I recently finished reading a book I wish I had been introduced to in seminary or immediately upon entering into the parish, a short and yet contextually candid book: Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities by Jeanne Hoeft, L. Shannon Jung, and Joretta Marshall. A couple years ago I heard Jung, in particular, speak at the annual Rural Ministry Conference held by Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa; though I didn’t find this book until this past spring at an unrelated conference. For those outside of pastoral ministry, the title doesn’t give the vibe of a very invigorating theme or emergent field of work; however, as a pastor who serves two rural Nebraska congregations I was eager to pick it up and see what insights it had to offer that could help shape my growing ministry in these communities. For colleagues and laity in this or other rural communities of any kind, I would highly recommend acquiring this book and even discussing its contents with others in a group study to test its relevance and wrestle with its approaches in your particular context.
Opening it up on a flight from Houston to St. Louis following a Thanksgiving trip home to Texas, early on—in the introduction of the book—a paragraph caught my attention and got me thinking. The authors cite two rural sociologists, Cornelia Flora and Jan Flora, on the topic of a community’s capital:
“Community capital is any resource that a community has that can be invested to create new resources. They identify natural, cultural, human, social, political, financial, and built capitals. In farming communities the land, natural capital, is transformed into financial capital. In scenic places, the consumption of natural capital is transformed into social capital and built capital as the wealthy seek out these places for recreation and construction. Some towns may not have much financial capital to invest, but they may have the human capital of labor force ready and willing to work in even low-paying jobs. They may have the cultural capital of a commitment to hard work and civic involvement. Church leaders can use this approach to name the strengths of a community and congregation that can then be strategically capitalized upon” (7).
As I pondered on the various types of capital identified, I began to think about those whom I serve and the many different gifts these particular individuals each bring to the table. Not caring for the language of ‘capital’, I reframed each person’s gifts through the lens of ‘assets’: “a useful or desirable thing or quality” (Dictionary.com). “What useful gifts does Mrs. So-and-So have to offer?” “This quality of Mr. So-and-So always proves to be very valuable to the congregation.” The more I went through names and faces in my mind, it was exciting to consider the various gifts I had personally experienced in and through parishioners, name them as a particular type of asset (cultural, social, human, etc.), and begin imagining how certain assets complement and give way to others. Before I knew it, ideas started popping up of different opportunities to enhance/rework existing ministries and means by which to venture into new ministries. What, in some ways, had formerly felt undoable, now began to appear more achievable. Where others had surrendered to “it won’t work” or “we can’t do that”, looking at gifts and assets began giving me hope of new pathways and fresh possibilities. These two congregations each possess a wealth of assets, in variety; how do we as leaders, partners in ministry, and fellow disciples of Christ, affirm, encourage, and guide one another in using our God-given gifts—our congregational assets—to function and serve more faithfully?
It begins, I believe, with a question we each need to ask both ourselves and those around us: What are your gifts? This can be a tough thing to ponder, especially if we’ve never been conditioned to do so. For some, it takes the view of others around them—from the outside looking in—to help see and speak one’s gifts. We may not realize that quality we take for granted is of exceeding value to family and friends around us. That smile and warm greeting, the availability to help when needed, the monthly tithe we give out of thankfulness, our connections with others in this and across other communities—each and altogether are gifts, and therefore assets in the congregations we form. The gifts and assets we bear, as individuals and a community, are rich and abundant. Communities and congregations don’t stand solely on their finances, attendance, or paid staff. The wealth of gifts brought together by all—young and old, long-timer and newcomer, volunteer and salaried, energetic and exhausted—is what enriches a community and its work. What are your gifts, and how can they be shared with others to further our ongoing mission and ministry as the church in this place? There is much to be done. Let’s get our assets to work!