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The Dakotas Connection Initiative: Rural ministry matters

By: Al Roll, missional impact coach, Dakotas UMC, with contributions from Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas UMC

Colin Maynard Hv24jzqanti Unsplash

Small, declining, not enough people, and not enough resources are words that rural congregations use to describe themselves. Rural does not have to mean less. Jesus ministered in rural areas. Rural ministry is vital. 

Creating vitality in rural congregations is the focus of the Dakotas Connection Initiative (DCI). Rather than focusing on a scarcity of resources —limited full-time clergy and fewer financial resources to support them—the conference is imagining the future with the gifts that God has provided—gifted and faithful laity in communities and surrounding areas, retired pastors with a gift for mentoring and a calling to preach and deliver sacraments, and an openness to using technology to reach people.

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment's Thriving Congregations Initiative. The national initiative aims to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

This past year, the DCI team worked hard to build connections, gather and distribute resources, and develop and promote new ministry models for rural areas. Here are some activities happening this year.

Grants awarded

Two rural ministry grants were awarded and are beginning to take shape. These are 12-month grants. Near the end of the first year, an evaluation will determine the progress made on the pre-determined objectives. Grants can be renewed for two to three years based on progress towards the objectives.

One grant has been awarded to Pierre First, Lyman County, and Blunt establishing a partnership between these congregations to share various leadership functions and ministry teams. The Pierre Partnership grant, of $21,000, includes pastoral preaching and teaching team sessions, shared discipleship leadership structure, coordinated administrative functions, and opportunities for mission and vision development in the regional area. 

The partnership leader is Beata Ferris, Pierre First UMC's Discipleship Coordinator. The team members are Pastor Jeffrey Lathrop, lead pastor at First UMC in Pierre, South Dakota, and Pastor Thomas Carlson, serving Lyman County parish and Blunt. Each of the congregations in this partnership provides various levels of matching support for the project.

Another grant was awarded to Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. The grant, led by Pastor Michele Slott, who serves Open Heart UMC, establishes a Lay Academy to develop lay leadership in preaching, administration, and potential call to ministry.

The lay leadership grant, for $12,000, focuses on providing quarterly in-person training and opportunities for preaching presentation and feedback. Currently, Rapid City and Pierre have been selected as training sites. Upon completion of training, participants will be ready to provide preaching and teaching services in the rural ministry setting.

Coaching cohort

Leading a rural ministry can be lonely. Pastors of small community churches discharge these numerous and diverse responsibilities while simultaneously representing and working on behalf of the church in the community's inter-organizational life. With myriad internal and external demands, rural pastors perennially suffer a weak or nonexistent support system for themselves. In essence, they often must run the church, or rather, be the church in every respect, from the sacred to the mundane, and they must carry out functions for which they may never have been trained.

Dci Coaching 1

As part of the Dakotas Annual Conference effort to encourage and strengthen rural ministry, coaching cohort calls, funded by Dakotas Connection Initiative, will be conducted by Zoom beginning in September 2022. The first call is scheduled for Tuesday, September 13, at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time, 12:30 p.m. Central Time. This call will be hosted by Al Roll, DCI grant manager, and Zach Kingery, DCI steering team leader.

This introductory call will focus on establishing coaching cohort objectives, future discussion topics, and scheduling upcoming calls. Of particular interest is gaining a better understanding of what local churches need to help them become better providers of rural ministry strategies and services. 

Additionally, this is an excellent opportunity to connect with other rural ministry leaders in the Dakotas Conference who may share vision and mission goals like your church's.  

The intention is to design future calls that offer specific topic information such as vision/mission planning and strategy development, professional and personal support materials to assist with navigating rural areas, and stories of successful ministry projects in rural churches in the Dakotas.

If you would like to attend this first call and hit the ground running with other rural ministry leaders, please plan to join Zach and Al at this Zoom link. 

Rural ministry fall gathering 

Rural ministry is a passion for many people and congregations across North and South Dakota. In 2021, 80 people attended the gatherings for rural churches, representing 40 congregations. 

The Dakotas Annual Conference is pleased to announce a 2022 Rural Ministry Fall Gathering on October 28-29, 2022, in Mobridge, South Dakota, at the Wrangler Inn. A block of rooms has been saved at the Wrangler Inn for attendees. Please call 888-618-5318 to reserve a room under Dakotas UMC.

The event will begin Friday, October 28, at 6:30 p.m., central time, with fellowship followed by worship at 7:00 p.m., a keynote address, and a brief review and discussion about the Dakotas Connection Initiative. Saturday, October 29, beginning at 7:30 a.m., will include sessions on learning, sharing, and planning. The keynote speaker will offer in-person instruction; additional speakers will be virtual. Technology tips and techniques will be shared. Time will be allotted for breakout discussions. The event will wrap up by noon on Saturday, October 29.

Registration for this event is $75 for the first attendee from a congregation, with all additional attendees $25 per person. Registration includes snacks and refreshments on Friday evening, a breakfast buffet Saturday morning, and a box lunch Saturday noon. 

Mileage will be reimbursed for one vehicle for each church represented at the Dakotas UMC volunteer rate. Additionally, each church attending will receive a $250 stipend. Registration will open soon. 

Rural ministry is important to God's Kingdom, a hope-filled, vital component of many people's lives across the Dakotas. 

If you would like more information on the Dakotas Connection Initiative or have an idea for rural ministry partnerships in the Dakotas, please get in touch with Al Roll at


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