I pastor a living, dying, rural congregation.
In the world of church work, people often label these parishes as “hopeless” situations. You rarely hear them discussed in seminaries, and pastors aren’t eager to serve them because they are “old” and “set in their ways.”
This congregation called me at a moment in my life that seemed especially counter intuitive. It had no children’s programs, and I have four young, energetic kids. Cornfields surround it in every direction, while my training was in urban and suburban church growth. It had no technology when nearly every pastor had just gotten a pandemic crash course in using Zoom to foster virtual church life. In one of our buildings, it’s difficult for me to get cell phone service, let alone GPS. Most folks in the congregation don’t use email, YouTube, or Facebook. Altogether, there are two dozen households, and on a “good’ day” we have 20 in worship.
There was a surprising frankness about them when we first met. They do not deny being in their final years. They were honest about their age as individuals and as a congregation. Many of our most vibrant folks are serving in their 80s and 90s. You would think by their level of energy and determination that they are much younger. This year, they are making school supply kits, gathering monthly collections of food and money for the community pantry, baking pies for community fundraisers, taking treats to shut-ins and nursing facilities, delivering Meals on Wheels, and volunteering at the Church Women United thrift store. Next year, as a way to celebrate 150 years of service to farm families in the area, they plan to enter a float in the town parade They held a dinner this summer to mark the same occasion, and friends from far and near filled the building.
They are dying, yet they are very much alive, and their vibrancy has taught me something about hope. When we lament that we don’t have enough resources, or we are afraid our small efforts are meaningless, these church members remind me that we CAN make a difference wherever we are and with whatever we have.
The rural church is a symbol of the rural landscape itself, especially following the 1980s farm crisis. Other artifacts from that time include empty storefronts, closed and consolidated schools, and so many abandoned farm buildings succumbing to the elements. Children grew up and left to get jobs in the cities. Many of their parents commute long-distance and juggle outside jobs along with farming or have rented out their fields and moved to town. There can be a sense of hopelessness and desolation when driving into a rural town–that is, if the highway hasn’t moved to bypass the town entirely. Even here, however, I have hope that a new chapter is soon to written in these rural landscapes. High-speed internet, the inflated cost of living in cities, and the renewed interest in sustainable farming may signal a return to the land for many families. It’s not guaranteed, and it will certainly look different than the past, but I find the possibilities intriguing.
So, let us be clear: this church’s ending is not a failure. Rather, it is the fulfillment and completion of their mission. Church founders built the congregation to serve farm families in the area when cars did not exist. People arrived on foot or by horse–just like the preacher who rode on a circuit. Now, a century and a half later, that mission is nearly complete.
As a pastor and community organizer, I’ve had other projects that were active for a season and then waned. Some may have seen these as failures, but I see them as having met a need at a particular point in time.
This is not unlike how the traditions of a family wax and wane over time. We may upsize and downsize family homes according to our changing needs or shift the location of holiday gatherings to a different relative’s home. Our families, too, adapt and change with each new generation.
An outsider might ask, “Why not just close this church or merge it with another in the next town? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?” And yet this congregation is still an extended family, ministering to each other in a way that closely resembles the house churches of the early Christian movement. They celebrate weddings and holidays, provide food to the hungry, serve meals when someone has died, farm each other’s fields in times of injury or illness.
Their original mission was to minister to farm families in the area. That mission is reaching its fulfillment. They are dying well, the way most of us would want to die—able to be active until the end while surrounded by loved ones.
Dying well. Ending well. Well done, good and faithful servants!
I pastor a dying, living, rural congregation.
Rev. Le Anne Clausen de Montes (she/hers) is a pastor, hospital chaplain, writer, composer and community organizer based in North Iowa. She has served congregations in the PCUSA, UCC, ELCA, and UMC, primarily in transitional ministry in small-town and rural settings. Prior to seminary, she spent five years in international human rights and peacemaking work in Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. She serves as a Ministry Advocate for Accessibility, Equality, Inclusion and Welcome and is currently creating the Center for Faith and Peacemaking.