Ministry Where There Is No Starbucks – or even a McDonald’s

Remember Lemmon, S.D.?Schaghticoke

Kathleen Norris wrote about Lemmon in her 1993 memoir Dakota.  I remember reading that McDonald’s wouldn’t even open a store in Lemmon. (The closest McDonald’s 20+ years later is still an hour and a half away.)

These days, Lemmon is better known for being the real location of the grizzly bear attack featured in Revenant.  A grizzly bear.  The one who tried to kill Leo DiCaprio.

According to the statistical reports in my denomination, the PCUSA church in Lemmon, SD has about 40 in worship and is yoked with another church, both being served by a temporary supply pastor from another denomination.  This is rather typical for many of our rural congregations – and even for some of our suburban and urban congregations.

Last week, this article sparked my fancy.  I’ve been reading articles about the populations shifts from rural America to urban America.  People increasingly live in cities now and many rural towns are dying and I won’t go into all the reasons for this, but you probably have a good idea.

My first parish out of seminary was in a village of less than 700.  The closest grocery store was ten miles away, although there were two small convenience stores along Main Street.  It was lonely for a 20-something single clergywoman.

Most seminary graduates want to live in or near cities. Most seasoned pastors want to live in cities or close by suburbs.  It makes total sense.   It’s easier to make friends, find work for their spouses, date if you don’t have a spouse.  Life feels less like it’s happening in a goldfish bowl.

So what will happen to our rural congregations in the next generation?  Can tiny towns with few jobs and dwindling – or non-existent – endowments afford a professional pastor?  Will pastors choose to serve in rural areas if it means that their lives will be limited in terms of opportunities for their families?

Yes, our churches can also be served by lay people in some denominations and by ruling elders (who are not lay people) in my denomination.  Maybe we will return to circuit riders.

But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  How many of you – gentle readers – are pastors of rural congregations?  How many of you are members of rural congregations?  How many of you have even been to a rural congregation?

Those in the smallest communities in our land obviously need and deserve spiritual community.  What will that look like in 2020 and beyond?

Image of “downtown” Schaghticoke, NY where I first served in professional ministry after seminary.

6 responses to “Ministry Where There Is No Starbucks – or even a McDonald’s

  1. Being a pastor in a rural community this brings up some interesting thoughts and asks some good questions. I’m going to have to think about his a lot more. Maybe I’ll blog about it.


  2. I’m a Teaching Elder in a rural area (McDonald’s but no Starbucks). Due to family constraints, I haven’t really sought a call here. But I have developed my own circuit, of a sort. I fill in for people (ministers and commissioned ruling elders) who are on vacation. Right now, I’m filling in after the departure of a CRE, while they are figuring out what to do next. I’ve missed only two Sundays so far this year, both by my own choice. After 7 years, I’ve gotten to know lots of congregations this way.

    Making Sunday morning happen is the easiest part. What suffers is pastoral care, any kind of leadership in a new direction (elders are really good about stepping up to take care of things, but they are most likely to maintain status quo rather than trying something new), connection to the Presbytery (as the pastor is the person most likely to maintain that connection). I try to make sermons educational, since there usually isn’t a formal Christian Education program of any sort.

    I’d also love to think and talk about this some more…some of the churches I tend to are actually quite well of in terms of money, because of the oil boom, but others are struggling in all ways.


  3. My previous two calls were rural parishes. I served them part-time, out of financial necessity for them, and the lack of necessity on my part (my clergy husband provided almost enough). The need for church community is strong in the country, where there are very few gathering places, especially if you don’t have kids in school. In Texas, I drove 57 miles one way to get to my church. The key to making it work, I think, is flexibility and creativity – things that come naturally to those in rural communities. If pastors and governing bodies help this, all will be well…


  4. I did most of my growing up in an agriculture based town of under 3,000 people. This was an hour north of Sacramento. I know how to live in a small town. I suspect that most candidates come from suburban and large church settings and that they would be afraid of serving one or more small churches in a rural setting. It would be like going to some mission field abroad and having to learn a new culture. In seminary I did an internship as a youth pastor in a large church in Peoria IL. I felt no difficulty with an “urban/residential” culture, but some people might not consider Peoria urban. I think that reinforces the cultural differences and prejudices that exist. In the psychological/aptitudinal testing I was required to go through for our denomination (United Presbyterian) the summary (written by someone from the San Francisco Bay Area) contained the sentence, “Dennis is something of a country bumpkin.” More prejudice! I was raised by parents who grew up in Syracuse and Los Angeles. I myself lived in Orange County CA till I was twelve and, after that, I regularly visited relatives in Southern California. But perception accounts for a lot of what happens, even in the church.


  5. Cheyanna Losey

    I am nine and half years into my first call in a rural congregation in an agriculturally rich area. The town sign says we have 800 people. I did not grow up in rural areas and know next to nothing about agriculture. I know a whole lot more than I did nine years ago, but still next to nothing. I have discovered in my time here many clergy of any denomination do not stick around for more than a few years. We have what is lovingly referred to as a driving culture. The nearest grocery store is over twenty miles away. Though it was not always this way, there was a time when three grocery stores could be found on the main street.

    Those of us who do stick around have a clear sense of call to serving in this kind of setting and we fall in love with this kind of call. I love the opportunity to develop relationships with generations of families. I love learning from the adults who have learned to be the Body of Christ in this place even when the place keeps shrinking. I love how being in a rural church means my whole family is loved. I love how the congregations in the community are referred to as the whole community’s congregations, even when we hold our membership in one congregation or no congregation. I love how at a visitation at the funeral home hundreds of people will walk through the doors to console a family, and each other with hugs, stories of the deceased, laughter, and tears. I love how coffee is always available and conversations flow easily covering decades of history. I love how my children are being raised to view marriage as a long game, a lifetime commitment because they are surrounded by partners who have been married/together for 40, 50, 60, and even 70 years. I love all of this and so much more.

    Rural ministry is not without its challenges, the list can be long, the work is hard, there is never a real day off unless you leave town and shut off your phone. There are challenges to raising a family in a school district that continues to shrink, or where employment opportunities for your spouse are limited. There are challenges to leading in a system that knows how to sustain itself without pastoral leadership. However, if a pastor goes into the community committed to learning how to live faithfully from those who have lived a whole lot longer than they have, and that pastor is willing to work as a partner with the congregation, the congregation will follow where that pastor leads because trust has been established.

    Maybe that is what it all boils down to, a pastor being willing to build trust with the congregation and community. There will be challenges in any type of call, but in a rural call once trust has been built, as long as it continues to be nurtured, spiritual growth happens and the congregation, community, and pastor are changed for the better. That trust does not come after a year or two, it is like those marriages we witness, part of a long game, one that requires loyalty and steadfast commitment over years, there is no quick fix or instant gratification to be found.

    I wonder how that will continue to change as these rural areas continue to get smaller. I wonder how much about connection to each other and to the land will be lost if we no longer have rural communities.

    Thank you for the question and the chance to reflect.


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