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Getting to Know the “Who” and the “How” of Your Community authored by Dr. Lucas Casey

Every community is different. Many people enter rural ministry having come from a different and sometimes non-rural context. This module is designed to help you understand the setting in which you’re called.

About a year ago, I was back my hometown (pop. 1,690) at a city council meeting to discuss an exciting new downtown streetscape project. I attend a lot of city council meetings in communities of all sizes, all over Iowa – and there is a sort of “usual crowd” at these types of gatherings. The mayor and council members of course, city staff, consultants like me, maybe a local newspaper reporter or publisher, and that’s typically about it.

I was admittedly surprised to see the young, first-call pastor from my parents’ church among those at the meeting. I recognized her from the last time our family visited for a Sunday worship service. I asked her why she was there and found out she has been “volunteered” by the rest of the local ministerial association to attend the meeting and ask the city for support on a project. She seemed a bit nervous, but prepared.

Once the meeting started, the mayor rearranged the agenda to discuss the item of interest to the pastor first. She explained the local churches were working together to consolidate their independent food pantry efforts in hopes of reaching and supporting more food-insecure residents. The ministerial association sent the pastor to request use of a portion of the former VFW building – now owned by the city – for a new, more centralized food pantry operation.

The pastor finished her brief request, the mayor asked the council if they were in approval, they all said yes, and that was that. The young pastor was noticeably surprised her request had been approved so quickly and painlessly. The mayor informed her they would work out the logistics and she was welcome to leave the meeting early if she desired… she took him up on the offer and did leave early.

What happened at that city council meeting – swift decision making and limited barriers to progress - isn’t completely unique to small, rural communities – but it can be more common. It’s an example of why the National League has a Focus on Small Cities initiative which highlights advantages such as: Personal relationships and a more manageable scale that can make it easier to convene stakeholders and work together, a culture of helping neighbors and other local residents, and a smaller scale of government that creates possibilities for responding more quickly to emerging needs with fewer hurdles to overcome.

To make the most of these advantages as a pastor in a small and/or rural place, though, you need to have an understanding of the “who” and the “how” of your community; which may not be a given for some calls in which pastors may come from very different and far-away places. One example of a tool to help you uncover more about the “who” and the “how” of your community is the Community Network Analysis Tool from the Orton Family Foundation.

This tool is part of the foundation’s larger “Community Heart & Soul” program focused on helping build stronger, healthier, and more economically vibrant small cities and towns. And while the entire program is not a perfect model for the pastor or congregation in a small, rural community, it provides a solid framework for learning more about the population demographics of your community (i.e. the “who”) as well as the various networks, network connectors, and engagement opportunities at exist in your community (i.e. the “how).

At a high level, the young, first-call pastor in my hometown and her ministerial association colleagues demonstrated an understanding of the “who” in their community – the hungry – and the “how” things worked from a network standpoint by going to the city council meeting. Sometimes it’s really as simple as that, and sometimes it’s much more complicated. Either way, I hope you will take time to get to know the “who” and the “how” of the community to which you’re called.

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