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Growth and decline challenge rural ministry


The nature of the traditional American division between urban and rural is changing, and so is the nature of rural ministry.

First the statistics.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, slightly more than a third of all Catholic parishes are in areas designated non-metropolitan by the U.S. Census. These are areas having a central place of fewer than 50,000 persons or an urban center of fewer than 100,000 persons.

While parish size is probably the most apparent difference, urban and rural parishes also differ in many other respects. The average rural parish has 387 households, three Masses a weekend. Eighty-four percent have a resident pastor (compared to 94 percent urban). Thirteen percent identify themselves as Latino. More than one in four small parishes lack a resident pastor. Some 17 percent of all parishes are administered by non-resident pastors or entrusted to someone other than a priest.

The Midwest is the area having the highest percentage of non-resident pastors with 28 percent. Six percent of all parishes for which a non-resident pastor is not available are entrusted to women religious. The South is more likely to have parishes entrusted to women religious, more than 10 percent of all rural areas. The West has the highest percentage of parishes entrusted to a layperson or team. About a tenth of parishes in the West with no resident pastor are entrusted to laypersons other than vowed religious (Catholicism USA, A Portrait of the Catholic Church in the United States by Bryan T. Froehle and Mary L. Gautier).

Size and location add to rural ministry’s distinction from urban and suburban ministry.

A ministry in flux

Research shows that rural parishes are both in the process of growth and decline. Fr. Thomas Graner of the Fargo, N.D., diocese pastors in three small parishes. He is the rural life director for his diocese. In his review of parish situations in some rural areas he recommends that the church develop a ministry of hospice for some parishes.

Not all parishes will survive the depopulation that is going on in rural areas, and he recommends that we not give false hope but provide a loving ministry acknowledging loss and grief. A film, “Delafield,” documents the closing of a rural Minnesota Lutheran parish. It marks the congregation’s acknowledgement that it should close. There is a sensitively developed ritual and series of storytelling sessions that accompanies the closing.

On the other hand, research shows that some rural parishes are growing. Urban and suburban sprawl have brought newcomers into formerly isolated parishes, and the newcomers have different values and expectations for parish life. Former recreation areas have now become retirement communities year round, adding to the challenges of parochial leadership. In some rural parishes, ethnic changes have taken place. What once were homogeneous Anglo parishes have in some instances, almost overnight, become largely Latino parishes. Such growth and change requires new adaptations from diocesan leadership.

Some dioceses have been seriously engaged in pastoral planning, which includes an appreciation of the significance of locality for planning processes.

The small rural parish and the large urban parish differ from each other in how the life of faith is lived out. The sense of community, the capacity for organized ministries, the identity of the parish with the local town differ from one location to another. There may be a tendency for rural parishes to compare themselves to urban parishes or suburban parishes. Sometimes those comparisons are unfair because they assume the larger parish as the model for all parishes.

The fact is that rural and small town parishes have their own social dynamics, and those dynamics have a theological relevance. We need to appreciate that social location is an element in the concrete realization of the life of the church. Rural parishes are different from urban parishes, and that difference should be appreciated in pastoral plans.

Keeping the church active

The good news is that the difference often is appreciated. The Cincinnati archdiocese engaged in pastoral planning in the 1990s and worked with urban and rural pastoral leaders with the Office of Planning and Research. In Idaho the pastoral plan took shape over a lengthy period, and every attempt was made to keep the small rural churches intact even if some alteration was made changing the status of the church from parish to mission and mission to chapel.

The Charleston, S.C., diocese held a synod in the 1990s to focus the efforts of the entire diocese; rural parishes had their own distinctive involvement. Faith communities in the diocese were in many instances growing due to population influx. A widely dispersed rural sector was challenged to keep pace with the diocesan planning processes, but it did through consistent outreach from diocesan offices.

Similar pastoral attentiveness marked the efforts of the Portland, Maine, diocese in its efforts to include many small rural parishes in its process of pastoral planning. As a result of these ongoing efforts, it was concluded that the smaller, rural parishes undertook parish planning in a more comprehensive and enthusiastic manner than some of the urban parishes.

All of these efforts at pastoral planning indicate that the rural church is working as other sectors of the church are working to deal with continuing declines in the availability of clergy to lead them. Rather than see that as only a problem, creative solutions are being identified and developed. One hopeful result is the cluster model, which links parishes in shared operations such as financial management, religious education and parish development but continues their availability to serve a particular specific region.

There is a great challenge then to keep the church active and alive in rural areas. Rural areas suffering from population decline need to find ways to sensitively minister to a lessened community, sometimes where there had been 100 years of dedicated parish participation.

Rural parishes are exploring new models of leadership through clustering, shared ministries, new forms of leadership. Many dioceses are including a specialized attention to the rural character of some of their parishes. The examples above from Ohio, South Carolina, Idaho and Maine demonstrate this careful pastoral concern. Economically some rural areas are growing with the establishment of new retirement communities or recreation communities.

