Politics and Rural Ministry

Greetings, and welcome to Growing Rural Ministries. I am passionate about helping rural churches thrive for the glory of God! In this episode, we’re going to address the rural church’s role in politics and the Gospel.

In polite company, there has long been an unspoken rule that you don’t talk about money, religion, or politics. Yet, as pastors we often find ourselves called to address these and other such hot topics through the lens of Scripture.

I confess that I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to political news. I do some basic research on ballot items and candidates and pray for God’s guidance before I go to the polls. Then I leave the rest to God and the elected officials and other leaders He raises up. I take the view that God is always in control and anyone who has authority only has it because God has given it. Even if I don’t like it, I know that there is a bigger purpose that God is working out, so, I put my trust in Him.

But how are we as Christians, pastors, and church leaders to respond when we witness such division and political unrest in our nation, or perhaps more importantly, when it shows up in our own communities and congregations?

I’ve invited some friends to join me for this conversation: Rev. Joel Kidwell, and Joe Cuminale, rural colleagues who pay more attention and have done more research and processing of these ideas. Welcome, Joel and Joe. Thank you for joining me today!

Joe: I am the pastor at the United Methodist Churches in Meadville and Laclede, MO; both smaller congregations averaging 30-45 people a Sunday.

Joel: I am the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Brookfield, MO. As one of my other colleagues in rural ministry says, it’s the “county seat church” here in Linn County, not because it is in the county seat of Linneus, but because it is located in the same community with the Walmart. And so in good times our worship average is above 200, but in Covid times our average is about 60 in the room and who-knows-who is online. Yet we persevere. It is a church that draws from miles and miles across the landscape here in north-central Missouri.

Meghan: Thank you, both for being here. So we’ve got a range of rural churches: some are small all the time and some just during Covid times and some are larger as well. Thank you both for being with us and representing this spectrum of rural ministry.

I’d like to start by asking you: what have you seen happening in rural ministry as a result of recent political events?

Joe: What I’ve noticed is it has caused a decisive division among church members. It’s sad. It’s almost been taken to extremes. We’ve kind of thrown away the “let’s love our neighbor because of Christ” and decided to hate our neighbor because they’re in a different camp politically than we are. It’s tough. When you only have 30 people and they go into two or three camps, it divides up your church. Things are harder to get done and overall, it really hurts your ministry.

Meghan: Absolutely.

Joel: I’ve seen a shift in what people think I should preach on, and also that people are leaving to go where a pastor will make plain-spoken political announcements from the pulpit that align with their particular political ideology. I find that very disturbing, because I try very hard to be a-political.

I agree with you in your opening statement, Meghan, in that I try to view myself as a Romans 13 Christian. I pray for whoever is in power. I felt compelled to take a big time out recently, to give you an example, to warn my congregation that the names in my standard format, pastoral prayer had changed. If you were listening, I’ve been praying for the other two for months and months, and I’m going to start praying for the next two. It is not because I favor one over the other. It’s because they’ve been elected and we’re going to pray for them. I haven’t had any blow-back from that yet, but I still think that my hyper-partisans have left, so that, and I’m just going to say it, their itching ears can hear what they want to hear instead of perhaps what they need to hear.

And I agree with Joe. The dividing lines along political lines rather than gospel lines. It is just awful. I feel for Joe and the dividing of his body. I’ve seen it too.

Meghan: Yeah, that is so tough, when our churches are supposed to be places where people can come together and love one another despite our differences in a lot of ways. So, in the midst of all of this, what do you think is the big underlying issue, or concern, for the rural church in responding?

Joe: I think, as far as I’m concerned, one of the underlying issues is to dispel the things that aren’t true. I keep running into a lot of people who are buying into conspiracy theory and things that are just not true. As Christians we are not called to believe conspiracy theories, we are called to seek the truth. We need to do that. It doesn’t matter what side you fall on politically. What matters is that we have the facts and adhere to those facts and that we don’t blatantly propagate things that are false.

