Welcome to the joint Rural Ministry Conference and the International Rural Churches Association’s Quadrennial Gathering to be held in Dubuque, Iowa. We are anticipating pastors and lay church leaders from five continents. Our theme is Flourishing: Land, People and Community. Because the two conferences overlap, there are some unique opportunities.

First, International Rural Churches Association’s Quadrennial Gathering runs through Wednesday April 19th. Rural Ministry participants are invited to join them for the last day and a half of their conference. There is a $85 charge for this and you would need to register for two additional nights of housing. Please indicate this on the registration form and include the amount in your payment.

Secondly, there is an option during the time of the Monday afternoon breakout sessions to take a tour of local groups addressing issues In unique ways – community gardens, adult training programs and sustainable forestry. There is an additional $10 charge for this tour and space is limited. If you like to go on the tour indicate on the registration form but do not send in the money. Also fill out your top three breakout sessions. Preference for the tours will go to international participants but if there is room, it will be given on a first registered basis.

The 41st Annual Rural Ministry Conference 2023

April 16-18, 2023
Best Western Hotel and Conference Center, Dubuque, Iowa

Theme: Flourishing: Land, People, and Community

This year’s conference will take place in conjunction with the 7th Quadrennial Gathering of the International Rural Churches Association (IRCA).  This will be a wonderful opportunity to meet and converse with siblings in Christ from around the world who are engaged in rural ministry.

Together we will explore God’s intent that God’s creation flourish—land (wild and domestic ecosystems), people, community—in the midst of global climate change and in the wake of global pandemic and all the other myriad of challenges the creation and rural people and communities face.  What does it mean to flourish, what does that look like, in the context of today’s realities?  How can we act in concert with God’s desire in this regard?

Leaders and Speakers

Keynote Speaker:Gil Waldkoenig has been professor of Church in Society and Director of the Town and Country Church Institute (TCCI) at United Lutheran Seminary and its predecessor school in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, since 1995. His book Symbiotic Community featured the work of Wartburg Seminary graduate Rev. Elwin W. Mueller who was Secretary of Town and Country Ministry for the National Lutheran Council in the mid-20th Century. Gil co-authored a book on multiple-church ministries and wrote many articles on topics ranging from rural and Appalachian ministries to ecological theology. Gil and spouse Amy have two adult children and belong to St. James Lutheran Church in Gettysburg. In 2017-2019, Gil served as Director for Evangelical Mission in the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod to complement his teaching in rural and Appalachian ministries.

Soundscapes of Grace in Creation and Ministry

The gospel we speak and enact in ministry echoes in God’s good creation. By means of grace given by Christ, we join God’s creative song, harmonizing with ecological communities of God’s making. But noise mars perception, inhibits listening, and confuses us. Noise is a huge problem for Lutherans and other Christians who believe that “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17).

Naturalists have recently been listening intently and recording soundscapes, racing before species depletion and habitat loss silence many voices. Soundscapes can teach us about sorting sound life from noise. Traditions of music and story also belong to soundscapes. Traditional music and storytelling foster listening and harmony in place. Some ecologists now recognize traditional music and story to be cultural environmentalism.

Our presenter aims to encourage those who preach, teach and sing the good news of Jesus Christ that the means of grace resonate in soundscapes of God’s creation. Despite noise and harm to God’s creation, God’s grace resounds with God’s good intent in all creation. There are biblical auditions of God’s persistent grace in place, and Lutheran theology of Christ’s presence in creation invites joyful listening. Our presenter will share his roots in Appalachian music and soundscapes, hoping to inspire you to sing and tell the gospel, and to listen for its resonance, in the places God has called you.

The presenter on SUNDAY NIGHT will describe soundscapes of grace and how ministry is embedded in creation. The presentation on MONDAY MORNING will describe resonance of gospel and soundscape in Appalachia as an example. In BREAKOUT SESSIONS, Gil will share Appalachian music to further illustrate what he introduced in the keynote talks, and to welcome conversation about listening, singing and telling the gospel in your own context.

