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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Pastors Reflect on Five Years of Partnership

Emma R. Whiteford

Rural places are forgotten places, or at least that’s often the case. But God’s people have not forgotten about the importance of ministering in hard, quiet, and small places. The rural landscape is populated with families whose ties to their hometowns date back for generations and ministers who are doing the faithful work of caring for the few by patiently planting seeds that sometimes take decades to produce growth.

The Project on Rural Ministry (PRM) Is Born

Five years ago, a collection of faculty at Grove City College dreamed up “an initiative to bolster the partnership of College, Church, and Community.” With the goal to “amplify the voices, strengthen the networks, and facilitate the ongoing learning of local pastors and ministry leaders,” three regional cohorts—Agricultural, Rust Belt, and Appalachian—were established and a mission began that, for the past five years, has been developed and crafted by ongoing discussions with the pastors in the cohorts.

And so, the Project on Rural Ministry was born. “The goal,” shares Dr. Seulgi Byun, the Executive Director, “has always been for the PRM to be outward facing, to challenge the college to not be siloed as an ivory tower but to serve its context.  We wanted to understand better the strengths, challenges, and weaknesses of the churches that are our immediate neighbors and then to channel the resources of the college towards better supporting these churches and communities.”

Counties within the PRM's original cohorts--Agricultural, Rustbelt, and Appalachian.

Three cohorts, each starting with ten pastors, met three times a year, at events hosted by the PRM team, to share about the blessings and hardships of rural ministry and to learn from one another in mutual encouragement of the faith. Additionally, the college leveraged its resources and designed a three-pronged approach utilizing class projects, service trips, and summer interns to support the pastors. Now, five years later, we’re looking back and reflecting with the pastors, asking the question: how has PRM’s approach to bolstering “the partnership of College, Church, and Community” enriched life and ministry in rural places? Here’s what they have to say.

What Pastors Have to Say about the PRM

The Agricultural region, stretching across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, is home to rolling corn fields and churches full of many people who know the hard and beautiful life of farming. Janet Pratt, a pastor of five Global Methodist congregations in the western corner of Pennsylvania, reflects on how participation in the PRM has enriched her busy life in ministry: “it’s been really good for us, it’s been rewarding to work with students and take advantage of opportunities to meet with other pastors. We all have the same struggles and it’s been encouraging to realize you’re not a lone soldier out there.”

Janet Pratt describes her experience of rural ministry and her partnership with the PRM in this video.

The Rust Belt region spans eastern Ohio, the northern panhandle of West Virginia, and southwestern Pennsylvania and once boasted numerous booming industries, but social and economic challenges have led to small towns with rich history and deep scars.  Jeanette Pennsylvania is one of these towns and Dawn Sherwood is one of its devoted pastors.  Pastor Sherwood and her congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Jeanette, know the joys and sorrows of faithfully serving the Lord in a dwindling, suffering town.  In commenting on how partnership with the PRM has provided strength and hope in doing ministry in hard places, Pastor Sherwood remarked, “It’s encouraging to be reminded that we don’t need to be a big church; it’s about feeding the people we have.”

Stephen Witmer, pastor and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, addressed PRM pastors and lay-leaders during the first annual conference in August 2019.

Also nestled in the Rust Belt Region, Rose Point Reformed Presbyterian Church is shepherded by Charles Brown. Pastor Brown, contemplating the effect that the Project on Rural Ministry has had on his life and ministry, shared, “The conferences have been especially impactful. I went to the first one in 2019 and I still remember things from it.”  His wife, Miriam Brown, earnestly affirmed this, “The conferences have been so encouraging. There is no climbing the ladder in rural ministry, sometimes it really is about caring for the one.”  

The Appalachian Region, spreading across southeastern Ohio, southern Pennsylvania, and Northern West Virginia, is remarkable for its rolling hills and valleys and small towns that have weathered the winds of hard times.  Pastor Michael C. Richards from Cornerstone Ministries remarked on his participation in the PRM and experience with a summer intern saying that “Our experience with PRM has been transformative for Cornerstone Ministries, as it has focused our mission and helped us to see deeper collaborative possibilities between the church and the academy.  Our assigned intern exemplified the very best in the next generation of Christian leaders.” Similarly, William Coker, Pastor of Powhatan Point Church of the Nazarene, expressed that in partnering with the PRM even “the newsletter, and small things like posts on our Facebook page, have been useful resources.”

Rev. and Mrs. Coker Jr. take time to pose for a photo with Grove City College students during a spring break mission trip last spring.

Looking To the Future--The Center for Rural Ministry (CRM)

For the PRM, there’s strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow as we look back on all that’s happened and look ahead to all that is to come. In reflecting on the beginnings of the PRM, Dr. Byun remarked that, over the past five years, “Connection with the pastors has become central to everything about the PRM.” As Dr. Byun expressed, “The posture of this project has always been to listen to and learn from our pastors, to not presume that we know what rural ministry is like.” And in this process of listening and learning, Dr. Byun shared that, “We quickly realized that rurality has many different dimensions, we can’t paint even rural western PA with just one broad brushstroke.  There are strong differences between the cohorts; they face different pressure points and the ways ministry is done varies greatly across cohorts.”

PRM team members pose for a photo with pastor and author Glenn Daman at the the 2023 PRM annual conference.

And so, with five years of learning and growing coming to a close, the PRM takes a step forward—now becoming the Center for Rural Ministry (CRM). According to Dr. Charlie Cotherman, current PRM Program Director and incoming CRM Executive Director, “The Center for Rural Ministry exemplifies Grove City College’s longstanding commitment to resourcing and learning from pastors and congregations in our region. I am eager to see how partnerships with pastors and churches will expand in the coming years as GCC students and faculty continue to invest in the local church.”

Emma Ruby, raised in central PA, is a writing intern for the CRM and a senior studying English, Christian Ministries, and Redemptive Entrepreneurship with the hope of spending a lifetime doing vocational ministry.