Sowing Change in Rural Churches

The large sign has only three words — Goldston Community Garden — and that’s intentional. Even though the rows of tomatoes, peppers and squash are planted on the property of Goldston United Methodist Church, the congregation wants everyone to feel welcomed.

A big motivation for creating the garden was to engage with the town around us,” says the Rev. David King, Goldston’s pastor. Instead of claiming it as part of the church, we wanted to send a message that this is a place for everyone.”

Goldston created the garden after participating in a training program that helps congregations to put their property to good use. Called Seeds of Change, the workshops focus on matching local needs with church resources.

The goal is to give new life to congregations — and communities.

Locked Doors

Wesley Community Development, a nonprofit in Huntersville, N.C., launched Seeds of Change in 2015 with a $415,000 grant from The Duke Endowment. Methodist leaders say the program addresses a challenge for many churches in rural regions, where Sunday attendance is often shrinking and congregations struggle to maintain a vital role in their communities.

With rooms and parking lots sitting empty during the week, many of these churches feel their property is more of a burden than an asset,” says Joel Gilland, Wesley’s president. We’ve gotten into this silo mentality where we lock the doors after Sunday service and it’s, See you next week.’ But that’s not the history of the Methodist church. That’s not the type of engagement that will keep churches vibrant in the years ahead.”

The Rev. Karen Easter Bayne, Wesley’s vice president, tells of visiting a church fellowship hall this summer and finding a book of Christmas music still sitting open on the piano.

The room had a stage with sound and lighting and was probably the largest gathering spot in the whole town,” she says, But you could tell it hadn’t been used much since last December.”

We want the workshops to give them ideas for doing the exciting ministry that more and more of our congregations are waking up to.

Rev. Karen Easter Bayne, Vice President of Wesley Community Development

During Seeds of Change workshops, pastors and lay leaders gauge how their buildings and land are being used. They study maps and demographics to learn more about pressing challenges in their communities. They share ideas and leave with action plans to discuss back home.

The congregation Bayne visited, for example, might decide to open their parking lot for a weekly farmer’s market; the fellowship hall could become the only local coffee shop. The church might rent space to a chef who needs a commercial kitchen to begin a catering service, or allow a theater group to use the stage for practice space.

We want the workshops to give them ideas for doing the exciting ministry that more and more of our congregations are waking up to,” she says.

Churches begin Seeds of Change by calculating the percentage of time their facilities are used during the week. On average, it’s 14 percent. Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area, says the Endowment is measuring the success of the program by tracking that figure over the years.

We know this work may take time and that ideas planted today may take a year or two to germinate,” he says. We encourage churches to get started, recognizing that their buildings can be an important asset that leads to meaningful change in the community.”

Need to do Something’

Twenty-one churches have participated in Seeds of Change, with another training session scheduled for this month. One congregation opened a co-working area where people can escape the isolation of working from home. Another modified a building to help the food bank provide meals. In Gaston County, a congregation is transitioning its church into offices for local nonprofits.

Several other projects are in the pipeline, including:

  • Redeveloping a 20,000-square-foot building on church property to house a mix of retail and offices. The building will generate income and provide much-needed space for services such as counseling.
  • Redesigning space for a modern worship service, which now takes place in the gym. The modification will allow recreational leagues to use the gym again, and the modern worship room will also be used for community concerts and recitals. In addition, the church is reformatting its kitchen for community rentals.
  • Redesigning a building and adding a small area to allow the congregation to expand its partnership with the YMCA by moving music and other classes into the church.
  • Taking a closed church and revitalizing its property into a campus for a fast-growing immigrant congregation that had been sharing space with another congregation. A multi-use addition will host community events and educational programs.

Few, if any, churches change overnight,” Gilland says. For many congregations, the realization that they need to do something different takes time to understand and accept. Our goal is to plant seeds of possibilities and be there to assist those who are ready to move to the next step.”

A Bigger Role

At Goldston, Seeds of Change helped church members develop land that had been purchased five years earlier. After testing ideas during the workshops, they interviewed school officials, business owners and the sheriff to hear what they would do with the property.

The program focused our thinking on how our nine acres could benefit our neighbors,” Pastor King says.

Still in the planning stage is a half-mile trail that will circle a pond on the grounds. Since the town has few sidewalks and hiking paths, the church hopes people will visit the trail for exercise and strolls.

The garden, now in its second season, is already giving the church a bigger role in the community. Everyone is invited to harvest on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and anyone can stop by for free okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, collards and potatoes. Goldston also delivers vegetables to a nearby soup kitchen and food pantry; the church’s second-annual Tomato Sandwich Supper drew 80 people from the congregation and beyond.

When we first started planting, I wasn’t sure if it would amount to anything,” Pastor King says. But it’s just amazing to see how productive this garden has been. It’s exciting to be able to share what God gives us.”

The program focused our thinking on how our nine acres could benefit our neighbors.”

— Rev. David King

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