Editor’s Note: This article is republished from Faith & Leadership, an online magazine of the Leadership Education program at Duke Divinity School.
In the 1960s sitcom “Green Acres,” wealthy New Yorkers leave the city for rural life. As the show’s twangy theme song says, “Farm living is the life for me.” It’s a funny, lighthearted show — but in reality, many farmers’ lives are far from idyllic.
In January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on suicide rates by occupation. Farmers landed in the top five. Along with workers in construction, mining, transportation, and services such as auto repair, workers in agriculture die by suicide at disproportionally high rates. The complexity of farming, along with isolation, shame over economic distress, and a lack of mental health resources is fueling this epidemic.
Four years ago, we launched The Moses Project, a program to equip rural pastors with resources for congregational leadership, connect them to peers and support them with mentors. Our hope was to inspire innovative thinking among those serving in rural settings. The effort is funded by a Thriving in Ministry grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.
The name for the project came from Deuteronomy 34:7: “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (NRSV). The idea is that where there is vision, there is passion. We hoped to inspire vision among pastors. We didn’t know that this work would also help improve mental health among farmers.
One of the program’s exemplars is the Rev. Grant Woodley, a fourth-generation farmer and a Lutheran pastor. Woodley’s bivocational work places him in a unique position to inform and inspire his colleagues. Speaking to a group of pastors, Woodley said, “Farmers face tremendous pressure, as global dynamics, the weather, economic markets — both domestic and global — and politics all factor into the business of farming.”
That pressure can kill. We have pastors who’ve buried high school students and farmers in their 20s and 30s who feel overwhelmed at not being able to continue the family legacy. These deaths take a heavy toll on the local community — including the pastors themselves.
Yet farmers can serve as positive models, Woodley said. To survive, farmers need to be flexible in their business; they also need to be empathetic to care for themselves and loved ones in their community.
Woodley then challenged his colleagues to be pastors who “think like farmers”: to be flexible and empathetic with the long game in mind. In other words, to practice traditioned innovation.
This challenge resonated for the Rev. Stephen Zeller, a project participant, who serves a rural congregation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Cole Camp, Missouri. Zeller began thinking about the mental health of farmers in his church and community. He realized that no one talked about mental health. With empathy for the community, Zeller and his church decided to act.
The church hosted a concert at a family farm featuring the Peterson Farm Brothers band. Funded by a grant, it was touted as a “We love our farmers” event and included family activities and food. Zeller also invited participation from the local University of Missouri Extension Office.
The outdoor event was attended by 150-200 people and included eight representatives from the extension office — and lots of resources on suicide awareness for rural communities. Some farmers quietly grabbed pamphlets and avoided making eye contact. Others connected with church members, extension representatives and others.
The success of the concert led to further collaboration. Zeller’s church partnered with a clinic for farmers. This free event included students completing a rural-track internship through the University of Missouri School of Medicine, who provided mental health screenings, a presentation on mental health and suicide awareness, and a free lunch.
By thinking like a farmer, Zeller identified needs in the community and sought collaboration partners who were already active in mental health support for rural communities. Such work not only helps the congregation flourish; it also brings an awareness that can save lives.
One thing is clear: Pastors and church leaders stand in a crucial space within rural America. Their buildings are often the nicest ones in town, and everyone has passed through those spaces for weddings, funerals, baptisms and other life events. When pastors and churches take the time to be flexible and creative, many blessings arise.
Zeller explains: “Being able to notice what we were doing well, what didn’t need to be done, and what the needs around us were at that time allowed us to create new partnerships and offer God’s love where it was really needed.”
The church has an important role to play in facilitating conversations about suicide, mental health and other needs faced by rural communities. Unlike Moses, who watched a generation of his community die in the wilderness, we as rural pastors can work to help a generation of farmers live.
If we commit to thinking like farmers, with empathy and creativity, lives can be changed. And maybe over time, we might help more people in our communities say, “Farm living is the life for me.”
Russell Lackey is senior campus pastor at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Trisha Wheelock is program director of the Moses Project.