The Rev. John Haugen leads a discussion among parishioners from the Emmaus Pastorate in Jan. 2018. Haugen recently attended a conference on rural ministry.

For the Rev. John Haugen of the Emmaus Pastorate, attending a conference on rural ministry in mid-November allowed him to connect with other priests from around the nation serving rural dioceses, while also examining the programs in his pastorate parishes.

Haugen was one of 19 priests from across the United States — and one of five from the Archdiocese of Dubuque — who attended the “Thriving in Rural Ministry” conference in Buffalo, Minn.

Haugen is pastor at St. Mark in Edgewood, St. Patrick in Colesburg, St. Mary in Strawberry Point, St. Joseph in Elkader and Sacred Heart in Volga.

Haugen said the conference provided spiritual refreshment for those attending, while discussing best practices and key challenges to rural ministry. Session topics included introducing leadership development with parishioners and insight into integral ecology and how it applies to rural communities.

Haugen said there was much diversity among the priests in attendance, as well as in their parish assignments. “Two priests were from Ghana, two from Nigeria, one from Vietnam, one from the Philippines and one from India. But we were all facing the same type of challenges.”

Among those challenges was the size of parish staffs. “No one had a very big staff,” Haugen explained. “Often that’s related to finances. But more importantly, it’s not about money but about vision and what we should be doing. I got the distinct impression in some places that it was about surviving and not thriving. Simply surviving has never been very attractive to me.”

He also was struck by the differences in assignments. “Rural does not always equal farming,” he said. “There were guys there from the Diocese of Tucson. They had a very rural area, but not necessarily an agricultural one in the same sense that we are.”

The conference was not one where those in attendance got their problems solved. “It was clearly about looking at challenges and asking how you get a vision, a direction. That’s where I felt confirmed and affirmed that the direction our pastorate is going is not only the right direction, but that we are probably ahead of the game.”

Haugen often reminds parishioners the Emmaus Pastorate covers an area of 450 square miles, includes 17 communities, five public school systems and a private school system. “I tell people that so they understand what an opportunity they have to make a difference, an impact in the local area.”

Much of the time at the conference was spent on two main areas; leadership development and evangelization. Haugen said Emmaus Pastorate councils have been working on leadership.

“We started spending less time on grunt lists and the bulk of our time on formation, that discussion of what our mission is and ways we are going to accomplish that mission. That direction must come from the people sitting around those tables.”

While acknowledging the need to help equip people to become leaders and evangelists, Haugen said there are often more opportunities to do this in a rural setting. “Relationships are already in place in a different way. If a family is going through a challenge, people help out. It’s intuitive. They don’t necessarily look at it as church or as evangelization, but it could be.”

Haugen recognizes change can often be difficult for rural congregations. “The biggest thing about change is my motto, ‘Don’t just go to church, be church.’ Being church is about relationships, it’s everyone leading, everyone spreading the gospel in your own way, in your own place with the people you may go with. It’s a way of life, not a checklist.”

Haugen said each parish within the pastorate can have its own niche. “Every parish doesn’t have to do everything. Some are better at some things than others. What are the things that are unique to this parish? My idea is not to make all five parishes uniform by any stretch of the imagination because each of our communities are different. But that uniqueness won’t get done without leadership development. That needs to come from all of us.”

He believes that uniqueness will help the parishes in the pastorate going forward. “They will still keep their identity, but even more importantly, they’ll have a future.”