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The Community is My Parish: A Paradigm for Rural Ministry in Appalachian Communities

Michael Richards

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, recorded in his journal, dated June 11, 1739, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” His passion to bring the message of salvation to all he met, helped him to think of the work of the Gospel as being something that must be shared beyond the confines of any particular congregation or parish.  This vision may very well have been the impetus behind the explosive growth of the Methodist movement within Wesley’s lifetime.

The Great Commission Calls Us Out of the Insular Church

Certainly, the call of the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20) lends itself to this global view of evangelization; but this starts with a vibrant sense of one’s mission to one’s own community—a sort of global parish in microcosm.  The early church moved, in its mission, concentrically outward--first from Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.  These are not multiple choice options—they must all be attended to in strategic and intentional ways; nevertheless, each outer field of mission must be built upon a solid preceding one if the whole work of the Great Commission is to be fulfilled. 

In contrast to an outwardly focused missional church, we often find that there is a greater tendency in many of our churches to become effectively insular—all while still engaging in pro forma outreach.  This is to say, that such congregations and leaders cannot see beyond the immediate identity and needs of their own congregations. 

Outreach is necessary for many operating from this paradigm, but either in a way to garner more future members, because a particular valued member had a passion for such outreach on their own, or as a spiritual obligation that must be met in order to allay one’s conscience.  These individuals, typically, see the role of staff as employees of the local church, with a primary duty to care for its members and grow the organization. 

The Community Parson and Appalachian Ministry

Church growth and membership care are critically important, in Appalachia as much as anywhere else; however, such a posture of self-preoccupation hampers a church’s capacity to authentically and effectively engage our true mission field—those who are not members of our churches.

I have ministered in Appalachia all of my career.  One thing I discovered very early on was how important it is for the Appalachian church to remain deeply integrated with its community.  I never cease to be amazed at the complex interrelationships (both actual and social) within each of the communities I have served.  Community life is still very central in Appalachian, even if it can make it, at times, difficult for outsiders to readily assimilate. 

I have ministered in Appalachia all of my career.  One thing I discovered very early on was how important it is for the Appalachian church to remain deeply integrated with its community.

Many times, I have privately ministered to a member of the community in need, only to find out on Sunday that so and so was related to a member of my congregation, who was pleased at the breadth of my outreach.  This goes a long way toward building “cred” with an Appalachian community and making the pastor an essential institution within the community context.  The community parson is a longstanding feature of Appalachian culture.

The implications of this cultural feature to pastoral ministry are tremendous. Most of our Appalachian churches are relatively small, compared to other regions of the country.  When, however, we begin to understand that the entire community, including other churches within it, are really to become the focus of our ministry, it shifts us away from insular preoccupation and territorialism toward a gracious and collaborative approach to driving the Gospel more deeply into our communities and into the hearts their people.   This model of ministry is one, I have found, to be both most reflective of what successful ministry looks like in Appalachia, and the most culturally conducive to the Appalachian context.

Ministering Beyond the Walls of the Church

Often such ministry means one must devote large portions of one’s time as a pastor to those who do not attend our churches and engage in work that may offer no readily apparent benefit to oneself or the congregation.  Appalachian community-based ministry requires the pastor to have a long view.  Such a view will “pay off” in Gospel penetration and impact over time, if one does not “grow weary in doing what is right”. 

Appalachian community-based ministry requires the pastor to have a long view. 

In my weekly work, I spend as much time in community engagement and development as I do in direct ministry to my congregants.  My ministry may include the fellow board member on a non-profit board of directors who is going through a difficult time and seeks out my counsel, or those clients who come to our pastoral counseling center and never attend a Sunday Service, or those students who see me after class at the local university, not for consultation regarding the next assignment, but because he or she is going through a challenge or is struggling with faith.  It may mean that I am called to minister to a local volunteer fire department member who has struggled with the trauma of an accident or that I that I offer pastoral presence at the local school with whom we do a weekend backpack feeding program.

These are but some of the settings within which I do ministry, in addition to training and mentoring church leaders, supporting congregants through times of crisis, and ordering the life of the congregation.  I am fortunate that my congregations see the value and share the vision of the community-as-our-parish model; but, unfortunately, this is not so for every church.  Many of our congregations see the pastor’s ministry as a zero-sum game.  If she or he is involved in community-based ministry, this, in direct proportion, robs the local church of this entitlement to ministry.  In such settings, it is crucial to gently educate the congregation in the Gospel imperative of the missional church and of the priority of the pre-Christian member of the community to the work of evangelization. 

Indeed, the community is my parish.

Michael Richards is a member of the Project on Rural Ministry's Appalachian Cohort. He has been the senior pastor of Cornerstone Ministries for more than 10 years and serves as Executive and Clinical Director of the Cornerstone Pastoral Counseling and Wellness Center. He also serves an appointment as Adjunct Professor of English at Fairmont State University. He has, over the years, been actively involved in community-based chaplaincy, ecumenical Christian ministerial associations, the boards of many non-profit organizations, and government-church-community partnerships.  He and his wife, Christina, live with their children in Fairmont, WV.