on the Rural Church and the Outsider: migrant, undocumented, and refugee!


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew

Ferguson and the Rural Church: Listen (Part 2 of 3)

Here is a terrific piece about Ferguson and the Rural Church written by Allen Stanton:

Rural churches dot the map of North Carolina. Because of our sheer numbers and locations, it is next to impossible to avoid seeing and interacting with some part of the rural church. People see and hear our congregants and our ministers at the grocery store, at town festivals, and at the post office. Because of this, the rural church has the unique opportunity to be a prophetic voice in our towns, in our state, and in our country.

But before we can be a prophetic voice, the church must be able to listen. We must be able to understand and comprehend the lives of the people to whom we offer a prophetic word. We must share in the heartache and suffering of all the diverse members of our community. Increasingly, it seems as if the church doesn’t want to simply listen.

The ability to speak loudly, to speak prophetically, also comes with the ability to overpower other voices. When we choose to ignore the narrative that we don’t see, we do ourselves a disservice, and we render our once prophetic voice invalid. If the people of Israel cried out, and the prophets – Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, even Christ – had simply refused to hear the stories of the people whom they were sent to serve and love, then the scripture we read and the faith we profess would not be a love story, but a tragedy.

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Consider this: the greatest mark of power is the ability to render someone else’s voice useless – to muffle a protest, and to ignore cries of suffering. When we as the church write off the cries of pain and heartache, we do not write love story of the gospel. When we halt complicated and intense conversations of race and racism by saying, “Wait for all the facts,” or “Don’t play the race card just yet,” we mute the ability of our neighbors to focus our attention. We lose our prophetic voice, because we do not write the hope of the gospel. Instead, we write a tragedy.

The church must sit with the complaints and cries in our communities. We must understand those voices, hear the stories, and sit in the uncomfortable questions that will be asked of us. Before we speak as a prophet, we must sit, listen to, hear, and understand the stories that we have failed to hear.

Prophetic witness starts with hearing the stories of those who mourn. Who are the mourners? Where are their voices? What are they saying? Have we muted them by saying, “Let’s wait for the full story,” as if that particular perspective is not part of the story? When we listen to the people of God as the people of God, we can prevent the world from telling the tragedies of Ferguson, Durham, Nash County, Cedar Grove, and Oxford. Then, and only then, can we begin writing and performing the healing story of our Gospel.

-Allen Stanton
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow

Ferguson and the Rural Church: Starting Point (Part 1 of 3)

“I hope he doesn’t have an accent like the guy in the Chinese restaurant. I don’t understand his accent at all,” a lady commented in a noticeably southern accent before I got up to talk. Needless to say, the blissful ignorance of racism is an unspoken struggle in most rural churches. However, recently, avoiding conversations about race and racism has become rather difficult. Every news channel seems to be constantly mentioning some kind conflict based on the racial or ethnic differences.

In this current situation, how can pastors, in rural areas, begin a constructive discussion of racism? More specifically, how can we, the rural church, discuss the event of Ferguson, Missouri, without choosing sides?

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty

In rural churches, conversations can begin by first acknowledging one truth: Jesus Christ has died for all of us, regardless of what they did or who they are. As a result of His death and resurrection, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. A Christian family that Jesus took priority over his own earthly mother and brothers.

Why can’t we first see and realize that everyone is our brother or our sister, regardless of color or social economic status? By being followers of Christ, we must see one another as a brother or as a sister, who are valued more than our earthly brother or sister.

God created us all, and God blessed us all. If God evaluated humankind as good, then why can’t we see each other as good? Why are we so quick to speak hate and evil to others who have different racial or ethnic backgrounds?

If we are able to see others, who are racially or ethnically different, as our brothers and sisters who are clothed in Christ, what can we then do to show that they are our brothers and sisters?


God created us to serve. In Genesis 2:15, God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [‘ābad] it and keep [šāmar] it.

Ellen F. Davis notes that in Genesis 2:15, the words used to describe the work of humans in the garden are not words derived from the fields of horticulture and agriculture; in fact only rarely are they used to describe the cultivating of land. Instead, they are words that are primarily related to human activity in relationship with God: to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exod 9:1, 13). Thus, to serve the land would imply “that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preference.”[1] In addition, the verb šāmar [keep, observe] has a primary reference to keeping the Torah (e.g., Exod. 13:10; 20:6). It’s used in Genesis 2:15 to mean, “to keep the land”, or protect the land, as well as later being used to mean, “to keep the commandments”. Keeping the commandments namely promotes the well being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others.[2]

Expanding on Dr. Ellen Davis’ point, when we were created, we can point out that we are to serve not just the land, but also the creatures created by God, including all human beings.

