Developing Leaders for Our Changing Rural Churches

God calls the Minnesota Conference UCC to equip a courageous Church alive with Christ’s transforming love. An important aspect of that call is helping churches attract and cultivate clergy with the skills to lead a changing church in a changing world. This can be an especially big challenge in rural areas.

“The Church is a significant force for good in so many of our Greater Minnesota communities,” says Conference Minister Rev. Shari Prestemon. “We need strong clergy who can help lead thriving congregations, and we need new approaches to developing those talented leaders.” 

Transforming and Equipping New and Emerging Leaders

The Damascus Project, an initiative of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Conferences of the UCC, is offering fresh ways to develop spiritual leaders. “More and more local congregations, especially those in rural areas, cannot afford seminary-trained, ordained clergy, yet these communities deserve high-quality leadership,” says Rev. Abby Henderson, co-director of the Damascus Project. “We believe that we will find that leadership in everyday people of faith stepping into pastoral roles, in clergy who have one foot in ministry and one foot in another field, and in individuals who pursue a non-traditional path to authorized ministry.” View the Damascus Project course offerings, designed specifically for online delivery (link).

Finding Leaders in New Places

Several communities have worked with the Conference to match their congregations with retired ministers who provide interim or part-time leadership. Some congregations have drawn on people in the community who are interested in becoming licensed but non-ordained ministers, and still others have raised up members from within their own congregations to serve.

First Congregational United Church of Christ in Zumbrota is an example of a congregation that solved its need for pastoral leadership with this kind of new thinking, says Parker Quammen, a lay leader in the congregation. “Instead of going through a lengthy evaluation process, the Conference provided us with candidates who agreed to come and preach, he says.” They chose one of those candidates, an attorney who had decided to attend seminary while still practicing law. “We were pretty happy with the way we did our search and we’re happy with how it is working,” says Quammen. “We’ve had experience with other ministers who spend part of their time in pastoral ministry and the other part in another career and it didn’t create any problems. In fact, they bring important perspectives from the other parts of their work life to their ministry.”

Calling on Seminarians

Rev. Sheri Nelson is the part-time pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ, New York Mills. She also serves as program director of outdoor ministries for the Conference. Nelson did a year-long internship in New York Mills while in still in seminary. The arrangement worked so well, Nelson was called first as a licensed pastor and then, in 2019, as the ordained pastor. “I’ve encouraged the Conference and seminaries to think about connecting students with Greater Minnesota churches,” she says. “If some can have an opportunity to work in our more rural churches, they will find how unique they are. I can’t imagine having a first-time experience in a better place. My church is very connected to community and embedded in their Christian life. Members really look out for each other.”

As communities across Minnesota continue to experience significant and rapid change, the Conference is committed to ever-evolving ways to help churches find and develop clergy. “We are here to equip churches to do the redemptive work of God in the world,” says Prestemon. “God is still speaking, and we are still listening.”