Advancing the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative

Rural Church  |  Cultivate and Support Pastoral Leaders

The Duke Endowment is investing in programs that optimize the United Methodist system so that the best and brightest candidates for ministry are recruited and retained, building skills and developing outreach strategies that deliver community impact.


We believe that rural churches are anchor institutions that can serve as catalysts for human, community and economic advancement in the communities they serve. Developing leaders for the complex and dynamic ministry challenges in North Carolina’s rural communities is a primary focus of our grantmaking investments.

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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. These partners continue to collaborate on strategic approaches to reach their common goals and together envision, plan for, and implement new ideas for the program.

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 students each year from Duke Divinity School to participate in intensive study and rural field placements that will prepare them for service in North Carolina’s rural United Methodist 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.


Since the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative began, more than 100 Rural Ministry Fellows have graduated from the program. In addition to serving as pastors of congregations, Fellows have been appointed as a district superintendents, district vitality associates, and have taken on leadership roles in the conferences and at Duke Divinity School.

Fellows form a close-knit group and attend activities such as Rural Ministry Colloquia and an annual retreat. They also have encouraged their peers on campus to attend colloquia and learn more about rural ministry. These sessions continue upon graduation.

Clergy throughout North Carolina who participate in Thriving Rural Communities Initiative activities — either hosted at Duke Divinity School or conducted by the Conferences — consistently rate them as very valuable to their competence as pastors. Leadership from rural churches within the Conferences has increased with Fellows serving in everything from committees to the cabinet.

Lessons Learned

To help prepare ministers for service in rural congregations, The Duke Endowment supports several clergy leadership programs at Duke Divinity School.

A previous evaluation for the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative reported that the common elements of thriving rural churches include:

  • Awareness of their history and identity and drawing strength from that awareness
  • Resilience — weathering change, conflict, helping others do that
  • Awareness of the richness of the church’s resources of talent, spirit and energy — regardless of its material well-being
  • Embracing change — honoring traditions and willing to do things differently as change is called for
  • Looking inward — attending deeply to people’s spiritual growth
  • Grounding the life of the church in scripture
  • Inspiring worship that helps people feel God’s presence
  • Regular hands-on, face-to-face service and mission work
  • Appreciation of young people — considering youth as assets, whether or not the church has a large number or a few
  • Finding ways for each member of the congregation to serve — helping people discern and live in their gifts
  • Knowing that the church is not the building, but something greater, more spiritual and harder to articulate
  • Inclusive — focused on welcoming people into the church
  • Engaging — having something for everyone
  • Seeing the strength and opportunities for itinerancy — accepting a responsibility for building relationships with each new pastor
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pdf – May 1, 2014

Full Report: Thriving Rural Communities Initiave Summative Evaluation Report

Examining the benefits of fostering leadership for rural congregations.

pdf – May 1, 2014

Executive Summary: Thriving Rural Communities Initiative Summative Evaluation Report

Examining the benefits of fostering leadership for rural congregations.

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The Thriving Rural Communities Initiative

September 5, 2013 | Robert R. Webb III