Finding a Calling in Rural Churches

Finding a Calling in Rural Churches

At Duke Divinity School, Julie Leyva found the academic rigor she craved. She also received an unforgettable side trip to Mount Gilead, N.C., a lumber-milling hamlet tucked in the loblolly pine forests between Charlotte and Fayetteville.

That’s where the Divinity School dispatched her for her field education experience, the internship rite-of-passage required of every Duke M.Div. student. The school sends them to churches where they teach Bible classes, Sunday school lessons and preach sermons under the guidance of local pastors or other supervisors. They must complete two units of field education, either part-time for 30 weeks or full-time in the summers for 10 weeks. In 2017, the Divinity School’s Field Education Office will place about 350 students in academic-year and summer assistant pastor roles.

Many of those placements will be facilitated by scholarships from The Duke Endowment, which has been supporting the field education program for more than 90 years, with an emphasis on rural churches. The Endowment is spending nearly $1.4 million to provide scholarships this summer for 142 students to serve rural churches as assistant pastors. It will spend another $1.2 million to deploy 92 students during the academic year.

Early leaders of both the Endowment and Duke University quickly saw the wisdom of providing internships for Divinity School students. In a statement published in the Endowment’s 1930 Year Book, Duke President William Preston Few called the rural church field education internships “the most significant experiment of its kind that is at this time being tried out in the country.”

In 1931, 67 Duke students interned with rural churches, where they preached 1,395 times, led the singing in 856 meetings, conducted or assisted in 107 evangelistic meetings, led 71 prayer services, baptized 48 babies and taught two missionary classes.

The Endowment’s 1933 Yearbook reported that the special summer work “has been so successful that requests for well-trained young men have come in beyond the ability of the fund to grant.”

Rural churches get much-needed help, and students get real-world experience in sensitive, spiritually demanding roles that cannot be replicated within the confines of the university.  Julie, for instance, spent two summers at First United Methodist Church of Mount Gilead, preaching, visiting the sick, and helping the pastor.

As a young Californian of Hispanic heritage, she wasn’t sure what to expect from rural North Carolina.

Mount Gilead, it turned out, had much to teach.

Lessons of a small town

Mount Gilead, population 1,200, is located next to the 51,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest. Points of interest include the former Ford dealership on Main Street that’s been converted into a fancy restaurant called, plainly enough, The Old Ford Place; Brown’s Old Timey Hardware, with its ancient creaky floorboards; and the sprawling lumber mill at the edge of town that ranks as the dominant local employer.

Julie made herself right at home. Her time in Mount Gilead broadened her personal horizons, and deepened her insight into the Scriptures.

It taught her that the scholarly questions that occupy her academician’s mind aren’t always the ones that pry the most meaning out of the text itself.

“You can’t talk about interpreting Scripture in the church unless you actually do it in the church,” she said. “So often at Duke I feel like we do it in the abstract. When I hear people talking about it (at school), that doesn’t sound like any church I’ve ever been a part of, with regular people connected to the Bible. You have to have that (experience) or else it doesn’t make any sense.”

“You can’t preach in the abstract,” she added. “You have to know, ‘Who am I talking to? What do they go through every day?’ You can’t think of a sermon apart from the context.”

She graduates in May, and hopes to enter a Ph.D. program in 2018.

A different kind of classroom

Luke Christy, 23, fits the future-preacher mold the Endowment had in mind when it first began supporting field education. A second-year M.Div. student, he grew up in small towns around western North Carolina. His father was a Methodist minister, so the church ladies would pinch his cheek and tell him he was going to be just like his dad. They were right. Not only that, but he specifically hopes to serve in rural churches like the ones that gave so much love and support to his family.

During his internship at Goldston United Methodist Church, members made him feel like a real pastor, even though he wasn’t sure what to say to people at times. When he climbed into the pulpit to preach the first time or two, he felt like a kid trying on grown-up clothes. But when the whole congregation sent him off by laying their hands on him and praying for him, he felt profoundly moved.

Goldston United Methodist proved to be his favorite classroom.

“It helped me realize my education isn’t just for me,” he says. “It’s not just about me getting smarter. It’s about taking the next step in my call, getting ready to serve Jesus.”

Most Duke Divinity students find the experience as valuable as he did.

The Graduating Student Questionnaire, administered by the Association of Theological Schools, asks graduating divinity school students to rank 16 areas of work by importance in their formation for ministry. At Duke, the field education program ranks second, tied with Biblical Studies.

To better understand the specific impact of field education, the Endowment’s Committee on Rural Church has engaged Auburn University to evaluate Duke’s program. Findings will be compared with peer institutions to determine best practices and to seek areas of growth for educating agile and adaptive pastoral leaders. Leaders at the Divinity School are fully supportive.

“We wanted to partner with the school in this important exploration because we believe that experiential education is a critical component in ministerial formation,” said Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “Scripture lives and breathes in the local parish and we hope that the work with Auburn will provide an opportunity to discover the very best ways to integrate those powerful, embodied moments with the rigorous academic atmosphere of Duke’s classroom.”

Contact Us

Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church


Related Work

Area of Work

  • Clergy leadership

Program Area

  • Rural Church

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

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