Meghan: That’s really tough to do. There are a lot of people who don’t trust what is true. Or we have different ideas of the definition of truth and where we find truth. So how do we do that in the midst of even that division? Do you have ideas on that or are you still working on it?

Joe: Like Joel said earlier, he’s pretty a-political. He’s not going to preach politics, and I’m not going to either. I want to maintain that neutrality, but at the same time I want to point to the truth of Christ in the Gospel. If I make that my message, my hope is that once you come to the truth of Christ you can come to other truth. And maybe I’m being very naïve here, I don’t know. You can’t go talk to people who believe a conspiracy theory in a logical manner and make them not believe it, because that’s not going to work. So, I’m going at it from the Christian stand-point of this is the truth of the Gospel. And look at what we believe as Christians. If you were to tell somebody who wasn’t Christian about that, it might take a little bit of convincing, because it does somewhat sound outlandish. This guy comes back from the dead? If you look at our whole narrative, it is kinda different, but we accept that as truth. If we present that truth, people, Christians, are going to understand this is the truth of the Gospel, maybe I can be open to the truth of the real world as well.

Meghan: Yeah, I agree with you. I think we find the truth of Christ and we begin to find truth in other areas as we grow as disciples.

Joel: Yeah, piggy-backing on what both of you have said: the problem in our culture today is meta-narrative, and what people are accepting as their meta-narrative. The United States of America has pretty much had, for 240 years, a meta-narrative of being founding fathers that formed on revolution, manifest destiny, and being a called nation. We have a lot of Christians that take that as their view, and what’s happening now on the larger scale as a nation is there has been, not necessarily a reckoning…As a matter of fact, yesterday’s David French’s “French Press” really said it well: With the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brough to Virginia, the 1619 project of the New York Times is a very controversial thing. And a lot of people tried to attack it on the other side, because what did it do? It began to change the meta-narrative on how the nation was formed, who was important, and who influenced them.

I’m reading a book now called These Truths, by historian Jill Lapore, who does an excellent job of weaving the two stories, so it is not just this is black history and this is white history. I think it is fair to say that most of us, myself included (I’m finding my own reckoning in this), have been taught white history. For instance, I’m reading another book on reconstruction, and there are stories in there I didn’t even know. I didn’t know who Ida B. Wells was; I didn’t know about the civil rights act of 1875; all this stuff that happened. That’s my fault, or maybe my teachers.

But back to the question: what do we think is the big issue for the rural church in responding to this, is making sure that we tell the story of Jesus and the meta-narrative of the Gospel. When that is the operating principle, you have to have to raise the level of your gaze so that it what you’re talking about. You know all this other stuff, you’re reading all this other stuff, but you don’t preach on it.

I agree with Joe, just leave it to inform you. Because once you start talking about the Gospel and the meta-narrative of a God who loves, became incarnate, taught us the truths of what it means to be a human being enlightened by God, died our death for us in solidarity with the human condition, and then conqured all that- hell and death- Wow, that’s a compelling narrative. I think the temptation is to dabble in politics because it’s easier, but preaching the Gospel in season and out sometimes isn’t. But that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Meghan: Absolutely. Our ultimate aim, no matter what topic we’re addressing, is always growth as disciples for ourselves and our congregations, and growth in our ministries. So, how do we disciple people to understand and live in such a way that the Gospel informs things like our politics instead of the other way around? 

Joel: My simple answer is repetition. The three of us are United Methodists, but maybe the audience of this isn’t going to be United Methodist. One of the gifts we have, even our founder said, “the holy repository of Methodism” is our doctrine of Christian perfection and entire sanctification. Meaning, not that I’m going to be perfect and holier-than-thou, but that my life is always a project where I am always seeking the power of God to conform me and help me grow up in every way into “He who is the head”, being Jesus Christ my Lord.

This is what Paul meant by working out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is what Jesus preached on in the Sermon on the Mount beginning to end- every word Matthew 5, 6, and 7 and Luke chapter 6. The standard is set for us and yet we get amnesia. So constantly seeking growth in grace and choosing that as the better part- Mary and Martha, so that we’re not worried about and distracted by a great many things but the one thing needful. So, repetition, that’s my answer.