Keynote Speaker: Dr Heather Major

Dr Major completed her PhD in Practical Theology, Rural Church and Mission with the University of Glasgow. She teaches biblical Hebrew and Old Testament for Highland Theological College, as well as working with Student Learning Development at the University of Glasgow. She is the in-coming chair of the International Rural Churches Association (IRCA), convenor of the Mission Research Network (MRN) with Churches Together in England and a member of the European Board of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS).

She is a passionate advocate for all forms of rural ministry and accessible theological education with a particular interest in teaching, training and equipping people through discipleship and mentoring.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-j-major/

Twitter: @HeatherJMajor1


Embodied, Contextual & Rural

Heather will be speaking about embodied, contextual approaches to mission and ministry in rural places, drawing on her PhD research and the lived realities of rural churches in Scotland and beyond.


42nd  Annual Rural Ministry Conference

Sunday, April 16, 2023

3:00 pm – Registration

5:45 pm – Introductions and Prayer

6:00 pm – Dinner

7:00 pm – Keynote – Rev. Dr. Gil Waldkoenig


Monday, April 17, 2023

9:00 am Welcome Opening Prayer Intro of Leader –Bible Study –

10:15 – Break

10:30-11:45 – Keynote – Rev. Dr. Gil Waldkoenig

12:00-1:00 –Lunch

1:30 – 5:00  Breakouts 

6:30 – 8:00 pm– Banquet

8:30 – 10:00  A Ceilidh


Tuesday, April 18, 2023

8:30-9:15 am–Bible Study

9:45 – Break

9:30 – General Session – Dr. Heather Major

11:00 am – Worship Service – International Participation

12:00 – Boxed Lunches and Farewell

Workshop Options

Craig Nessan

Dr. Craig L. Nessan is William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church, Academic Dean, and Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He holds degrees from Michigan State University, Wartburg Theological Seminary, and the University of Munich.  He serves as Co-Editor of the online journal, Currents in Theology and Mission (www.currentsjournal.org).  In addition to other articles, reviews, and books, Dr. Nessan has been active in generating a Life of Faith Initiative in the ELCA (www.lifeoffaith.info).


Congregations and Climate Change:

This workshop focuses on practical ways congregations can address climate change. We will explore steps that can be implemented in several areas: worship, education, organizational, green space, and energy practices. We will listen to what colleagues have seen and done in their contexts. How can congregations become models of ecojustice in their local communities? This breakout session is available only the first two times.

Anna Johnson has worked out of the Center for Rural Affairs’ Nevada, Iowa, office since 2016. After several years of managing the Center’s federal agricultural policy work, she now handles several projects related to the Center’s work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The best part of her job has and always will be getting to know the people who also care about the Center’s mission. Anna moved to Iowa in 2014 to pursue her master’s degree in sociology and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, and in her spare time, she likes to grow vegetables and native prairie plants.


More about the Center for Rural Affairs:

The Center for Rural Affairs stands up for small family farmers and ranchers, new business owners, and rural communities. For nearly 50 years, we have been the leading force engaging people to build a vibrant rural future. The Center’s mission is to establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and the future of their communities. Based in the small town of Lyons, Nebraska, the Center is proud to include additional staff living and working in rural Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Read more about what we do and why we do it at cfra.org.


Building a More Vibrant, Resilient, Just, and Joyful Rural Future:

The Center for Rural Affairs collaborates with rural communities to build a more vibrant, resilient, just, and joyful rural future. Anna will give examples of the Center’s work in three different areas: engaging people in advocacy efforts to create policy change; partnering with Native Communities to strengthen food systems and entrepreneurship; and creating more inclusive communities through leadership trainings and opportunities to bring people together across cultural divides.

Mark Swanson 

Mark Swanson is a Regional Director for Growing Hope Globally in the Upper Midwest and West Coast. Growing Hope Globally provides an opportunity for Christians to make a lasting impact on global hunger, linking the grassroots energy and commitment of rural communities in the U.S. with the capability and desire of smallholder farmers in developing countries.  Previously he was a pastor serving churches in South Dakota and most recently Washington state, where he helped organize a Growing Project with his congregation. Mark and his family live in Decorah, Iowa.

