Reflections and key takeaways from the new conference for rural church leaders
Fresh Expressions Florida of the Florida United Methodist Church, partnered with Fresh Expressions United Methodist from Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries, hosted the first ever Rural Church Rising—a conference for rural church leaders—on October 27-28, 2023 at Warren Willis Camp and Conference Center in Fruitland Park, Fla.
The vision for the conference came to the Fresh Expressions Florida team as they assessed the unique needs and challenges of those serving in contexts outside of cities and suburban areas.
The conference featured an array of presenters, including experienced pastors, scholars, theologians, and leaders in The United Methodist Church. Through workshops, learning sessions, keynote presentations, and activities, attendees were inspired and empowered to engage in new ways of loving and caring for the rural communities they serve. Rural Church Rising not only provided valuable knowledge but also allowed participants to connect and network with like-minded leaders from across the country.
Before the conference, some participants joined deacon and spiritual director, Laura Baber, and Fresh Expressions Florida Director Michael Beck, for a pre-conference retreat where they were led through exercises that invited rest and spiritual renewal as they shared their hopes for the coming weekend.
Rural Church Rising opened on Friday, October 27, with worship led by Chase Meahl and an opening message from Warren Willis Executive Director Rev. Corey Jones, who invited participants to receive and share the treasures God gives us.
On the first day, Luke Edwards, author, Fresh Expressions trainer, and Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference, presented practical tools to listen and learn from your ministry context. Author and theologian, Elaine Heath shared her experience practicing trauma-informed evangelism as Abbess of Spring Forest, a new monastic community in the United Methodist tradition in the Piedmont Mountains of North Carolina. That evening, Michael Beck spoke about the power of communal life in Jesus that brings healing to hurting communities and how the rural church can become the space from which healing circles emerge. He was followed by Florida Conference Bishop Tom Berlin, who discussed the disparities low-population areas face through stories from his life and ministry and encouraged congregations to try new things as they expand their definition of what church can be.
Friday evening, with a lakeside view, attendees gathered together around a campfire for acoustic worship, fellowship, and s’mores.
On Saturday, Missionary Baptist minister Marlon Mack shared his experience as a pastor in Gary, Indiana—a city facing decades of industrial decline and economic hardship. Stacey Spence-Baldwin followed by sharing insights from her doctoral work in rural church decline and her experience in using Fresh Expressions to revitalize rural communities in North Central Florida. The conference ended with a presentation on expressions of love that bridge cultural and language barriers from pastoral team Chris and Jaidy Smith, who engage in multicultural, bilingual ministry in rural Western North Carolina, and finally, a presentation from Tex Sample, church and society specialist, on doing change among the cultural traditionalist demographic.
Overall, the inaugural Rural Church Rising was a transformative and edifying experience for all involved, fostering connections and a renewed sense of purpose among rural church leaders across the country, and we look forward to future iterations of the conference. As we reflect on the practical learnings, insights, and inspiration shared during the event, the Fresh Expressions Florida team envisions a future where transformative gatherings like this one become a recurring aspect of our work as we equip, empower, and energize those exploring new paths and navigating the challenges of ministry in the 21st Century.