If you study the history of any small town, the oldest institutions will be places of worship. Restaurants, offices and stores—no matter how prominent—eventually go by the wayside, but when it comes to churches, it seems there's a degree of permanence.
But that's not always the case. Last year, 15 UCC churches—many in rural areas—ultimately decided to close their doors for good due to declining populations and fewer members. "Yes, it can be hard not to see the numbers grow," says Diane Rood Kiesz, a licensed pastor who serves St. Paul's UCC in Eureka, S.D., a congregation of 148 in a town of 1,200 residents, no stoplights and seven churches. "I have been saying that perhaps our call is to something else. I think it is to grow spiritually. We need to stay focused on mission. We need to get out of that 'we need to survive' mentality that closes in on itself. I see that as the greatest challenge for the smaller, rural church."
Kiesz says she has buried about 40 members during her 12-year ministry there but, despite the difficult losses, the church's numbers stay relatively steady. New members join occasionally, but it's still not enough to overcome losses due to death. "Losing each one gets harder," she says.
Still, the rhythm of prairie life invigorates her, so much so that she dubs herself a "rural church enthusiast."
"I really value the family things, the idea of seeing several generations support the church and each other," Kiesz says. "I have people who were married in this church, for whom this church is the focal point of their lives. They have baptized, confirmed and seen five of their children get married here. That's really beautiful."
She says the secret to sustaining excellence in rural ministry is in building trust. "Let them know you love them and promise that you're not going away any time soon and they will let you do anything," she says. "There is an inherent fear [among smaller churches] that if we lose our pastor, who is to say we will ever find another one?"
So Kiesz, 60, makes it perfectly clear: she isn't leaving any time soon. "I've got about 148 people in my congregation and at least 140 of them are counting on me to do their funerals," she says—perhaps only half in jest.
Rural and small town churches comprise more than half of all UCC congregations, and 22 percent of UCC members live in non-metropolitan areas.
"I think that's something that we don't fully appreciate," says the Rev. Wallace Ryan Kuroiwa of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, which has been working increasingly to raise injustices facing rural America. "They may not be our biggest churches and they may not have a lot of money, but they are the bedrock of the UCC. They are who we are."
Ryan Kuroiwa can personally identify with those who want to maintain and strengthen rural life. As the son of immigrant tenant farmers, "I saw how my parents struggled to eke out a living on the land. [Rural residents] are proud people who love the land and have a deep appreciation for creation. We need to pay attention to our churches there and the unique issues of injustice that face these communities."
That's why he and others have organized the UCC's Rebuilding Rural America Conference, Feb. 27-29, at the UCC's Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, N.C.
The event will bring together more than 150 UCC members, including at least two from each of the UCC's 39 Conferences, to discuss ways to strengthen and support rural churches and to develop a denomination-wide network of rural justice advocates. The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, will address the group.
The conference is an outgrowth of a 2001 General Synod resolution, initiated by the Northern Plains Conference, that calls for the UCC to launch "a jubilee for justice for the rural United States."
"When agriculture is in crisis, so the community is in peril," Ryan Kuroiwa says, noting that the farm crisis has negatively impacted education, health care, the environment and the overall economic well-being of rural America. "Therefore," he says, "the questions are not only 'How do we support farmers?' but also 'How do we preserve water rights?' 'How do we attract doctors?' 'How do we keep good school teachers?'"
"The maxim is still true today - we must think globally and act locally," Ryan Kuroiwa says. "We know that relationships come first. Then, we identify the passions. In the end, something important is started."
As Kiesz says, "The smaller, rural church is important; it's where the majority of Christians in our denomination live. It's a wonderful mission field. It's the kind of place where someone with a hot dog education thinks they are going to come and really shake things up, and in this process, they are the ones that are changed instead."
For information about attending the Rebuilding Rural America Conference, call 216-736-3707 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.