Rural Ministry, Global Impact

Rural churches might be best positioned to make an outsized impact when it comes to responding to global hunger and also benefit themselves while doing it. Join us for The Global Farmer Experience, a simulation based on the challenges facing farmers in developing countries. Find out not only how you will fare when faced with the kind of difficult decisions smallholder farmers must make every day, but also discover a model for how your rural congregation could make a lasting impact when it comes to global hunger that celebrates their rural identity and mission

Pastor Nicole Woodley

Originally from Newton Iowa, Nicole graduated from Simpson College with a degree in Biology and received her Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. Nicole’s ministry experiences include working in Iowa, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Minnesota, ranging from urban to rural and anything in between. After serving in many different places, she finds herself at home in Wright County Iowa, where her husband, Pastor Grant, was born and raised. Nicole and Grant are fourth-generation farmers, raising corn, soybeans, pigs, and a collection of “funny farm” animals on their acreage. After co-pastoring with Grant for 7 years, Nicole now serves as a Chaplain for Ewing Funeral Homes, and a mentor for other rural pastors in the “Moses Project” through Grand View University. Nicole loves being a wife, a biological and adoptive mom of five, a foster mom, a pastor, and a farmer. She loves to cook, clean, spend time with family outside, and ride her horse Dallas.

Think Like a Farmer: 

In this session, we will debunk some farm myths, explore the realities of farm life, the economic challenges and risks and also highlight how thinking like a farmer can benefit our congregations. In particular, we’ll focus on the difference between tradition and traditioned innovation; Why holding on to shared values is so important, and why we have to give up trying to reproduce the past. Change is risky and involves failure not only in ministry but in farming.



Ann Fritschel, Bible Study Leader

Emeritus Professor Ann Fritschel, a Wartburg Seminary graduate, celebrated her 30th anniversary of ordination in 2016 and served as President of the Midwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2012-13. After serving churches in Dickinson, Mohall and Hamerly N.D., she got her Ph.D from Emory University and joined the Wartburg Faculty in 1996. With a strong interest and passion in rural ministry, she served as the Director of the Center for Theology and Land. Ann has presented numerous workshops on the psalms, Islam and stewardship, as well as leading several synod assembly bible studies. She enjoys traveling (as long as people drive on the right side of the road), reading and needlepoint. She is a descendant of Gottfried Fritschel, one of the founders of Wartburg Seminary.

Registration Details

April 16-18

  • Early bird price $185 . Deadline: February 28, 2023
  • Standard (after Feb. 28) 1 person $200. Deadline March 30.
  • Workshops on Monday afternoon : Workshops and break period only –no meals $50
  • Hotel conference rate: $86 plus taxes per night. Deadline to receive conference rate is March 13. Call Best Western Plus Dubuque at (563) 557-8000 and ask for the WTS Rural Ministry Conference Rate.

Online registrations require payment by credit card. If you would prefer to pay by check, mail your check with “Rural Ministry Conference” in the memo line to: Wartburg Theological Seminary, Attn: Barbara Fritschel, 333 Wartburg Pl, Dubuque, IA 52003.

Questions? Contact Barbara Fritschel at IRCAwts2023@gmail.com.

Consider Becoming a Host Family for International Guests

We are expecting up to 100 participants from around the world during the weekend of April 16-18. Part of the experience is to visit rural areas in the host country to see and discuss similarities in rural life and ministry. This requires host families to share hospitality and offer educational sightseeing events to local farms and industries. Congregations may wish to see if they could provide more than one host family so there could be shared activities. Even if you do not attend the conference please feel free to host a family. If you know of others who may be interested in hosting a family, please send them this information.

Host family responsibilities:

  • Picking up their guest(s) from Dubuque IA by 1 pm on Saturday April 15
  • Returning them to Dubuque by 3 pm on Sunday April 16
  • Provide four meals: Sunday lunch, Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast.
  • Provide opportunities for sightseeing to local farms, agritourism spots and local attractions as well a meeting and visiting with farmers, church members and local pastors.
  • Provide housing for one night.
  • Take guest(s) to weekend worship.

Questions about serving as a host family? Contact Barb Fritschel at IRCAwts2023@gmail.com.