I was recently asked by a colleague needing a favor to review Michael R. Daley’s Rural Social Work in the 21st Century. This ending up being a timely read for me. I not only grew up on a sixth-generation corn and soybean farm in northwest Illinois, but my siblings and I are heavy into the process of liquidating most of the family farm to pay down the hefty debts of our deceased parents. This has been hard for a myriad of reasons, but Daley’s description of the unique aspects of rural life helped me to better understand some of the components of the struggle.
The author describes American rural values including, among other things: an attachment to the land, the importance of the family, the strong role of local institutions including churches and schools, the richness of informal helping networks, the sense of community closeness and pride, a reliance on tradition, a sense of self-reliance, and a strong work ethic. But as is so often the case, strengths can also carry shadow sides. Community closeness can breed gossip, stigma, and enmeshment. Rich informal helping networks can engender distrust of professional assistance. And self-reliance can create an unhealthy pride that may refuse help that is desperately needed.
The fragility of rural economies is also well known to those in rural ministry. Agriculture and manufacturing have been replaced by jobs in education, health care, and social assistance. Traditional jobs in agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, and mining now account for less than 10 percent of employment. Indeed, rural communities bear the particular brunt of economic downturns and the subsequent relocation of jobs.
In terms of social services, challenges in rural settings include sizable older adult populations, a lack of transportation to access assistance, a shortage of highly skilled professionals, and a general lack of specialized health or mental health care as low population density makes services more expensive per capita. But in a particularly cruel twist, poor service accessibility and availability are matched by higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse in rural contexts.
The Potential and Significance of Ministry in Rural Contexts
Despite this sobering picture, the potential for effective rural ministry is extraordinarily high. The ability of frontline pastoral workers and salt-of-the-earth parishioners to extend hospitality, the kind that welcomes people in ways that repeatedly affirm their belovedness, continues to be a key strength of rural ministry. The ability to meet people as unique individuals, logistically easier in a smaller context, aligns with one of most important ministry ingredients—deeply loving relationships.
Those in rural ministry must particularly guard against any tendency to see their work as lacking significance. They must instead repeatedly calibrate their work according to kingdom values that prioritize obedience and faithfulness in every context and calling. This will be challenging at times because we instinctually create hierarchies of value, placing greater importance on persons institutions at the top who are seemingly most influential and therefore “valuable
At risk of sounding cliché, the process of reading and reviewing this book reminded me that rural life is unique, and frankly, special. It helped me to identify and to validate my own grief related to letting go of land that has supported my family and our ancestors for generations. It reminded me that despite my family’s current circumstances, I am proud of my rural background. While work in a rural context is not easy, nor for everyone, it is a rich ministry arena—richer than one might dare to imagine—for those who embrace it.
Lisa Hosack is an associate professor at Grove City College where she began, and continues to direct, the social work program. Prior to her work as a professor, Hosack was a practitioner for over twenty years, working in child welfare and clinical social work in Chicago and Grand Rapids, MI. She additionally ran a college counseling center at small Christian college for six years. The sum of these experiences is a passion for reclaiming social work’s roots in Christianity. Her research and writing focuses on the intersection of theology, human development, and social work. In 2019, she published Development on Purpose: Faith and Human Behavior in the Social Environment. She holds a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute, a M.S.W. from University of Illinois-Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. She has been married for 30 years and is the proud mother of three grown daughters.