As a seminary graduate still looking for a ministry position, I’ve attempted to widen my options of what I think ‘my’ ministry will look like. Before seminary, all my relevant ministry and life experience was distinctly urban. I worked with urban ministries in Atlanta, Miami and did part of my ministry internship with two churches in urban church in Vancouver, Canada. Three years have past since my graduation and I’ve found myself living in a small border town, far away from the lights of the big city. I do not know where I will end up, but this is where I am. Most days I pray some version of, “God what are you doing here?” as I seek to understand what he has in store for my life and ministry (and when I am frustrated I pray, “God what am I doing here?”).
Since no urban churches are calling, I’ve begun looking at rural churches. To that end I picked up Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities to explore the possibility of a rural call. What I discovered is that two of my guiding convictions in ministry, commitment to place and God’s heartbeat for justice, would serve me as well in the country as they do in the city.
The authors of Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities are all highly educated, and currently live in urban settings. However Jeanne Hoeff, L. Shannon Jung and Joretta Marshall all have experience living and ministering in rural settings and share from their wisdom, experience, and learned insight. Their purpose in writing this book is to enrich the ministry of care in both rural congregations and the wider church. They have listened well to the needs of rural communities and the peculiar challenges of that context. However wider applications are possible. They write, “Care is context specific, yet practices and principles are often appropriate across contexts. We believe that the rural context offers wisdom born out of an appreciation for its people’s unique gifts, as well as out of the limitations and peculiarities of what it means to be rural in the United States” (location 92, kindle edition).
Most chapters of this book explore various case studies in rural ministry which illuminate the challenges rural congregations face. Small towns and rural parishes are small, tight knit communities, where members are involved in one another’s lives and secrets are poorly kept. Educated members of many communities move from the country to the big city. To be poor in these environments is to be vulnerable. There are not the same systems of care and safety nets that are available in cities. Beyond this, rural environments also tend to have a greater degree of domestic violence, alcoholism, etc. The gifts and challenges of any rural ministry is tethered to the peculiarity of that place and the gifts and challenges of the people who live there.
Hoeff, Jung & Marshall case studies explore various dynamics, including the permission given to pastors to challenge community norms (as an outsider to the community), leadership, diversity in changing communities, socioeconomic difficulties, violence and health issues. These issues are not unique to rural environments, but they hit these areas in a different way than city folk experience. For example, the loss of a job in a small community is complicated by how intertwined everyone’s lives are. A woman or man who is no longer able to provide for their family has little recourse, social services are not as readily available. They also experience profound shame and isolation (i.e. a break in relationship between employer and employee is felt more acutely in a town of 35 people than in a city of 350,000). The authors of this book do a great job of identifying care issues, setting them in context, framing them theologically and offering guidance in how to offer sensitive care in that environment.
Ministers serving in rural context will definitely benefit from the insights in this book. As will those, like me, who are still parsing the possibility of rural ministry. However, the sort of reading of the cultural context that Hoeff, Jung and Marshall do, is appropriate in any ministry context. This is a great book and has helped me be cognizant of several pastoral care issues, but it has also cemented the conviction that wherever I end up in ministry, I need to exegete the place and understand the community I serve. I highly recommend this book. Five stars: ★★★★★!
Notice of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book from Augsburg Fortress through Edelweiss in exchange for my fair and honest review.