In the same pews

Other rural areas are suffering decline from machine-intensive mountaintop removal in Appalachia or poultry or livestock confinement operations in Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Iowa. In these instances where economic decline is taking place, the parishes can be challenged to speak to environmental degradation and economic injustice.

That can be harder when persons from different sides of the issues sit in the same pews on Sunday. Nonetheless, in season and out of season, Catholic social and environmental teaching can be a balm to everyone. Throughout the United States, from the Northeast to the South, from the Northwest to the Midwest, bishops and regional groups of bishops have spoken out on issues such as the growth of so-called “factory farms” and their impact on local areas. Here are a few:

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Oct. 18, 2001, issued this statement: “The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is mindful of the fact that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. … And we know of rural communities that have been devastated by a declining farm economy and, due to the loss of family farms, the new threat of factory farms, which can hurt their environment and the well-being of communities.”

In 2001, the Catholic bishops of Nebraska issued a pastoral letter, “Economic Hardships Affecting Rural Life,” stating: “We are concerned about the state of production agriculture, but even more we are concerned about the future of a cherished way of life. That is what is at stake in the struggle to save and sustain family-based, owner-operated farms and ranches. These institutions are being severely tested by the trend toward corporate farming and ranching, which creates excessive concern about efficiency and market control and leaves little room for independent producers; by the shift from small and moderate sized, family-based production to industrial scale, ‘factory-like’ production systems; by the increase in concentrated ownership; and by vertical integration of production, processing, marketing and retailing. All these factors have contributed to the diminishment of open and competitive grain and livestock markets.”

The bishops of the Boston province, in a pastoral letter titled “And God Saw That It Was Good,” issued on Oct. 4, 2000, wrote: “Businesses controlled from afar by persons who do not know the local circumstances can more easily be tempted to introduce environmentally hazardous practices such as large-scaled confined animal feeding operations.”

These economic issues face rural parishioners across the country. In some instances parish members have taken the lead in organizing opposition to these operations, invoking the words of bishops such as those found above.

With active faith, grace

Rural ministry in the United States is facing challenges of growth and decline, issues of economic and environmental justice. Increasingly, even in the midst of such change, there is the conviction of people in the pews that with an active faith comes the grace to meet the challenges around them. Drought, flood, environmental, economic and social struggles are being faced by parishioners. Pastoral planning efforts are being developed by diocesan leaders. In each case, rural ministry continues to place its own agenda and face on the character of the church.

Rural faith communities have been involved for a long time in food assistance, agricultural policy and in environmental concerns. There is a new energy around sustainable development, spirituality, food, farm, nutrition, environmental policy that can be identified in parish and local faith community activities in the encouragement of local food systems within parishes:

St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis established a community garden in partnership with a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm that provides seedlings, compost and support to area residents who wish to garden.

At Edgemont Solar Greenhouse in Dayton, Ohio, a Marianist Catholic brother developed a 125-plot community garden in a public housing development, which now includes three large solar greenhouses, employs three full-time and up to 20 part-time assistants providing fresh vegetables, bedding plants and house plants.

Genesis Farm in Blairstown, N.J., a 140-acre ecological learning and resource center owned by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, N.J., educates people about the environment and their relationship to the earth by providing courses in natural foods cooking, environmental education and permaculture (the growing of perennial food crops in place of landscape-type plants), and sponsorship of a community-supported biodynamic garden.

Michaela Farm, run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Ind., a 300-acre organic farm, includes diversified organic garden, greenhouse, beehives, demonstration gardens, and nut and fruit tree orchard. Its CSA program is expected to serve close to 200 households a year.

The White Violet Center for Eco-Justice was established by the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind. On 1,200 acres this center fosters a way of living that recognizes the interdependence of all creation and includes a Community-Supported Agriculture garden and greenhouse on two acres, seven acres of antique-apple orchards and berry patches, beehives, and fleece-producing alpacas whose fleece the sisters spin for yarn and fiber.

At Heartland Farm and Spirituality Center in Pawnee Rock, Kan., an intentional ecumenical Christian community of men, women, and youth -- religious and lay -- work for an interdependent healing of the earth and care of persons sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Great Bend. The center is located on an 80-acre site, the development of which is based on ecological principles and permacultural design, including an organic garden. The community, 75 percent self-supporting, raises organic chickens and has a 20-family community-supported agriculture program.

At the Sisters Hill Farm, in Bronx, N.Y., the Sisters of Charity established a CSA project as a way of caring for the land in a sustainable way. Local shareholders pick up their vegetables at the farm weekly, and produce is delivered to the motherhouse in the Bronx for New York City shareholders. Among the project’s goals are to share 25 percent of the harvest with people who are poor and to help restore the lost connection between people and agriculture by providing an opportunity for members to be directly connected to how their food is grown.

Rural ministry is charting new directions even in the midst of shifting church demographics and difficult trends of decline in some regions. New pastoral planning processes, new rural economic and demographic realities, efforts to face decline and growth and to address issues of their regions demonstrate that rural ministry is among the creative sources for the church’s pastoral engagement.

Br. David Andrews is executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002