By serving, the Earth comes to order. By serving, the Earth finds peace.

Therefore, oppression is evil because we are misusing our brothers and sisters whom God has created. Also, equally important, oppression is unnatural because humanity is created to serve, not to rule.

Are we able to serve one another as a brother or a sister clothed in Christ? What is holding us back from seeing each other as children of God? Are we able to see one another as God’s creation first before we judge one another by height, weight, race, or clothes?

Christian Gooden—St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

Christian Gooden—St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

A constructive and honest discussion of racism has to start with the belief that God created humankind and that God saw it as good. A genuine conversation can begin when we grasp the truth that Jesus Christ suffered and died for all humanity – regardless of color, or their social economic status. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we all become brothers and sisters in Christ, not someone who is labeled by clothes, height, weight, or race.

By accepting that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps we are then able to serve all, regardless of what they have done or are doing. Perhaps then, by serving, rural church can start discussing, seeing, and realizing the unnoticeable evil of racism. Perhaps then, by serving, the rural church can see the same humanness that we all share, instead of race or social economic status.

-James Kim
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow


[1]Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament commenting on Ellen F. Davis insight found in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament

[2] Ibid.


Discussing rural ministries with others can easily lead one to romanticize about the ministry. While talking about ministry, one can largely overlook the tremendous time, energy, effort, struggle, and sacrifice needed to do ministry. One of the struggles that we, as pastors and particularly rural pastors, tend to overlook is loneliness.

This loneliness is not caused by lack of social interactions, but this loneliness is finding oneself without a confidant and/or an advocate. Sometimes, this is an area in our lives that even our own family members cannot fill. We feel lonely because we can’t seem to find people who can honestly listen to our struggles and our vulnerability. Yet, we find ourselves in situations where we continually give. For example, we find ourselves listening and caring for parishioners who are struggling to get their life on track. Or, we find ourselves being present with those who have lost their loved ones.

Some days we feel like we are giving everything to others, but we do not get back much in return. Worse yet, we feel like we are running on empty. We do not have much energy to give because we have been constantly giving and offering ourselves to others. In sum, we seem to give a lot more than what we are able to give.

Photo Cred:

Photo Cred: janetavoid.jpg

As a result, we wish to have something that can fill us back up with energy and love. Because we give so much without having much, we often wish that we possessed more. For instance, we wish to have more wealth so that we can give more financially. Or, sometimes, we wish to find a confidant or a mentor so that we can care more for others.

However, we need to realize that we are able to offer ourselves to others because we have little. We are able to care and love our parishioners more because we do not have much. Because when we have less, we are able to give more freely to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The idea that we can give more when we are in position of great wealth of money or wealth of relationships is a dangerous capitalistic thought that needs a careful re-examination.

More importantly, even though we feel empty, we can give and offer more in our relationships with others because a loving God sustains us. Through God’s love, we give and offer our significant time and effort into caring and loving for others, even though they may not replicate that same effort and care back to us. Somehow, when we feel like we are giving from our emptiness, God transforms that empty gift to make that gift worth more than what we could have imagined it to be.

Whenever we find ourselves in this loneliness, let us remember that we are able to give and offer more that what we have because we are grounded on hope, a hope was made possible through Christ. Because of his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ gives us the hope to continue on in our ministry even though it seems like we are giving everything while we are receive little in return.

When we are facing this loneliness, let us remember that old traditional hymn:
Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.[1]

When we are facing this loneliness, let us take it to the Lord in prayer. Prayer where we confess our sins, our weaknesses, and our shortcomings. Prayer where we admit that we need Christ to sustain our lives.

I cannot guarantee that this feeling of loneliness will ever go away in our ministry. This feeling will haunt us from time to time. However, there is one thing we can do: we can praise God for our lack of possession because it allows us to care for others more. We can praise God for having little because it allows us to rely on that hope, which Christ has provided to us.

May God strengthen you throughout your ministry.

-James Kim
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow


[1] “What a Friend We have in Jesus” written by Joseph M. Scriven, 1855.