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.

Advancing the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative04


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. To date, we have invested $10.4 million over 15 years in helping rural pastors take the lead in creating more viable communities.

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. 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.

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.

Participating Sites

RC Advancing the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative01 01
  • North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church, Raleigh
  • Western North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church, Charlotte
  • Duke Divinity School, Durham


Since the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative began, 80 Rural Ministry Fellows have graduated from the program. Of these, 49 are from the North Carolina Conference and 31 are from the Western North Carolina Conference. One Fellow has been appointed as a District Superintendent, another as a district vitality associate, while others have taken on leadership roles in the Conferences and at Duke Divinity School.

Fellows form a close-knit group, and attend activities such as monthly 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.

Sally Leiderman, outside evaluator for the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative, reports 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
Advancing the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative02


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.

Related Posts

Story / Video The Thriving Rural Communities Initiative 01

The Thriving Rural Communities Initiative

September 5, 2013 | Robert R. Webb III