Do you remember haystacks?

Along with pumpkins, black cats and witches flying on broom sticks, haystacks were the de rigueur for Halloween crayon drawings in 1950s southern rural Appalachia. Haystacks were also high value targets for climbing children; but only once at Grandma Buchanan’s. Only once, because when Grandma saw the offence or the evidence of trampled hay, she became scary. No! We did not realize the work it took to rake and pitch the hay up against the pole until it formed a hay stack. No! we did not understand that the cows needed to be able to eat the hay in the winter and they could not do that if it was trampled and rotting on the ground. No! We would never do it again! Who knew haystacks could be such a source of conflict.

The demise of labor intensive haystacks was bemoaned by few. Square bales of hay were a great improvement. It was still sweaty, itchy, work to load the bales on a wagon and then stack them up usually in the loft of a barn.

There was little lament over the gradual disappearance of square bales either. They have been largely replaced by much larger round bales that do not need to be put in the barn nor touched by hands. They are moved by a tractor.

Like haystacks, small rural churches are largely a strategy of the past. After all, they are not efficient, too labor intensive and not a strategic use of dwindling resources. But from the rumbling around the nation from small towns and rural areas, apparently many did not know that like haystacks, “hayseeds,” “hicks” or “hillbillies” could become such a source of fierce conflict — I say this as one.
Unlike haystacks, the conflict is not simply ignorance about the transgression of trampling on other’s hard work. Education is not at the center of the conflict, but ethics are. For the small/rural church, the ethical construct is that small matters, rural matters and neither is subject to devaluation because others are not mindful of the intrinsic worth of simply being.
In contrast, denominational officials are guided by outcome. No doubt, faith must be authenticated by works or outcomes. But must congregations be authenticated by their ability to fund, at least in part, a seminary graduate, to contribute to the upkeep of the ecclesiastical machinery and all of that in addition to providing for their own operations and mission? Is this not an outcome-based ethics of value? It is at least the duty-based ethical construct of obligation.

These two ethical constructs not only steer denominational evaluation, but as well can stigmatize those who fail to measure up. Value-based evaluation should find mega churches meritorious as they excel at having. Seven-day-a-week program churches likewise should find commendation with an obligation-based valuation of doing. But the small, the rural, the fellowship and kinship congregations are somehow convinced that these two construct are not the basis for what is meaningful or most valued. Their primary ethical construct is virtue – being is what matters. Who knew being in Christ could be thought to be not enough?

What is known is that value conflicts in the USA and denominations are raging over the rights of  immigrant, LGBTQ persons, women, and the rights of unborn babies. What is seemingly unknown is the value conflict of the rights of small and rural church.  When an ethic of value or obligation becomes the basis for action, the construct leads to devaluation of the organization and de-obligation of resources. Only the sufficiently-large congregation, located in non-rural areas with significant income can measure up in evaluations of labor hours per member, or market potential, or effective rate of return for the investment for expensive ecclesiastical machinery.  Simply put to the “hayseed,” “hicks” or “hillbillies,” round bales are only practical way to go. And who could question that this strategy is the right thing to do?

Let it be noted that those who question this assumption are not selfish. Their contrary opinion is that rural people or the folk who have chosen a small church are of greater worth than the sum of their outcomes. Their ethic is that being is primary. In Biblical terms, fruit is the proof of the heart that the person has. No doubt, there must be fruit or the branch is cut off or the tree cut down, but the fact that an orchard has only six trees is no call for immediate destruction. An alternative call to action would be to deploy the gardeners who agree three years of barrenness is a problem but who carry the hope of Jesus’ story and believe that, with a prayer and shovel in hand, “‘maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’” (Luke 13:8-9 MSG)

As in Jesus’ story, the pressing need for the small, rural church is the deployment of loving gardeners, those more concerned about the tree than the years when it bore no fruit. The kinds of gardeners these churches need are:

  • Gardeners with a virtue ethic that declares “being” is the beginning.
  • Gardeners with a “faith working through love” strategy that invigorates.
  • Gardeners who are happy to abide and thrive with calloused hands and knees in a rural or small garden.

Specifically instead of metaphorically, the clergy deployment needed for the small and rural churches begins with those who want to be there because of the trees. Serving the rural or small church is not for those wanting to serve because of the number of congregants, the location of community amenities, or the strength of the budget and compensation package. The measure of outcome for these pastoral leader/gardeners will not be dollars earned or distributed but in the satisfaction of lives transformed and fruit born from being in Christ.

This is not advocating for the return of haystacks. But it is a call to stop the exploitation of haystacks as training ground for those climbing to better locations. It is a plea to imagine a clergy deployment model that is not dependent upon a non-rural population density coupled with moderate or higher median household income that are the prerequisites to sustain a today’s compensated professional clergy.  It is a plea to consider a model akin to the circuit rider who came quarterly not to be the leader but to guide and encourage the gardener and congregation to bear the fruit that comes from abiding in Christ.

Hand-pitched stack, square bale or round bale…if it is not hay, the size or shape does not matter.  Likewise for congregation, being in Christ is the authenticator:

“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;  (there is no longer rural or urban, there is no longer poor or wealthy) for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.                                                       Galatians 3:26-28 NRSV

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