Meghan: I think that is a great answer: get focused and keep it there.

Joe: I agree. I think repetition is key here. I also think that we can’t be afraid to actually change; to actually let the power of Christ transform us. I feel like sometimes we get caught in the ruts that we’re in and that we are just going to stay the way that we are and we’re never going to get better.

As Joel said, it’s a work in progress to Christian perfection and we have to allow that to happen; not only in our congregants, but also in ourselves. We have to be willing and open and have our hearts open to the transformative power of Christ. If we do that, I think that helps. If we can be right with God ourselves, then it is easier to disciple others to be right as well.

Meghan: Oh, absolutely. It’s got to start with us. We’ve got to lead by example in all of those ways. Well as we wrap up here, what advice would you give to rural pastors and church leaders who face, let’s say “strong personalities” with political agendas in their congregation or community? How do we keep from making enemies out of neighbors who disagree?

Joe: First of all, know that you are loved. God loves you. Know that you have colleagues that love you and you need to stay strong. I don’t even pay attention to it in sermons. When I’m in the pulpit, it’s just a non-thing. Focus on the Gospel of Christ and keep trying to move forward with that. You know, I’ve only been doing this seven years, but you’re always going to have a strong personality in your congregation. That’s one thing I’ve learned. Sometimes it’s disheartening, but I don’t think that Jesus was going to give up, so I don’t want to give up.

If you just keep at it, keep focused on the Gospel. Keep moving forward with that; exposing that truth to people and you’ve done your job. Your job is not to go out there and be liked by everybody necessarily, because that’s not going to happen. If you start playing the game of preaching politics just to get ratings, butts in the seats, and views on the internet, and increasing your congregation, that’s not a real accounting.

What happens, in our system, when you get moved, or you retire, or you get fired and move to a different church, or you decide to move to a different church because you’ve been called there? You kind of left a hole know. The next person that comes along is going to have to fill that hole, and that’s really hard and not fair to them. And also, playing the numbers game is not the thing to do. Preach Christ. Simple.

Meghan: Thanks, Joe. I really appreciate that reminder that we’re always going to have a strong personality in our congregations. That is so true. And coupled with the reminder that we need to have a support system. Both of these guys are part of my support system of clergy in the area. We meet a couple of times a month for breakfast. Sometimes that is a professional meeting and we share professional things, and sometimes we just checking in on life and supporting one another. That’s so important to keeping us going and keeping us strong; to focus on the Gospel and not get focused on those strong personalities. Thanks, Joe.

Joel: And, I agree, having a network right now is so key. If you don’t have one, get one. Reach out to one of us, just find it. And it doesn’t matter denomination. Before we left, I met every Friday with a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Catholic and we shared Christ and it was glorious. And I have this group too.
The one thing I wanted to say is don’t forget how Jesus deals with strong personalities. I mean, James and John, who in the 11th chapter of Mark say, “Let us be on either side when you get to your glory.” He said, “You don’t know what you’re asking”, and what did he name them: the sons of thunder. He gave Simon the name Peter because of the rock He was going to build His Church on. But look at Peter: a cussing fisherman who often got things wrong. The Syro-Phoenician woman, who counters Jesus and said, “but even the dogs get the crumbs under the table”, and He was like, “Ah ha.”

Our Lord has a way (and I’m trying to choose my words carefully because I think it’s true and applies in Church culture too) of yoking and rewarding strong personalities to pull in the right direction. That’s the model I keep in my head about dealing with strong personalities. If my Lord can do it and He shows the way with humor and proper yoking and giving them what they need to be proper disciples, then that is what I should do too.

Meghan: That is great advice. I think that we tend to either lash out at strong personalities or cower in front of strong personalities. It is so helpful to pay attention to how Christ did that and learn for ourselves how to do that. Recognize that God has given these people these strong personalities and put them in our congregations for a reason. So, let’s figure out what that reason is and how to use it for the good of the kingdom and the good of the ministry. Good stuff. Well, thank you, guys. I appreciate your time today and sharing your wisdom with us.

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