July 2017
Small and Rural Churches

Reimagining Leadership in Small and Rural Churches

In the Episcopal Church in Minnesota (ECMN), we’re seeking to change the narrative on leadership by living into the ministry of all the baptized.

For us, that means welcoming a sense of holy creativity and communal discernment to the process of choosing a ministry model that fits for each faith community.

The first step in this process is communal discernment. This discernment is deeply rooted in uncovering the gifts and missional work of each faith community, and using holy listening to sit with the question of how God might be calling them collectively into action in their community.

We rely on asset-mapping to help discover the gifts, resources, time and talent that God has given each individual and the faith community to steward. In the midst of that process is an opportunity to think creatively about how the life and work of the church needs to be pastored, and how that faith community will meet its needs for lay and ordained roles.

Christ Episcopal Church in Austin, Minnesota has lived out this discernment process. They had been drawing heavily on their endowment in order to sustain the employment of a full-time rector for the church, and it became obvious that this was going to be unsustainable if the practice continued.

So, Christ Church engaged in a discernment process in which they identified their gifts and developed a model of ministry that was based on those gifts and that helped the church live out its ministry and mission.

The model they use relies on non-stipendiary leadership – a priest that engaged in formation and ordination locally, along with a team of lay leaders. The lay leaders organize several commissions that include a broad group of individuals in the church to oversee and lead the mission and ministry work.

In order for the team at Christ Church in Austin to live out this model, they needed to be able to access formation and ordination processes that addressed the barriers of time, geography and economics. They couldn’t be expected to quit their jobs and move away for that formation; it needed to happen while they were still living in their community and ministering with their church.

The work of the ECMN School for Formation centers on building opportunities for teams like Christ Church to get the skills they need to do the ministry they are called to do. The School for Formation contracts with professionals and experts from around Minnesota and around the country to offer courses, workshops and resources that are available online to everyone in ECMN.

Churches of all shapes and sizes benefit from this local formation, but it’s particularly useful for those who are doing their ministry in small communities, far from the opportunities available in metro areas.

By offering courses online, the School for Formation is able to mitigate the amount of time and energy we expect leaders from smaller and more rural faith communities to invest in order to access the resources they need. By offering opportunities to gather together with leaders near them for in-person workshop days, we help to create a thriving network of local leadership, one that supports and shares resources between faith communities.

We are aware that more work needs to be done as we continue to discern the needs of leaders in faith communities across Minnesota and address barriers to formation. Yet we are on the road, journeying towards becoming the church that God is calling us to be in the places that we have been planted.

Kelsey Schuster is the Missioner for Communication, Susan Daughtry is the Missioner for Formation and Karen Olson is the Missioner for Ministry with the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Their work centers on providing resources that support faith communities across the state, and strengthening the connective tissue that binds us together.


This article is part of the July 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Small and Rural Churches