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The Changing Shape of Rural Ministry

What will be the new shape of rural ministry?   Rev. Ursula Wiig traveled to an international conference in New Zealand recently to explore this question.  She serves in ministry about 130kms south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at Elbow/Loreburn/Strongfield Hawarden United Church.  The United Church Foundation was pleased to support this experience through The Ann Jentzsch-Bill Bursary for a woman active in lay, ordained, or diaconal ministry.  The bursary supports studies, education, or professional development enhances the applicant’s capacity to provide ministry. 

The financial assistance from the Bill and Anna Jentzsch Bursary to help with the costs of attending the 2018 International Rural Church Association Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand is very much appreciated.

The week-long conference was a tremendous experience.  Nearly 100 people attended.  Most participants were from New Zealand and Australia, but every other continent was represented except for Africa and Antarctica.  Four of us were Canadians, all United Church, and as two were also on the planning committee.

In addition to the theme presentations, worship, and cultural evening s organized by different regional groups, we had tours to local rural churches and farms or agricultural enterprises.  Over and above all this, it was just good to have the opportunity to share experiences, hear some inspiring stories, and pick up helpful resources. 

Despite the geographical, cultural, and denominational differences, it is clear that most rural churches are having to find new ways of doing things.   Increased ecumenical collaboration is one option.  [Churches are] often functioning without the denominational support on which they’d previously relied. 

For example, a Uniting Church minister in Western Australia is concerned that her church will discontinue funding a resource person for the rural churches in that huge region, none of which have paid accountable ministers any more. 

Here in rural Saskatchewan, many rural appointments are only part-time and even pastoral charges seeking full-time ministry personnel are unable to attract them. 

This situation is not unique to Saskatchewan or the United Church.  According to Dave Ruesink from the Rural Church Network, USA and Canada, this is a common trend among mainline denominations in North America; rural ministry is becoming increasingly marginalized with the governing bodies providing fewer and fewer resources.

Those of us in rural ministry know we can’t go back to the “old days,” but hopefully the new structure will include rural and small Church Ministries and innovative ways will be found to support these ministries.  Catherine Christie and I both returned from the 2018 IRCA Conference with a resolve to raise the profile of this type of ministry in our presbyteries, Saskatchewan Conference, and, as of 2019 [when changes will be implemented in the current United Church of Canada national organizing structure], in Region 4.