By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 9, 2013
ATLANTA—Rural Catholic communities make up one in three parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese, giving the believers unique challenges, from few resources to long distances to travel for parish celebrations.
Leaders from 23 parishes shared ideas at a daylong conference on Thursday, April 25, in Atlanta designed to help church workers in rural communities to brainstorm, network, and learn new tips to overcome the difficulties.
“They have to see they are part of a bigger community, besides just their parish,” said Katie McMaster, of Columbus. She is a former associate director for Christian formation in the Diocese of Richmond, Va., and was a presenter at the conference.
Folks in the rural communities hours from Atlanta may never have seen the Cathedral of Christ the King or rarely attended a Mass celebrated by one of the bishops. Building connections across the Catholic community is key to binding people together, said conference speakers.
Events like this conference help to build relationships that can make archdiocesan and parish staffs feel connected and it is much easier to brainstorm about a concern if you know one another, said Cathy Marbury, of the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship.
Rural challenges can be unique from those of metro parishes, from training of volunteers to new models for religious education with mixed age groups. The conference also allowed the conference-goers to form a support network to bounce ideas off each other.
Deacon Rich Mickle, of St. Matthew Church, Winder, said his parish faces a challenge because students attend classes in four different school districts so the parish has to juggle events with multiple calendars in mind.
Another challenge is finding people with a vocation to serve as a catechist, he said.
Steve Dunlap attended with his wife, Anne. They drove from Clarkesville to represent St. Mark Church. The Dunlaps are involved in adult faith formation there.
They came away with ideas to share with the parish they heard from others, he said.
What is key is doing things in a different way that engages people, he said. Some places promote home Masses, where folks gather at a home, share a meal and celebrate the Eucharist, he said.
And many rural parishes have Hispanic communities and there are language and cultural barriers that separate the English-speaking from the Spanish-speaking, he said. It was good to hear a “good, honest response” from others dealing with this challenge, he said.
Parishes spread apart from one another can feel they are on their own to troubleshoot, instead of learning best practices from nearby communities.
“They are kind of operating by the seat of their pants,” presenter McMaster said. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
That’s why the archdiocesan office organized the conference, Marbury said. The office is committed to supporting and partnering with parishes to make things easier so that “they can be the welcoming face to the people who come to them,” she said.