Rural Youth Ministry in a Harvest Economy
By Carl Gladstone
Did you know that over 60% of United Methodist Churches in the United States are in rural communities? We wondered what successful young people’s ministry in such rural economies looks like. When your county or town isn’t an epicenter for big corporations or dense populations, how do you build sustainability into your youth or young adult ministry?
Whether dependent on agriculture alone or with a hybrid economy that includes manufacturing, service and tourism, rural communities like these are sustained by more than just dollars. While their charitable giving may reflect a traditional understanding that one can’t pledge what one might not harvest during any given season, residents here have other methods for providing sustainable support for ministries and causes. Locals we talked to name deep personal relationships, cooperative programming, and hospitality to visitors as vital to supporting community life.
In Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula a number of United Methodist churches and organizations create fruitful ministries with young people in the midst of such a harvest economy. This is an area influenced by traditions of fruit farming and migrant labor, and which has experienced recent downturns in small town economic health. So, let’s look at the unique ways communities like these continue to succeed in helping young people explore their Christian identity and practice.
Personal relationships open doors, are a “kind currency.”
Life-changing ministry succeeds in harvest economies through the currency of in-depth personal relationships.
While youth ministries in places like Benzie County, MI might not have the largest budgets, they do have access to a wealth of relationships to create opportunities for their young people.
Colleen Wierman of the BLAST youth ministry in Kingsley, MI knows the power of such relationships to open doors. Her relationship with school leaders let them know that they could call on her for pastoral counseling when automobile accidents and suicides rocked the student body. Colleen sites those direct personal connections as the catalyst for creating a youth group that gathers up all the “non-sports misfits into a clique-less community of support.”
For Laurie Koivula at Harrietta, Mesick & Brethren: Epworth UMCs, knowing the superintendent of schools helped them get their Five Loaves after school sandwich program going. Now the students “swarm in” for a healthy meal in between classes and extra-curricular activities. Being in touch with the community enough to know that over 80% of students receive free or reduced lunches was critical in knowing what kind of front-porch ministry to offer.
Terry Wildman, pastor at the Northport Indian UMC remembers one particular connection to a young person through their music ministry. Terry remembers, “We hosted a young man who stayed and worked with us on some concert tours. Because of this connection we were able to see him grow in his maturity and self-sufficiency.”
In a context with possible limited financial resources, deep Christ-centered relationships offer pathways into rich discipleship and spiritual formation for young people. Like gardeners turning seeds into harvests, these ministry leaders turn time, presence, patience and care into opportunities for young people to grow in Christ.
A village of ministries, a market of opportunity.
Youth ministry leaders in harvest economies also rely on a variety of programs sponsored by various faith communities for a well-rounded calendar of events.
For Wierman and her youth, big youth rallies and concerts planned by large non-denominational churches in the area provide opportunities to enjoy programming they wouldn’t be able to plan on their own. While BLAST offers an important UM-sponsored drop-in center for young people from all backgrounds, they aren’t focused on hosting large events. While some “theological debriefing” may be necessary after visiting another church’s event, Wierman says, relying on the gifts and offerings of others is an important part about doing ministry in this kind of economy.
First Priority is a national school-based faith-sharing network that Koivula’s youth partner with. This evangelism training experience through student clubs offers a “next step” opportunity for any Five Loaves participant to jump into. Without having to re-create the content of such a program, UMC churches can double down on relationships with the youth and schools in their community.
Wildman and the Northport Indian UMC made their church-owned campground available to Brandon Ahmicasaube Smith and the Spirit Journey ministry which gathers Native American youth for programs that “give them opportunities to develop new skills, improve grades and build self-esteem.” With basketball tournaments, after school tutoring, and field trips for fun and fellowship with other Native youth this ministry has created opportunities for young people that one local church couldn’t have accomplished alone.
Like one farmer helping another rebuild a barn or weather a drought, young people’s ministries in harvest communities depend on one another for strategic partnerships that lead to uninterrupted opportunities for youth and young adults to practice their faith in Jesus.
Visitors help us accomplish tasks, invest in our future.
Visitors and volunteers in harvest economies bring energy and insight for ministry tasks. Local ministries benefit from their work while providing those volunteers their own opportunities for Christian spiritual formation.
Ministries like Spirit Journey benefit from the work of visitors. The cabins and grounds at Northport Indian UMC Campground get fixes and upgrades with the hands-on support of visiting church groups. While working, those groups benefit from time spent in such a beautiful space reserved for spiritual retreat. They also learn about and work to make amends for harmful relationships in the past between the church and Native American children. And, as a result of this engagement the young Native people of the area continue to have a space dedicated to their development.
Ministries like Five Loaves also rely on volunteers to make sandwiches and be present during meal times. Rare is there a Sunday when the sign-up sheets at supporting churches aren’t filled by the time worship ends. Typically these are cross-generational visits, which keep older volunteers in proximity of youthful energy and younger diners surrounded by a cloud of wise witnesses.
Colleen Wierman notes the cooperative nature of this kind of volunteering and visiting. When local churches visit community-based ministries with young people like hers, it helps maintain a non-competitive view of their work together. In contrast to some churches who worry about ownership and membership, the collaborative partnerships that United Methodist churches offer in this harvest economy models a healthy faith community for the youth in Wierman’s group to engage with.
Like migrant farmers tending Michigan’s cherry orchards, young people’s ministries invite visitors and volunteers to invest in hand-on opportunities to help young people continue to discern God’s call in their lives.
A bountiful harvest.
Through deep relationships, cooperative programming and visitor/volunteer support young people’s ministries in rural communities can thrive. By investing our time and presence we can make a fruitful place for “particularly not bashful” young evangelists and the clique-less misfits to continue their development as followers of Jesus Christ.
Special thanks to the following ministries engaged with young people in Northern Lower Peninsula Michigan: Terry Wildman of Rainsong Music, Colleen Wierman of BLAST Youth, Laurie Koivula of the Five Loaves and other youth ministries, and Brandon Ahmicasaube Smith and Brenda Hendley of Spirit Journey.