When I was appointed to my first rural pastorate, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Our rural church was in a rapidly changing corner of the world. A half mile away, a large lake brought in tourists from the neighboring cities. Twenty minutes to our south, developers were buying up enormous tracts of land, promising to redesign the face of the once small town. Newly constructed homes attracted retirees from the neighboring metropolitan areas, which all seemed to be inching toward the small plot of land where my church sat. 

It was not unlike the kind of transformation that Jennifer Sherman describes in her book, Dividing Paradise. New, wealthy residents were significantly altering the DNA of the community. Meanwhile, families who had long inhabited the land, much of which became the lake, weren’t leaving. 

Rev. Allen T. Stanton (Photo courtesy of Stanton.)

On a given Sunday, my small congregation could neatly be divided into the two populations that Sherman calls “old-timers” and “newcomers.” The old-timers were the long-time families who had long claimed the church and the area as their home. On my first Sunday, one elderly man introduced himself with a pointed fun fact: “I moved here when I was a little boy. We came on a wagon. This has always been my church.”

Their kids and grandkids had settled into the congregation, as well, even if their paths were disparate. Some opted for college and graduate school, others were attending technical programs or were entering the workforce out of high school. They carried a sense of place, even if they were not always sure what to do with it. 

The newcomers were mostly retirees. A few were people who had always lived around the area, but had finally drifted out of the suburbs. Others were relocating from several states away, retiring from distinguished careers in business or academia. 

A few young families counted themselves in the ranks of newcomers, too. They moved to the area to take jobs at the universities in neighboring cities, with no real desire to live in those metropolitan areas. They embraced the area, even if they didn’t share the same sense of place that our long-time residents did. 

When I became their pastor, I anticipated that my job would have a fair bit of work within the rural community. After all, we were the only real institution on our stretch of the road. We knew that we had a responsibility to the people of our community, both because of our values and because there were precious few other non-profits to which they could turn. 

That work came naturally enough to us. We partnered with non-profits to offer feeding ministries, collaborated with hospitals to find ways to provide access to healthcare, and took up offerings to pay overdue utility bills for people, whether they came to our church or not. We opened our gym to home owners’ associations needing meeting space and to high school basketball teams trying to get some extra practice. 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how much of my job would be an intangible negotiation as our congregation balanced the changing nature of our rural area. Our congregation, for better or worse, was a microcosm of the larger culture shift happening in our community. My job, I discovered, was facilitating that transition.

In her book, Sherman writes about the negotiation of values between old-timers and newcomers. Sherman’s study emphasized that old-timers relied upon moral capital, like demonstrating work ethic, which were in turn often dismissed by the newcomers, who placed a higher value on other forms of capital. Newcomers, for instance, used their cultural capital to distance themselves from the old-timers, emphasizing their different tastes and preferences. And, newcomers typically had access to more human capital – higher levels of education, higher incomes, and more benefits.

My job, in no small part, involved navigating these differences of culture, and the ways in which they manifested themselves. Newcomers emphasized that our church had the potential to grow rapidly, which stroked my younger ambitions. Old-timers emphasized the intimacy of the church, and how growing too much would erode our values. 

Our youth and young adult groups, where grandchildren of old-timers and children of newcomers mingled, became places where we negotiated values. We ate kale salads at hipster restaurants as young adults bemoaned the lack of work-ethic among their peers. High school students dropped by my office after school to get advice on how to convince their parents that college was a necessity for their future. 

Already, rural churches are some of the few permanent institutions in rural places. I knew that this would become central to my time in that congregation. But I suspect that my rural church might have been the only place that could do the necessary work to meld these two demographics. We were the place where old-timers and newcomers could inhabit the same social space and develop a shared understanding of the community, share power, and arrive at a common vision for a shared institution.

The community I served is hardly unique. Growing rural communities are constantly navigating these cultural tensions. If these communities are to find a shared vision for what the community will become, and avoid the sort of bifurcated reality Sherman describes in Dividing Paradise, then rural church leaders will need to learn to navigate the spaces I stumbled through.

It would be silly to say that our small church helped the whole community navigate a complex, long-term change. At the same time, we navigated spaces that very few other institutions entered into at all, and we did it well. That’s community leadership, even if it’s not expansive. That’s the role of a rural church. 

Allen T. Stanton is the chief of Mission Integration and Outreach at the University of Tennessee Southern, where he also serves as the director of the Turner Center for Rural Vitality. He is the author of Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations.