Joint Logsdon-Truett seminar
focuses on needs of rural churches
___By Lori Scott-Fogleman
___BROWNWOOD--As a rural Baptist minister 30 years ago, Gary Farley remembers "horrifying" church members by wearing shorts.
___"I think you can get away with that now," laughed Farley, one of the nation's premier rural sociologists and currently associational missionary for Pickens Baptist Association in west Alabama.
___Although ministers in rural settings might find getting "out of role" a little easier today, Farley said there are still expectations for the rural pastor and his or her church that are different from urban, suburban and even small-town counterparts.
___Farley led students from Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University and Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary through the life and work of today's rural churches and surrounding communities during a weeklong intensive course on rural ministry leadership May 24-29 at Heart of Texas Encampment near Brownwood. The interim course, or "I-term," was a cooperative effort between the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Logsdon and Truett.
___"We've been focusing on the cities and have forgotten about the country, I'm afraid, in the last few years," said Farley, who previously served on staff of the Southern Baptist Convention's Home Mission Board. "Jesus' mission strategy was focused on the rural, on the towns and villages of Galilee."
___That's a strategy the American church shouldn't ignore, he said. "There are really more people who live in rural America than anytime in this country's history, so there's plenty of work to do out there yet."
___Farley uses Census Bureau population figures to define rural areas as populations of 2,500 or fewer, urban as populations of 2,500 to 50,000 and metropolitan as populations of more than 50,000.
___"But you do have some big churches that are in places of 2,500 that I call 'mini-mega churches,'" he said. "There was one in Bangs, about a dozen miles outside of Brownwood, that regularly runs 500 in worship, and it's a town of less than 2,500. You've got a lot of other really good solid churches that run between 100 to 250 and have all the programs and activities that a good industrial-age Baptist church has."
___Farley said some seminarians who have grown up in suburban churches are finding expectations in rural communities are the same as they were decades ago.
___"Some of those expectations are that the pastor is sort of a generalist. He knows how to do lots of different things rather than specializing in counseling or religious education," he explained. "An expectation that he be a friendly person and be well accepted in the community, which means he probably needs to make the rounds of the coffee shops and the post office and the Main Street businesses and the courthouse offices--sort of like a 'Brother Bob' rather than a 'Doctor this, that and the other thing.' I think there's the expectation that he be accessible, that he know his Bible and be a good counselor."
___The most dramatic change for rural churches, Farley said, has occurred in the size of the church field. The old concept of six-mile churches reaching three miles in each direction now stretches to 30 miles.
___"I can remember when I was pastoring little six-mile churches, there would be people who lived close to the church who had gotten mad at whatever family was dominant there, and they wouldn't come and so they just sat there. You couldn't get them, and the people in the next church wouldn't come after them because they didn't want to be perceived as proselytizing or stealing sheep. With this emerging idea of larger, overlapping fields, that family now might have six churches coming after them."
___That's where a "signature ministry" can make a rural church stand out, Farley said.
___"Churches should be encouraged to find out what they do well," he said. "In the associational arena, it would be to encourage small churches to have complementary ministries over an area so that most any potential group would have somebody who could make contact with them about any kind of need they had or felt."
___Still, one question about serving in a rural church was heavy on the hearts of Logsdon and Truett students at the I-term course, as it is with many ministers: Is a successful church defined solely by the number of members who fill the pews or is it defined by each changed life?
___"Most people are going to serve in medium- or smaller-size churches, including these seminary students," said Bill Tillman, BGCT coordinator of theological education. "Whatever setting they're in--say it's a smaller, rural church setting--they can still get a sense of satisfaction from that. Even if their church isn't big, is not in a major city or even a county seat, we know there are people who are doing some really good things out there. Those are grassroots folks, the ones who in many cases will be the church leaders of the next generation because they've learned very well in those smaller-number settings the value of pastoral care."
___The intensive course also marked the successful beginning of a partnership between the BGCT, Logsdon and Truett, and there are plans to hold more joint conferences.
___"We just think it's good stewardship," said Logsdon's dean, Vernon Davis. "We think it's a good way to demonstrate to Texas Baptists that we take seriously our responsibility to work together and offer quality theological education."
___Farley said he believes the students emerged from the course with a new appreciation of rural ministry.
___"They did have a greater sense of legitimacy, that it's not a matter of being involved in a hospice helping churches in dying places die with dignity," he said.
___Farley told his class of future ministers to think of small rural churches as Timex watches. Whereas research shows urban churches face average life expectancies of 40-60 years, rural churches "keep on ticking," he said, "so your ministry and what you did is going to be remembered for generations."
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