How Community Engagement Resurrected a Dying Rural Church

March 3, 2018

by Laura Beach Byrch and Matt Gundlach  

A decade ago, Blackburn's Chapel UMC in rural Todd, NC, was down to 4 or 5 members in average worship attendance. But through bold decisions to creatively engage the community and try new ways of being in ministry, new life began to emerge. Although most of those remaining 4-5 members have now gone on to glory, today Blackburn's Chapel is a vibrant community anchor, worshiping 30-40 on a Sunday, and are known as being a trusted and reliable group of people who care deeply about their community and its flourishing. Blackburn's Chapel has evolved into a unique arrangement over the last several years, now having incorporated a non-profit community development organization, Blackburn Community Outreach (BCO), under the church's umbrella. The non-profit's work includes the Blackburn House, a year-long residential volunteer program for young adults, and Beatitude Gardens, a unique community garden that is transforming Blackburn’s land into thriving foodscape. Despite their uniqueness, the pastor and lay leadership of Blackburn's Chapel have gotten to where they are today using leadership practices and skills that are available to leaders in any context. Four practices stand out as having been particularly important to the transformation that has taken place in Blackburn's Chapel and its community of Todd, NC:
1) Presence: Show Up and Pitch In  
Early on in their efforts toward community engagement, Blackburn’s leaders committed to being present amongst what was already happening in Todd, and where there were already signs of community. They committed to showing up, being present, receiving hospitality, and serving existing institutions reliably. This meant going up to Ruritan meetings and BBQ fundraisers, volunteering at public concerts in the park, and going to square dances and potlucks at the Todd Mercantile. And while showing up might not seem like much of a leadership practice, giving your time to something that "you don't have to do” can take discipline. More importantly, showing up says that you are invested in the community and are willing to see what, and who, are already here before imposing your mission on a community. Having the discipline to first be a presence as a listener and a support--not taking the mic or taking over, but helping with the most menial tasks—is an important practice for mission-driven leadership. This practice set the stage for what has emerged out of Blackburns’ Chapel in recent years.
2) Listening to the Community
Through the practice of presence, Blackburn's Chapel and BCO’s leaders practiced listening in an informal way. Taking what they learned, they collaborated with other Todd stakeholders to create more structured, formal listening through the Todd Listening Project. Collaborating with a cross-section of Todd residents, they crafted a questionnaire designed to draw out the gifts and assets of Todd and its residents, as well as its challenges and needs. Volunteers were trained to conduct interviews and record responses, and in listening to those voices, common themes were identified. By taking the initiative to listen to the community, in practical and intentional ways, Blackburn’s leaders could pursue missional projects based on the dreams, gifts, and challenges voiced by the community—and not by their own assumptions, nor simply by perceptions of “needs” or deficits in the community.
3) Cultivating Collaboration 
Although Blackburn's Chapel has grown significantly, they realize that they cannot accomplish all that they want to in the community without partnership and collaboration. The Todd Listening Project survey took shape through several hours of a cross-section of Todd community leaders shaping its language—a space for many voices to be heard sharpened the survey into one that was culturally appropriate as well as effective in gathering the best information. Out of the listening project, BCO created Todd's Table, a mobile market stand that was a direct response to the community's desire for a gathering space and place to purchase fresh food. You’ll find it open on Saturday mornings in Blackburn’s Chapel’s parking lot, and collaboration is key to its success. For example, a local homesteader grants land to Beatitude Gardens free of rent, where produce is grown to be sold at the stand, and in turn, Todd’s Table offers space for that homesteader to sell her eggs, honey, and other farm goods. Whatever veggies aren’t sold on Saturday are distributed to local families through a collaborative food distribution by local churches. Local residents can also donate cash to build up the Todd’s Table "credit"—a pool that anyone can access if they are short on cash—up to $20 a week—which is also a way of honoring a tradition from the old (now closed) Todd General Store. Thus anyone is invited into collaboration in the process of cultivating it within these missional efforts.
4) Listening to the Land
When you walk into Blackburn’s Chapel, you will immediately notice the striking stained glass windows. When the church needed to replace the windows due to structural concerns in 2014, the stained glass company collaborated with, church member and artist, Martha Enzmann to create windows that feature native wildflowers, moving through the seasons from spring, through summer and fall, and even to the dead seed heads of winter. Being willing to listen to the story that these images told, the church was able to hear their own story of decline and rebirth, as well as the gospel story—being told by nature around them. 
By listening to the land, Martha was able to create images that honored the land and its story and invite others to do the same as they enter into worship. Beatitude Gardens took this process a step further, using the methods of permaculture design to turn the church into an edible landscape. Drawing from indigenous and traditional wisdom, permaculture seeks to create sustainable solutions by using the patterns found in nature; one observes the landscape first, rather than imposing ideas upon it. What emerged from that process is lawns torn out to create community orchards, food forests, rain gardens, and a contemplative trail featuring the native flowering plants depicted in the chapel windows. This trail creates a place of refuge for people for may never come to a church service, but find refuge in God in nature.
Because of these intentional practices, Blackburns’ Chapel has found new life and vitality as a place where “everyone is welcome” is not a marquee cliché, but a living reality.

*Note: It would be more accurate to say that the authors believe God resurrected the church, but the process of engaging the community was a way that God brought new life to the congregation.   
Leadership Development