We offer an invitation and challenge for ordinary leaders to shift from a mindset of scarcity and decline to a mindset of abundance and renewal. Easier said than done!
This shift requires a program of learning and training. Thankfully, we have an example in the rural prophet and teacher Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, the story of Jesus feeding the multitude (i.e. Mark 6) provides a pathway of practices that illustrates and demonstrates the way of abundant life in a rural region.
More about the practices:
The Practice of Retreat: It all started with a retreat. Retreats were part of Jesus’ rhythm and his example demonstrates the principle that renewed leaders renew communities. Since we live in the country, it’s easy for rural folks to assume we don’t need retreats. But “strategic withdrawal” is a critical practice for doing deep work, breaking imaginative gridlock, and receiving Christ’s restorative touch.
The Practice of Discernment: Their retreat was interrupted by the crowds and Jesus had to decide whether he was called to move toward or away from the crowds. The paradox of rural life is that we often embrace country life because of its separation from the world and its problems but we find the world’s problems follow us anyway. When we face these realities, we may, like Jesus, feel the pull of compassion and wonder how we are called to get involved. The practice of discernment helps us attend to the movements of our inner life and determine what work is ours and what is not.
The Practice of Stability: The disciples wanted to send the people away but Jesus called upon them to stay put and stay present, assuring them that the responsibility, resources, and relationships were all there and all theirs. Renewal requires that we commit to a place and people and not flee when we feel the spirit of scarcity or the spiritual temptation of acedia. Both “brain drain” and “brain gain” are dynamic factors for rural communities and rural leaders are called upon to cultivate skills in leadership transitions (often across generations) and rooted, local membership.
The Practice of Inventory: While the disciples focused on what was absent, Jesus invited them to take an inventory of what was present. We recover a spirit of abundance when we notice and name the gifts and assets around us. This involves a shift from a deficit-based approach to an asset-based approach to community renewal. It’s important for rural citizens to map their assets and celebrate their gifts instead of envying the resources of cities. Tools like the community capitals framework and appreciate inquiry help rural leaders learn this practice.
The Practice of Imagination: Jesus asked the disciples to bring the loaves to him and open themselves to the possibilities of God’s Spirit. Though change can be hard for rural communities, renewal requires a grieving of the old and an embrace of a new, negotiated future. Rural leaders are called upon to shed the narrative of nostalgia and practice prophetic imagination for what can be new and next for their resilient community.
The Practice of Organizing: Jesus instructed the disciples to organize the mass of people into smaller groups, thereby transforming a crowd into a community (or collection of communities). The work of renewal involves creating community by organizing groups and gatherings in which connections and associations are formed. Small towns often feel like tight-knit communities where people take care of each other-and they often are- but community is more than proximity and community organizers are needed to bring people together to create and change things they couldn’t on their own.
The Practice of Hospitality: Jesus performed the ritual and relational roles of a host in this story and modeled this role elsewhere through his practice of open table fellowship and the Eucharist. This “prophetic picnic” revealed the welcoming heart of God and the possibilities of restored and reconciled fellowship. Rural communities need to cultivate both “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. In this practice of hospitality, the stranger becomes a neighbor.
The Practice of Grounding: Jesus instructed the people to sit down in the “green grass.” This is more than a throwaway detail; there is something about reconnecting with the Earth and settling into the present moment and present place that helps us release our anxiety and see the abundance of God’s world. Rural folks are often naturally connected to creation through the outdoors and agriculture. But various cultural influences pull us away from these connections to the detriment of our health, happiness, and faith.
The Practice of Gratitude: Jesus lifted up the gathered gifts and gave thanks. The practice of gratitude awakens us to the grace and goodness around us, teaching us to see the abundance of beauty and love we couldn’t see before. Rural folks are often skilled at cherishing the small, simple gifts of life and they can build on this practice to change the prevailing story of scarcity and polarization in their community to one of abundance and connectedness.
The Practice of Generosity: Jesus was free to give the food away to the group without fear. And he was free to receive the food from the young child. New visions and ventures open to us when we live with open hands, ready to release or receive. Generosity of spirit and resources creates abundance and makes miracles possible, even in small towns and rural regions.
The Practice of Solidarity: The miracle was not only the abundance but the shared abundance. In this parable of shalom, everyone had more than enough and “all were satisfied.” Abundance can only be recovered if we practice solidarity across differences. Like good hosts, we are not happy until all are fed. Like good shepherds, we are not at peace until all 100 sheep are accounted for. One of the benefits of small town life is the intimate knowledge of our neighbors; we notice when people are absent. We can use this to gossip and divide or we can leverage that knowledge to promote personal empowerment and intentional inclusion.
The Practice of Memory: Jesus asked the disciples to collect the leftovers. Leftovers remind us of what we experienced at the last meal or party. Abundant life requires a good memory and markers that remind us of past miracles. Like the disciples in the next feeding story, it is easy to forget our past and get stuck in a scarcity story yet again. Small towns and rural regions need local historians and storytellers to remind them of past trials and triumphs that enable the community to “remember the future” and practice “right remembering.”
Want to go deeper? Schedule a workshop or teaching visit.
And watch for Andy’s book Recovering Abundance, scheduled to publish in 2021!