Giving Rural Pastors an Opportunity for Renewal

Rural church ministers can sometimes find themselves “burned out” by the effects of social, philosophical and geographic isolation. To provide rural pastors with opportunities for personal and professional renewal, The Duke Endowment supported the Courage to Serve program at Duke Divinity School from 2004 to 2010.  Working with the Divinity School, the Endowment now supports the Study Leave program and the Convocation on the Rural Church.


Rural church leaders may feel a division between their personal lives and the expectations of their congregations, or a philosophical difference in the way they wish to serve and the way in which their community wishes to engage. As a result, leaders in rural churches need to have more than professional skills and strategies. Pastors also must possess a clear sense of “who” they are, what strengths they bring for guiding a rural congregation and a deep understanding of their individual identity and integrity.

Isolation makes it difficult for pastors to reflect honestly and objectively, and developing leadership strengths in a way that honors and supports the individual pastor and the needs of the congregation can be a challenge. The inability to do so can lead to pastor turnover or “burn out.”


In 2004, The Duke Endowment began to fund a personal and professional renewal program for pastors called “Courage to Serve,” offered by Duke Divinity School. The program was modeled after Circles of Trust, created by educator and activist Parker J. Palmer and the Fetzer Institute to help renew, sustain and inspire public school teachers.

In 2010, the Endowment shifted its focus from Courage to Serve to “Study Leave.” Study Leave offers pastors and lay leaders time to read, reflect, research and relax on Duke Divinity School’s campus. Lasting five to seven days, participants choose whether to come alone or with a group to study, pray and worship. Group Study Leave sessions allow clergy and laity to join together for an experience in peer learning and reflection around specific topics or needs.

Since 2004, The Duke Endowment has also supported an annual Convocation on the Rural Church, which joins pastors from the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church with Duke Divinity School and the Endowment. Held over three days, this provides pastors a chance to re-energize, spend time with family, and discuss issues that are important in transforming rural churches and communities. Away from their congregations for a few days, pastors have the chance to practice Sabbath in a relaxing environment.

Courage to Serve was open to all pastors, deacons and elders of rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina that are eligible to receive funding from The Duke Endowment, as is Study Leave and the application process for the Convocation on the Rural Church.

Participating Sites in North Carolina

Duke Divinity School, Durham


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