Lessons from Rural Congregations about the Role of Elders

By Suggs, Patricia K. | Aging Today, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Rural Congregations about the Role of Elders


Suggs, Patricia K., Aging Today


Although each congregation has its unique culture, they can be categorized generally, as rural or urban, small or large. In this day of bigger-is-better assumptions-the more programs a religious institution has, the more effective the ministry-the rural church, which most often is smaller than those in urban or suburban areas, receives little attention. Big urban churches with their huge budgets, extensive programming and large congregations tend to have more clout within their denomination.

From my experience in the ministry, however, I see value in both the large urban and small rural church. More important, I believe it's time for the city churches to see that they can learn a great deal from the small rural churches. The teaching can-and should-go both ways.

ADVANTAGES, DISADVANTAGES

Rural churches have many wonderful qualities. Sociologist Gary Farley of the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Conyers, Ga., conducted a survey of 400 rural congregations in Missouri. The responses he received outlined people's ideas regarding the advantages and disadvantages of rural churches. Among the advantages were the following:

* A family-like atmosphere in the church community.

* Reliable, dedicated workers.

* A shepherd-leader role for the pastor.

* Members' deep involvement in ministry to one another and to the community.

* The deep faith that carries many rural people through difficult times.

* The love the congregation experiences in the rural church.

Some of the main problems people pointed out included the following:

* Rural congregations are aging and often lack young people.

* These churches tend to be traditional and less open to change.

* The population in many of the areas that rural churches serve is declining.

* Fewer programs and activities are available due to smaller congregation sizes and limited finances.

* People with leadership abilities and training are in short supply.

An important issue to note is that respondents listed an aging congregation as a disadvantage for rural churches. Granted, it is difficult for churches to grow in rural areas with aging, shrinking populations, but the older adults in those congregations are often the support beams that hold a church together. Even in large urban churches, adults 55 and older make up more than 50% of the congregation in most of the mainline denominations. In rural churches, older adults play major roles in the life of the faith community.

ELDERS AS HISTORIANS

In churches where I have served, the older adults have been the historians. They have kept the traditions alive. They often hold leadership positions, lending their wisdom to the congregation. Gary Goreham and Kate Ulmer, contributors to Rural Social Science Education-a nonprofit learning program at North Dakota State University, Fargo, for rural community leaders-describe two key aspects of rural congregations as being tenacity and reciprocity. Rural congregations, they say, have the ability to hang on, continuing their ministries despite the challenges they face. …

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