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Rural churches cultivate new initiatives

By Paul Titus

Rural churches today are like electric fences. Whereas traditional seven-wire, post-and-batten fences are sturdy and stationary, electric fences can be easily moved to change the shape of a paddock or open up fresh pasture.

Rev Bill Bennett uses this metaphor in his recent book on rural ministry to help explain the changes rural churches are undergoing. Like electric fences, rural churches have to become flexible and adaptable as they face a rapidly changing social landscape.

A retired Anglican priest, Bill was raised in a farming family in Dannevirke and served much of his ministry in rural Hawkes Bay.

He says rural churches have always changed, as have the communities they are part of. But the pace and impact of change has jumped in recent decades. As a result, rural churches are going through an exciting period of experimentation.

“After WWII rural churches began to change as the theological revolution gave us new insights about God, creation and community, and they filtered down to ordinary society. This continued with the ordination of women.

“More dramatic change began in the 1980s when the Labour government unleashed Rogernomics. As the agricultural subsidies were cut farmers faced the hard reality of the export market. The church provided communities with a lot of pastoral support to families and communities in stress.

“But the church also lost ground as land ownership was concentrated, rural communities shrank and new lifestyles emerged. There was less money available to pay stipends for ministers.”

In his book Bill outlines the way rural congregations have reacted. These include part-time ministry in which a minister either takes care of more than one congregation or does secular work in addition to church duties.

Other solutions are to amalgamate neighbouring parishes, form a uniting congregation with other local denominations, or build a local shared ministry team of lay people who take responsibility for the tasks the ordained priest would normally do.

At the same time Maori are developing their own theology and responses to changes in rural areas.

“Though by nature country people are conservative when they have been thrust into the position they have been prepared to make changes. In part this is because rural people are very ecumenical. They don’t talk denominations,” Bill says.

He cites the case of Puketapu in Hawkes Bay where the community has maintained a church under Anglican auspices. Half the congregation is Roman Catholic and the others are Anglicans and Presbyterians.

Rev Dr Robyn McPhail is minister at Kerikeri-Kaeo Union Parish in Northland. She too comes from a farming background and edits a newsletter for the National Ecumenical Rural Network. Robyn agrees rural people tend to be ecumenical.

“In most parts of New Zealand churches in rural communities support each other. There is a lot of community cohesion so the ecumenical spirit is natural. People feel if they go to the pub together, why shouldn’t they go to church together?”

Robyn says the church – both the building and the people – is often for the community, even those who don’t attend services. Communities can become quite upset if their church building is closed or sold.

“The church building is a symbol and not a dead symbol. Even non-church people put energy into painting and maintaining it. It serves as a focus to their spiritual thoughts, even if they are not church-goers.

“People who work the land find it difficult to view life on a single level without spirituality. They care for the soil, experience the seasons, and work in the hills and the mountains. Psalm 121 is well appreciated by country people: I lift up my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?

“Farmers continually experience things beyond themselves, beyond their control. They may use different words but they easily make the connection to something that fits the word God.”

Robyn says the fact that people continue to gather on a Sunday for worship is important because it shows the church, and therefore the community is still alive.

Nevertheless congregations in rural areas are under stress and the viability of many is at risk. The central role churches play in rural communities gives a sense of how they can maintain themselves in future.

Bill and Robyn agree the way forward is for churches to focus on the community and not just the congregation.

“We have to change our notion of viability,” Robyn says. “Often we think it is a question of finance but really the issue of people who have a sense of mission in the local community. It is not necessary to be big to carry out mission. A small group can do what it can do.”

Bill says he is confident there is lots of dynamic energy in rural churches and rural communities. The concerns of rural communities are those at the top of the churches’ agenda – class and ethnic inequality, school closures, globalisation, the environment, and family life.

“In developing a theology for the rural church it is important to consider the context. Rural ministry acknowledges people’s links to the land and the sea and their way of being community.

“The task of the church is to redeem, transform, and heal the community. In the rural context the church helps the whole community in times of flood or other crises. Now the church has to find new ways to transform and heal people through its liturgical life and pastoral ministry. This means affirming and challenging the local community.”

To do this will require an expanded role of lay people through team ministry. Church authorities will have to provide help and resources to train rural people in the theology of team ministry, affirm both lay and ordained ministry, and help congregations avoid becoming parochial.

In turn, local congregations have to find ways to give people the skills they need for lay ministry, use new resources such as the Internet, find financial support, and reach out to the community.

Bill Bennett’s book is called God of the Whenua: Rural Ministry in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is published by Philip Garside Publishing Ltd.