Advancing the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative

The Duke Endowment is investing $7.6 million over ten years to help rural pastors and churches take the lead in creating more viable communities. Among the 1,900 United Methodist churches in North Carolina, The Duke Endowment considers 1,157 to be rural.


Over the past several years, as North Carolina’s rural communities have undergone economic and population declines, many rural congregations have suffered. When rural congregations weaken or shrink, they become unable to support strong pastors who might lead the church and community to new opportunities. Even within The United Methodist Church, both new and experienced clergy who otherwise might wish to serve in a rural setting turn instead to larger churches or positions with more financial security. This downward spiral endangers not only the sustainability of the churches, but also the communities to which they are inextricably linked.


The Duke Endowment and the United Methodist Church have deep roots in North Carolina’s rural communities and understand the importance that churches can play in ensuring the vitality of these communities. To strengthen rural churches, the Endowment, the North Carolina Conference and the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, and Duke Divinity School developed the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative in 2006 with $3.8 million in funding through 2011. After review and evaluation, the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative was extended, with some enhancements and an additional $3.8 million, through 2016.

Thriving Rural Communities focuses on leadership development – both in preparing clergy for service in rural churches and in strengthening the churches for community leadership roles. The initiative builds stronger leaders through:

Rural Ministry Fellowships
The Rural Ministry Fellows program selects seven students each year from Duke Divinity School, including at least one student pastor (who serves a rural church while attending divinity school). The Fellows participate in intensive study and two rural field placements that will prepare them for service in North Carolina’s rural churches. Rural Fellows are provided full scholarships for their campus studies and stipends for field placements. In exchange, they agree to serve in a rural North Carolina church for at least five years after graduation.

Rural Fellows are also matched with mentors from model rural churches (see Thriving Rural Churches, below). Fellows do everything their mentors do: visit the sick and elderly, lead youth group programs, preach, help organize and lead service projects, lead Bible study and more. They also work with their mentors to assess their own strengths and challenges and regularly reflect on their experiences and their vocation. Beginning in 2012, two Rural Ministry Fellows also receive scholarships to attend the Duke Divinity School Summer Institute on Reconciliation and the Rural Economic Development Institute of the North Carolina Rural Center.

Thriving Rural Churches
The Thriving Rural Churches component of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative highlights and supports the work of rural churches in North Carolina that are building engaged congregations and actively ministering to community needs. The initiative included eight Thriving Rural Churches in the first five years, and added eight more in 2012 for a total of 16. Each of the eight new model churches hosts Rural Ministry Fellows for field placements, and pastors from all 15 model churches serve as mentors to the Fellows.

In addition to hosting and mentoring Rural Fellows, all model churches serve as demonstration sites for other rural churches, provide examples of best practice and possibility, and may receive additional funds for community projects. Pastors gather several times a year to discuss leadership, share fellowship and pray for one another. They also host “Come and See” events at their churches to share ideas, stories and best practices with other rural pastors and congregations. The eight new churches also participate in renewal events, including a two-night “revival” experience focused on reviving the churches and communities, rather than individuals. In addition, two laity from each of the eight newly-added churches receive annual leadership training, and pastors from all Thriving Rural Churches gather once a year to share experiences.

Licensed Local Pastors
Individuals who wish to become pastors to United Methodist congregations without attaining a Divinity degree can gain alternative certification as a Licensed Local Pastor through the Standard Course of Study for Ordained Ministry. The Duke Endowment supports this alternative path to church and community leadership by identifying promising groups of Licensed Local Pastors attending the summer Course of Study at Duke Divinity School and gathering them twice a year for additional continuing education and leadership development.

The Duke Endowment works closely with three other stakeholder institutions in the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative: Duke Divinity School, the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church and the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. The partners collaborate to discuss strategic approaches to their common goals and to envision, plan and implement new ideas. Several new programs have come from the collaboration, including the popular Courage to Serve program that helps pastors explore issues of life and leadership, and a new Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, which helps pastors prepare to work with culturally diverse rural congregations.

      Participating Sites in North Carolina

      • North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church, Raleigh
      • Western North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church, Charlotte
      • Duke Divinity School, Durham

      Model Churches in the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative

      • Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Cedar Grove
      • Fairview United Methodist Church, Shoals
      • Friendship United Methodist Church, Newton
      • Hayesville First United Methodist Church, Hayesville
      • Sandy Plains United Methodist Church, Pembroke
      • Solid Rock United Methodist Church, Olivia
      • Tyro United Methodist Church, Lexington
      • Bladen Charge United Methodist Church (including Bethlehem United Methodist Church, West White Oak; Live Oak United Methodist Church, White Oak; and Windsor United Methodist Church, Ammon)
      • Seven new churches will be selected by the fall of 2013.


      Area of Work

      • Clergy leadership

      Program Area

      • Rural Church

      Grantmaking Status

      The Endowment is continuing to work through current grantees and is not accepting new applications.

      Areas of Work

      • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

        To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

      • Out-of-home care for youth

        To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

      • Quality and safety of health care

        Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

      • Access to health care

        Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

      • Prevention

        Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

      • Academic excellence

        Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

      • Educational access and success

        Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

      • Campus and community engagement

        Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

      • Rural church development

        Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

      • Clergy leadership

        Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

      • Congregational outreach

        Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities