ARTICLE – Revitalizing the Rural Parish for Mission

Rural parishes face a unique set of challenges that can make evangelization and vitality seem like insurmountable goals. Declining and aging populations, few resources, and maintenance burdens on aging buildings can all contribute to a sense of struggle or even despair. However, with intentionality, creativity, and a focus on empowering laity, rural parishes can tap into their potential to become strong, missional faith communities.

The core foundation must be a focus on mission and outreach. Rural churches, like other parishes, are often overly inward-focused on simply maintaining programs or buildings. Shifting this mindset to prioritize evangelization and service is critical. By fostering a missional culture clergy and lay leaders can equip parishioners to live out their calling to proclaim the Word of God.

This begins with training laity in relational evangelization and providing outlets to practice sharing their faith through existing connections in a close-knit rural setting. Outreach initiatives that meet real needs like poverty, loneliness or poor health access are also important ways to build connections and demonstrate the real nature of the Church. Rural parishes must find ways to be present and engaged outside church activities.

Lay mobilization and leadership development are essential. Rural faith communities are often small, meaning few people to take on roles. Still, leaders should identify and come alongside emerging lay leaders, providing mentorship, training and spiritual formation tailored to their rural context. Equipping laity to lead small groups, provide pastoral care, handle administration or grow in their teaching abilities empowers the entire Body of Christ to participate in ministry.

Creativity in worship and discipleship can help connect with diverse rural communities. Usual Sunday services certainly have value, but rural parishes should also offer gatherings throughout the week, leveraging technology and alternative contexts. Fresh expressions of church that reflect local rural culture are one way to engage dechurched populations. Discipling current members through Bible studies, prayer groups, leadership development and outdoor retreats focused on spiritual growth provides balance.

Unity and shared vision across the multiple faith communities that make up rural multi-parish groups prevents isolation and pools resources. It is important for clergy to maintain individual parish identities while facilitating collaboration, education, and relationship-building across the parish. Streamlining administrative structures when possible can free up energy for more vital efforts.

For clergy, establishing networks of peer support and continuing education focused on the opportunities and challenges of rural ministry helps prevent burnout. Monitoring workloads and spiritual/emotional health while providing counseling, sabbaticals and professional development creates sustainability. At the diocesan or deanery level, ensuring clergy are trained and resourced for rural contexts is key.

Rather than compete, rural parishes should actively partner with other churches, rural organizations and networks. This facilitates sharing creative ideas, volunteers, and funds, while also raising the church’s visibility.  Work with rural schools provides particularly promising opportunities for connecting with youth and children.

Rural areas hold great spiritual harvests that are ready to be harvested. Through divine grace, openness to change, perseverance, and prayer, rural parishes can transcend their decline and embrace a new beginning. By tapping into the relational nature of rural areas, thinking creatively, and refusing to simply manage decline, clergy and laity can partner with the Holy Spirit to revitalize their mission. 

Pierre-Alain Giffard
Director of Pastoral Work

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