Rural Ministry in Eastern WA. and North Idaho
Rural and Small Town Ministry in Eastern Washington/Northern Idaho
This project is really a research and writing project that is designed to lead to a self-published booklet. Such a resource can be helpful to all people serving in ministry in rural and small town settings, but especially those who either didn't grow up in this setting or find themselves in this setting due to pay scale (first call) or placement.
I got thinking about the need for something like this after hearing the story of a new Mennonite minister who arrived at Menno church 25 miles west of Ritzville fresh from seminary. His wife hadn't visited the site when he had interviewed, and he had prepared her (he thought) for the 'rural and rustic nature' of this call….the church and parsonage being the only thing for 5 miles around. She quit crying after two days. But the culture shock will be staggering.
It occurred to me that something written could be a subtle help to persons who are dealing with these issues. To that end, this idea was born. So this is more an open invitation to you to be part of this research and writing project, sharing your insights and ideas. I envision this to be an 'email' project, where we can write and reflect on a topic at a time, and share it with others. Then, once a quarter, we could get together and review what we have learned and completed. To that end, I propose four areas for general scrutiny.
1) Context….The given and fixed setting we work and live in.
A) Geography and it's effect on the people who live there.
B) Rural sociology and psychology and it's 'window on the world'
C) the church as part of a family system…its meaning for the pastor
D) Politics….the way 'things work and get done'" in rural settings
E) Language: Oral, written and electronic image--perceptions of 'truth' or 'error'.
F) Isolation…it's rippled effects
2) Text….the scripture read and heard through the filters of the area.
a) A agrarian reading of the scriptures…
b) How we deal with ideas around here…or don't.
c) Exegeting the congregation as well as the text.
d) Knowing the stories of those to whom you're preaching.
e) How does grief show itself in a rural/small town setting.
f) Globalization and it's effect on rural life.
3) Message as Ministry-Incarnational presence
a) Best practices of those who serve out here…
b) Forsaking the illusion of success in the effort to remain faithful
c) After heaven: Journey as language of discipleship and ministry
d) Learning from the church's past practice for present and future hope
e) Visitation as means of hospitality: Opening us to work with them.
f) Ecclesiology: Being transformed through partnership with other congregations, pastors, synod and Churchwide.
4) Self-identification--how do we see ourselves?
a) the view of rugged individualism; "me against the world"
b) the language of scarcity or abundance--which is the predominant view…
c) How large is the worldview…my farm, town, county, country…?
d) Gender identity and the value of children; outsiders especially minority groups.
A word about each to prime the pump and ask questions.
1) Context: Those of us trained in the historical critical method of studying scripture had grilled into us the need to ascertain the context of the text….what comes before it, why is it here, what type of literature and language does it use to tell it's story, and what did it mean in the time/day it was originally told. That often drives us to bible handbooks, maps, internet archeological sites and such. The understanding we gain will help us to see more clearly the original setting of the text.
a. One of the biggest realities in rural settings are the geography and it's effect on the people who live there. Environmental determinism or possibilism are the effects of living with factors like typography, terrain, resources, water, temperature and growing season, soil types and composition as well as hundred other variables that together must be considered before we can talk about economics or politics. The effects of this reality is vital in understanding the culture who deals with this environment. Are there limits which cannot be overcome, thus establishing that possibility in the minds of people in other areas of life; faith has limits; imagination has limits. Or is it an endless stream of possibilities, many and most of which have never been tried before due to cost or technology, or lacking resources (power, water) or often, custom and novelty. How much of either determinism or possibility is in their understanding of God and the church, and thus ministry in that place?
In 1995, a study by the Forest Service/USDA/Dept. Of the Interior of the Columbia basin communities came to several preliminary conclusions:
”• Small rural communities in the Columbia River basin have always been in a process of change and will continue to be; the idea of community stability is a myth belying such influences as the volatility of markets for timber, mining, and other traditional extractive industries; the actions of private companies in modernizing or closing plants and periodically laying off or terminating workers; the decreased supply of timber from National Forests, sometimes due to past inaccuracies in estimates of existing timber supply, current regeneration, and future sustainability; decreasing employment in the industries as a result of all these changes; and the rapidly increasing in-migration of new kinds of workers and residents (retirees, new ethnic groups, etc.) into many of these communities. (ed note: also, what is the effect on family farms and sense of place when children move away rather than choose to farm, especially in places where 'corporation farming' will buy up the land from those farmers.)"
• Although closures of mills, mines, and other resource-processing plants can have significant impacts in some communities, past closures have had few effects on other communities. Many mills, for example, have closed, been sold, been reopened, and been closed again in a series of changes over past decades that have not always been related to public land management. Community growth, as indicated by population increases, occurred in many communities that lost mills, but not in others.
• Rural communities tend to be more resilient (i.e., adaptive to change) than commonly assumed. Small towns in the Columbia River basin are unique and complex, though, and generalizing about the kinds of towns that are resilient to change is always contingent on the situation of each. For example, many “timber communities” are fairly highly resilient and healthy, especially in comparison to small ranching and farming communities. With their development of amenities, diversifying economies, and population growth, the face of these timber towns already is changing.
