Sacred Places Summer 2022 - Page 16

The research findings contradict some of the myths that surround rural churches . Too many people believe that rural America and its churches are in decline , but many of the congregations we studied are stable community anchors .
Another myth is that congregations are no longer as relevant to their communities as they once were , but we found that rural congregations do an excellent job of caring for the needs of community members , and are changing to reflect the assets and opportunities around them . Small churches can make a big impact because congregational size and economic impact are not always correlated .
All these findings add up to a larger , remarkable — but little known — reality : UMC congregations , quietly and faithfully , constitute an important part of the fabric of rural communities . We cannot afford to take them for granted . And when they need support , the findings suggest that civic leaders should be more open to giving it .
Congregations provide a wide range of subsidies that support community-serving programs and activities . Offerings include free or below-market space for community groups , events , social services , and education programs , as well as significant hours of volunteer time , in-kind , and cash support . The study showed that 79 % of the beneficiaries of community programs and events supported by rural congregations are not members of those congregations .
Implications for Denominations , Government , and Philanthropy
Because both large and small UMCs contribute to the health of rural communities , denominational bodies may want to rethink how they support these congregations . Community impact can serve as an important factor in decision-making about closures and mergers , and raise questions about closures that handicap communities which can ill afford the loss . Before closing any church , we hope that leaders are now in a position to consider the following :
! Is this church making a significant impact in its community ?
! Who will be affected if the church is closed , and what programs will be displaced ?
! What does the future of this community look like with one or more closed churches ?
Conversely , congregational impact can be an important input when developing new initiatives or investments in churches . Congregations that are making a significant impact by participating with other non-profits and congregations are especially well positioned to thrive with the right mix of leadership and investment .
The magnet effect of a rural United Methodist Church — that is , the spending and value that visitors bring to the community when they attend church events throughout the year — is valued at $ 140,738 annually . Pictured is a fellowship luncheon in the Family Life Center at Prospect UMC . The Rev . Dr . Lauren Anderson
16 SACRED PLACES SUMMER 2022