Tales of two worlds: A seminary of the city prepares rural pastors

11-13-2010 by

Alicia Leonardi
Can theological education in the city really speak to the needs and experiences of a rural church community?

Rev. Sherrie Drake (D.Min. Class of 2009) sharpened her pastoral skills through McCormick’s Doctor of Ministry Program in Chicago, the third largest city in the country and home to nearly 3 million people within the city limits alone. And yet, for the past 10 years, she has served as Pastor of Parker City United Methodist Church in Parker City, Indiana – home of approximately 1,300 people. The entire town has one zip code and one-tenth of its members belong to the church.

When Drake first entered the D.Min. Program at McCormick, she was intimidated by the immediacy of city life, but now sees clear similarities between her small town and the seminary’s surroundings. It has much to do with changing neighborhoods.

Parker City, which is six miles from Muncie, Indiana, is an agricultural town. Over the years, Drake has seen chain stores such as Wal-Mart move in and, in effect, drive smaller, locally owned establishments out of business.

“Chicago’s neighborhoods are like little Parker Citys,” Drake said. “They have the same experiences of loss when shops close and longstanding relationships are affected.”

In addition, Drake noticed that her small church in Parker City was actually serving a community role similar to the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, an African American Catholic congregation in Chicago where Dr. Kimberly Lymore, a fellow D.Min. graduate  serves as an associate minister.

Both churches are not only places of worship but also community centers, offering social services such as food pantries and crisis assistance as well as providing meeting space for local organizations.

Drake isn’t the only small church pastor who sees similarities between the large city where she was educated and the small town where she pastors.

Laura Fry, a 2007 graduate of McCormick’s Master of Divinity Program, also thinks McCormick prepared her well to pastor a congregation of 45 in a city of less than 2,500. She serves at Covington United Presbyterian Church in Pavilion, NY, which is located about 45 minutes south of Rochester.

Fry is pleased to continue dialogue regarding one of her favorite topics – immigration rights.

When some in her congregation showed interest in the topic, she created a forum to explore the issue further. She credits McCormick with showing her how to nurture conversation regarding complex and controversial issues without imposing her own agenda.

Fry says her time in Pavilion has been a cross-cultural experience of sorts. Though the farmers in her congregation are not exceptionally diverse in terms of race, she said they do represent various theologies, political perspectives, and levels of education and socio-economic resources.

And despite arriving at her call as the first new pastor in 40-years, Fry said she was pleased to find that people care about global issues more than she initially expected and that her experiences with the congregation continue to shatter her stereotypes. She encourages other new pastors to start with themselves as they learn to love rural congregations.

“Come to your call with an open mind and a desire to learn,” she said.

Sara Thiessen, a current D.Min. student, arrived at McCormick actively seeking a contrast to her familiar surroundings. And she found that, but discovered a program very relevant to her ministry at Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin. As part-time pastor and mother of three, she is living a kind of bi-vocational ministry.

“A D.Min. is intended to stretch pastors, and the greatest growth and development could happen in a place that was different from what I was used to,” Thiessen said.

 McCormick isn’t in Wisconsin, but Thiessen said her classes focus on many issues that she faces back home such as immigration, race, poverty and especially environmental justice.

“McCormick has taught to me that there can be a blending – no matter where you come from, there can be a dialogue and you can learn,” Thiessen said. “Urban and rural churches need each other to reach their greatest potential.”