Importantly, even though a community’s resources, including its amenities and attractiveness, can be factors influencing development, a decisive, major determinant of a community’s resilience clearly is its residents—in particular, the willingness of residents to take leadership roles, organize, and realize their community’s potential. Community residents are a central defining element in creating the future of rural communities.(1)
(1) Rural Communities in the Inland Northwest: An Assessment of Small Rural Communities in the Interior and Upper Columbia River Basins
Charles Harris, William McLaughlin, Greg Brown, and Dennis R. Becker October 2000
Geographers have been helpful here to talk about "a sense of place" as being "when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. It is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for it's existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape and generally includes the people who occupy the place. This sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the place being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music. " (2)
(2) Wikipedia; The sense of place
Growing up, I spent summers at Lake Pend O'Reille at my Aunt's lake cabin. I grew up hearing songs like "O the hills of Idaho" and other songs that spoke of a deep love and identity with that sense of place. College fight songs often evoke such an identity between person and place, especially alumni.
Reference to Spokane and Inland Empire…
b. You can gain a lot of perspective and educate yourself by being aware of the effects of sociology and psychology and it's window on the world. There are lots of periodicals and books available, as well as your own observational skills. Getting and invitation to a coffee group in your community is an invaluable tool just to listen to the way things are said, stories are told, problems discussed and perhaps resolved, or why that resolution won't work. What makes them think the way they do?
An article on Rural psychology offers sage advice (substitute pastor for Psychologist):
In addition to varying definitions and characteristics of rural, each community may hold a different system of norms and a healthy mistrust of outsiders. These norms may include a complex system of social and political power, formal and informal lines of communication, and implicit and explicit behavioral norms (Pugh, 2006; Weier & Davidson, 1999). For example, it may be expected that a new neighbor is greeted by the community and invited to supper within the first two weeks of arrival. In order to gain the trust of residents, it might be wise for the practicing psychologist to become familiar with, understand, and potentially abide by these norms. To achieve trust and familiarity with rural residents requires an initial knowledge of community norms. The psychologist’s uncertainty or confusion about rural norms may cause residents to distrust the new rural psychologist, thereby reinforcing a cultural norm of healthy mistrust for outsiders (Erickson, 2001). Along with cultural variations, cultural constraints and barriers to seeing mental healthcare services may also exist.
Attendant to this: When you first come to a parish, walk with them through a whole year, just the way it 'has always been'. Ask questions of how this is working; how has this been received or changed over the years, and you will discover that thought it seems strange to you perhaps, it makes perfect sense to the people of the parish. Remember: Form follows function. So ask: What function does this form serve? Is there a new form that would better fill this function now? Even though it is 'old fashioned' in many parts of the church, it may even be considered 'revolutionary' in the parish you're now serving. If they haven't done it before…it's new to them!
c. The church is part of the family system….and the only thing new to that system is you. The People of the parish itself may actually be related….or come from three or four large original families who intermarried. Thus, family issues also become parish issues. They understand how the parish works as a family in ways that you will never understand, and you can hear that best in the way you're introduced. If they're still using the term 'new pastor' after five years, that's what you're always going to be.
Again, more advice from those who have "been there" (again, substitute pastor for psychologist)
: Cultural Strengths and Values
Although there are many cultural constraint and barriers inherent in rural communities, positive cultural strengths and values also exist. It is essential that psychologists acknowledge, work with, and reflect the values and knowledge base of rural residents (Healy, 2003). Rural communities are often characterized by a strong sense of history and community purpose as well as strong values including beneficence, autonomy and self-determination, family ties, and respect for others (Campbell & Gordon, 2003; Weier & Davidson, 1999; Zur, 2006).
Simultaneously, rural residents tend to value interdependence and connectedness, avoid conflict and discussion of feelings, engage in communal decision-making capacity, have a limited tolerance for diversity and outsiders, and possess fatalistic, stoic, and high religious attitudes (Healy, 2003; Helbok, 2003; Weier & Davidson, 1999; Zur, 2006). Together, these values help sustain the communities and enable members to survive.
Beneficence is the ethical duty to help others. In rural and small community settings, helping others is a way of life. Residents typically know everyone else in the community. Many times, family, friends, and professional relationships are all interconnected and interdependent. In a sense, failing to help one’s neighbor also hurts oneself. For example, rural farmers and ranchers often come to the aid of their neighbors (whom may also be relatives) to help with harvest. In return, they are rewarded by their neighbors’ assistance. This beneficence results in communal cooperation where work is accomplished in a quick and effective manner. Although the emphasis on communal cooperation appears to be in direct contrast with reports of rural individualism (Healy, 2003), researchers cannot deny the strong sense of autonomy, individualism, and pride which characterizes rural life (Zur, 2006).
Understanding rural norms and contexts can assist in developing trust with rural residents, resulting in beneficial outcomes for the practitioner. indicated that trust is derived from familiarity rather than from credentials and professional status. Therefore, one benefit for the rural psychologist is visibility which helps gain the trust of the community. As such, visibility becomes both a strength and barrier for rural psychologists.
The conflicts you encounter are usually because you've tripped over one of the 'family squabbles' or 'communal taboos" which you didn't know were there. It's a good study to view the congregation…where are the triangles, where are the cut off points, are the leaders those with the best facts and knowledge, or the 'alpha' males and females of the area, to which everyone capitulates. Who are the patriarchs and matriarchs who control the children, grandchildren and what happens on their place?