The Road Ahead: An Update On The DRN Journey
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”
Eighteen months ago Dirt Roads Network was just a dream. I could not have imagined how quickly things would grow. Today we stand on the cusp of launching a national rural ministry.
The DRN journey began on Thanksgiving Day 2017 when Andrew Hurlburt sent me a Facebook message from a deer stand in North Carolina. That day we both knew God was calling him and his wife Kara to move to Kansas and join Lamont Wesleyan Church and Dirt Roads Network. God has blessed that move in many ways. Even though the Hurlburts have been here less than a year, it feels like they have always been a part of us.
It was during this time that I was participating in the Exponential learning community. Through the Exponential community, I was exposed to some of the nation’s top Christian thinkers and developed relationships with pastors around the country. In all of this, I always focused on the needs of the rural church. I discovered that while most people said they valued rural ministry, there was actually very little research or resources available for rural pastors and leaders.
As God sharpened the Dirt Roads Network vision, I began to receive invitations to speak at various events. (See my travel summary article in this newsletter.) Every time I speak to rural pastors and churches there is a strong sense of God’s presence. This is a move of God, and we are privileged to be a part of it.
God has also given us favor with national and regional leaders within the Wesleyan Church and beyond. I was invited to join a team of pastors who represent different kinds of zip codes within the Wesleyan Church. In this capacity I have had the opportunity to speak to the General Board of the Wesleyan Church about our vision. I have received the full support of our General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt. He has expressed his desire for rural Wesleyan churches to be a part of the movement God is doing in the denomination.
I believe that our message about the need for churches to move from a “lake” concept to a “river” concept is a prophetic word from God to the denomination. The Holy Spirit has confirmed the message in a strong way every time I have presented it. Our relationship with The Wesleyan Church is continuing to become more defined. Our general superintendent fully supports the mission of DRN. Our hope is to partner with several districts over the next few years.
We have also worked with organizations outside of the denomination. This includes a rural youth ministry called Crossroads Farm, the Billy Graham Center’s Rural Matters Institute, a few United Methodist districts and several para-church organizations.
An exciting door has opened with Rural Matters Institute. I have been invited by Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, to join the Lausanne Leaders Strategy Group. This is a group of around 20 rural leaders who will help shape Rural Matters Institute. This is a real honor.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the need for effective rural ministry across the country is far greater than we realized. Rural America has become a mission field. Rural pastors are lonely, tired and discouraged. There are very few places they can go for real help. Sadly, many times they feel as if they are second-class pastors. This feeling is felt even deeper by co-vocational pastors.
God is clearly calling us to do something far greater than we originally envisioned. He has given us a clear message of hope for rural pastors and given us favor in places we could not have imagined. I believe God is calling Dirt Roads Network to take some giant steps to help accomplish the vision of transforming rural America.
The vision will always start in Lamont. God has called Lamont Wesleyan to be a river church and a home base for this movement. Currently, three ventures are in the works at Lamont. Embrace Church will launch Sunday morning services in Emporia in August. David and Shaunna Sturgeon are starting a home-church planting movement in Iola and the southeast Kansas region. Additionally, Pastor Andrew Hurlburt and I are preparing for our residency program.
Nationally, I am going to focus on several objectives as DRN steps forward in faith. In order to sharpen my focus, I will be handing off my duties as assistant district superintendent of the Kansas District of The Wesleyan Church this summer. I will hand more of the responsibility of leading LWC to Pastor Andrew and Pastor Kara for the summer as well. My focus will be solely on DRN for the next several months.
Objectives I will be focusing on include:
1) Starting a podcast to coach and connect rural pastors: Our desire is to start a monthly podcast this summer. This podcast will become the front porch for DRN. As the podcasts are established, we will also offer monthly video conference calls for rural leaders. We envision 8-12 pastors spending an hour on a video conference call connecting and diving deeper into that month’s podcast topics. The goal would be to sharpen skills and create community. Doing a monthly podcast with video conference calls to support them will allow us to address a wide variety of issues that rural leaders face. We believe this approach will offer tools, give action steps and create momentum for our rural pastors.
2) Seminars, conferences and retreats: Not only are rural pastors lonely, they need information and tools that will help them right where they are. Many rural pastors have told me that they are invisible when they go to conferences or district events. Not only is the information shared not geared for them, their concerns and perspective are often not valued.
DRN is going to address this in three ways. First, we are going to provide districts and other organizations the ability to offer a rural ministry track at events they already host. In some cases, it may be as simple as me speaking at the event and then doing a couple of workshops.
Secondly, we are going to offer shoulder events when there are large rural conferences taking place. In many ways this is like offering a rural track at an existing event, except a shoulder event is held in addition to an existing event. For example, over the next year Rural Matters Institute will be holding a number of regional meetings for rural pastors. If possible, we will gather pastors the day before these events for DRN training and meetings. In the fall of 2020 Rural Matters Institute will host a national convention in Dallas. I would like to offer a shoulder event the day before the conference. Generally, the shoulder events will be closely related to The Wesleyan Church. My dream would be for over 300 Wesleyan pastors to gather for the shoulder event in 2020.
Thirdly, we are going to experiment with stand-alone events. We are planning a one-day conference in Nebraska this fall. The Wesleyan Church is also working with us on the possibility of a virtual conference. The virtual conference would be produced in a studio setting. Groups of rural leaders would then host remote sites around the country. This would bring rural pastors together for training and fellowship in a cost-effective way.
3) Writing a book about LWC and DRN: Everywhere I go I am asked if I have written a book about our journey. I am convinced that I should. The book would include the history of our time at LWC, the story of our shift to a river church and my basic philosophy of rural ministry. Once the book is written, we would start working on two training manuals—one for rural planting and one for church revitalization.
Action steps. How can we make this happen?
In May I will have the honor of sharing the DRN story and some of our vision with all of the district superintendents in The Wesleyan Church. Our general superintendent has invited me to join the monthly video conference calls that he has with the district superintendents. I will share our desire to help districts minister to their rural pastors by offering rural training at their events. I will also open the door to DRN partnering long-term with districts through our podcasts and video conferencing. I am hoping that we will start coaching a number of rural pastors in several Wesleyan districts.
Secondly, I have assembled a group of pastors from around the country who have a heart for rural ministry. We are going to gather for a few days to refine the vision of DRN and take the steps needed to accomplish that vision. This group of pastors have a wide variety of rural experience. Some are planters, while others have revitalized rural churches. They come from eight different states and each one was brought into my life by God in a specific way. I believe this group will launch the national wing of DRN.
Thirdly, as I mentioned, I am relinquishing as much responsibility as I can in order to spend the next few months focusing exclusively on writing a book and planning content for our seminars and conference opportunities.
A Final Word
I want to emphasize, that this whole Dirt Roads Network journey can only be described as a movement of God. I did not set out to start a national rural ministry. I have simply followed God one step at a time. I am thrilled at what he is doing. Rural pastors and planters are my heroes. They are missionaries bringing light and hope to dark and discouraged areas. I am blessed to be a part of what God is doing through them.
Twenty years ago I began ending our services with Ephesians 3:20 TLB. May this verse be true of all of us as we serve Him.
“Now glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of—infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes.”