To reverse the declining trend of membership among the rural United Methodist churches, the United Methodist General Conference delegates will consider a ‘National Comprehensive Plan for Town and Country Ministries” at the quadrennial meeting in Pittsburg, April 27-May 7.
According to the Rev. Alan Rice, a district superintendent from North Wilkesboro, N.C., and a member of the planning team, 20,203 of 35,670 UMC congregations are rural. Between 1982 and 2001, however, membership losses in those congregations accounted for half of the denomination’s total loss of slightly more than 1 million members.
Currently, the UMC is the second largest protestant denomination in the United States with 8.3 million members; the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, is ranked first.
Rice said it is time for the denomination to make a radical change to stop the outflow of members from rural congregations.
"They are perishing and I want to know who cares," Rice declared.
Rice, along with the other directors of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, discussed ways to make this change, during their March 22-25 meeting in Stamford, Conn.
At the meeting, Dale Fooshee, a team member and board director from Topeka, Kan., said research has indicated many rural congregations feel "ignored within the connection." The current action plan, which was developed in 2000, is not concerned with "managing decline," he added, but encouraging bold mission steps.
The newly proposed action plan will encourage the denomination and its rural congregations to “catch fire” by moving the focus “from a survival mentality to self-sacrificing servanthood.”
"Understanding the rural context and the varieties of rural culture is a task for the church as a whole as well as for local congregations," the plan states. While the local congregations must know their communities, it continues, denominational leaders, especially those in annual (regional) conferences with rural congregations, must "comprehend the complex realities of contemporary rural life."
The plan also recommends for the formation of a "general church team on town and country ministries" to promote collaboration among church agencies. A system of data collection and sharing is to be developed, and effective models of ministry promoted.
The plan calls for rural congregations to encourage licensed as well as lay pastors.
The country churches are “increasingly served by licensed local pastors, lay pastors, laity assigned and lay speakers. This is a pattern that is likely to continue and expand in the future, and it is out of the grace of God that The United Methodist Church recognizes and encourages the pastoral capacities of the laity."
Lastly, the action recognizes witness to Jesus Christ in both remote areas and population centers. "Upholding and celebrating town and country ministry provides a sense of wholeness and can re-awaken the family of faith to our responsibility in all places.”