Small-town and rural churches often have been called the backbone of the United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Harold W. McSwain didn’t want anyone to forget it.
For 50 years, he played a pivotal role in the church’s rural ministry network and is being remembered by colleagues as a dedicated Christian minister, dreamer and activist with a global vision, affirmation for all persons and an “interest in getting the job done.”
“Dr. McSwain had the deepest of commitment to all things rural,” said the Rev. Owen Gorden, dean of the denomination’s Rural Chaplains Association. “He dedicated his powerful intellectual and organizational abilities to advancing the causes of the rural church and community.”
Dr. McSwain, who died June 17 in Columbus, Ohio, at the age of 87, had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in December 2007. His memorial service was held June 23 at Epworth United Methodist Church in Columbus.
He was not born into the rural life— his home church in Memphis had some 3,000 members. But, when he became a pastor in Tennessee, Dr. McSwain searched for ways to help churches in his annual conference minister together more effectively.
As a graduate student at Emory University, he was intrigued by the parish-staff model of ministry, or cooperative parish ministry, which related to the revitalization of small-member congregations.
“That just changed his focus and his life entirely,” said the Rev. Roger Grace, president of the United Methodist Rural Fellowship and a colleague and former student of Dr. McSwain’s.
After being hired in 1964 as the first full-time director of Hinton Rural Life Center, Dr. McSwain continued to expand on the parish-staff approach of linking small churches to existing administrative, service and religious structures. The center offered resources and training on the model, established volunteer and youth programs and provided facilities for religious retreats.
Hinton Rural Life Center also began to connect with the people of Appalachia, and Dr. McSwain helped form the Appalachian Development Committee, which coordinated United Methodist ministries across that region.
Sally Curtis AsKew, who, with her husband, Albert, worked with summer interns from the Hinton Center and became a part-time staff member there in 1972, called Dr. McSwain a “visionary” with big dreams about what rural and small-town churches could accomplish by working together.
“Harold constantly challenged anyone who worked with him to learn new things and expand their understanding of rural churches and communities,” she recalled.
He moved to Ohio in 1973, where he was professor of church administration for both Methodist Theological School in Delaware and United Theological Seminary in Dayton until his retirement in 1994. He also was director of the Center for Town and Rural Ministries, related to the denomination’s East Ohio and West Ohio conferences.
As the membership of churches in town and country settings continued to decline, Dr. McSwain wanted to make sure those congregations were not forgotten. He was always asking, Grace said, about how to “bring up the needs and concerns of all God’s people regardless of where they live. That was very important to him.”
When Gladys Campbell, a former church and community worker at Hinton Center, became executive secretary of the Office of Town and Country Ministries with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 1974, Dr. McSwain was an enthusiastic advocate and supporter.
“Harold was one of those who worked tirelessly to help establish the National Network on Town and Country Ministries that brought together leaders from across the church who worked with rural areas and cooperative ministries,” Ms. Campbell and colleagues Judy Matheny and James Chapman remembered in a statement.
The collaboration also resulted in the creation of the denomination’s Rural Chaplains Association in the 1980s. Since then more than 250 rural chaplains, both lay and clergy, have served around the world, particularly in Russia. Dr. McSwain served as dean of the association until 2008.
“His deep commitment both to rural ministry and to cooperative parish ministry were unexcelled over the past half century and continue to bear fruit,” said Thomas Kemper, the board’s top executive, in a statement.
“He lived and breathed rural ministry and the directors and staff of Global Ministries honor his work, celebrate his memory and join his family in a deep sense of loss.”
He is survived by Joyce, his wife of nearly 64 years; three children: the Rev. Harold (Hal) W. McSwain Jr., a United Church of Christ pastor in Ocala, Fla.; Kenneth W. McSwain of Columbus; and Mara M. Weed of Cheshire, Conn.; and three grandchildren.