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Finding ministers challenging for rural congregations

Don’t come to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Britton on Sunday morning for worship — you will be about a half-day late.

The church recently lost its full-time pastor, so the pastor of a joint parish in Andover and Ferney is leading services. There are not enough hours on Sunday morning to get to all the churches, so St. John’s is worshipping at 6 p.m. on Saturdays instead.

Alternating church times may remain into the future. They had a joint parish with Peace Lutheran in Hecla, but that country church is considering closing. St. John’s won’t close, but it is also struggling. The church has come to the diffi cult conclusion that it can no longer support a fulltime pastor.

“Ten years ago our average church attendance was in the 90s, and now it’s in the mid-40s and -50s,” explained Kent Zuehlke, council president at St. John’s. “In the meantime, wages have gone up, and costs for retirement plans and health benefits have increased.”

Zuehlke said that getting a seminary-trained pastor is a $70,000 expense for churches, which would require about 90 to 100 people in regular attendance. They don’t see numbers going in that direction.

“Our goal is to keep the door open as long as we possibly can, and we will find a way to do that,” Zuehlke said.

As mainline churches across America struggle with declining membership, rural churches often face an additional problem: The difficulty of calling and keeping a pastor. Cost is a significant concern, as health care costs and the amount of debt seminary graduates bring with them have both skyrocketed at the same time that membership numbers have declined. But making the math work is just part of the challenge.

Pastors now growing up in urban, suburban areas

In 1918, author Edwin L. Earp argued that it was important to develop good candidates for rural ministry, even though it might not seem necessary, since “the countryside is still furnishing about 85 percent of the ministerial leadership of the churches, including the cities and when many of the leading laymen were born and reared in the farm home or in the manse of the country parish.”

Today, the urban apartment or the “manse” of the suburbs might be more accurate descriptions of where pastors grow up, as the statistic has nearly exactly fl ipped. For example, between 80 and 85 percent of students going to Luther Seminary are from urban or suburban backgrounds, according to Alvin Luedke, professor of rural ministry at Luther.

But as the background of ministers has changed, the location of most churches has not changed much: 47 percent of churches that are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) are still in rural places, Luedke said.

The statistics for other mainline churches are similar, according to information from the National Congregations Study from 2009: Most congregations are small. The median congregation has only 75 regularly participating people and an annual budget of approximately $90,000. Ninety percent of all congregations have 350 or fewer people.

But this is only half the story. Even though there are relatively few large congregations with many members, sizable budgets and numerous staff, these large congregations contain most of the churchgoers. Even though the average congregation has only 75 regular participants and an annual budget of $90,000, the average person is in a congregation with 400 people and a budget of $280,000, according to a blog entry by Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study.

This means that somewhere around 60 percent of new pastors will have their fi rst call in a rural congregation — unfamiliar terrain for many of them.

“Many of them remember going to a farm or a small town to visit grandparents, but they’ve never actually lived there, and yet that’s the context that they are likely to be called to,” Luedke said.

‘Where in the world is South Dakota?’

For many of these new ministers, the idea of going to a rural place doesn’t generate excitement.

“It’s more of a reaction of reluctance and uncertainty,” said the Rev. Keith Zeh, Director for Evangelical Mission in Eastern N.D. and Northwestern Minn. Synods in the ELCA. “It would be an adventure for them, if they were an adventuresome person.”

And, apparently, not everyone is.

“I think it is more difficult to get pastors because of our ruralness,” said Kathy Buisker, office manager at First Presbyterian Church in Britton. The church has been without a pastor since May and is seeking a full-time replacement. “Some say, ‘Where in the world is South Dakota?’ ”

The Rev. John Erbele, pastor of Recharge Church in Streeter, N.D., said that there’s often a sense of a ladder to climb in the world of ministry, just as there is in the corporate world — the idea that “bigger is better.”

If so, then last year Erbele was fairly high on that ladder — he was pastor in a church of 2,000 when he and other family members decided to stop “living for the mortgage” and move to Streeter to be closer to family.

Erbele said pastoring a large church took a toll on him, and he realized that “God’s will is not always bigger and better.”

The seeds they’ve planted in Streeter may have started small, but they are growing quickly: Since launching in April 2012, Recharge Church has grown to 150 people. The church meets on Sunday evenings, as it intends to be an additional worship experience, not to “steal” members from other churches.

Buisker from First Presbyterian said another problem they face is whether the spouse can find employment in a rural community. Often, spouses have careers of their own they want to pursue, which can be difficult to make work in a small town.

Making sure the spouse feels at home and finds a purpose in the community is vital to successfully calling, and then keeping, a pastor, says the Rev. Tim Koch, who serves at Concordia Lutheran in Cresbard, and Immanuel Lutheran in Wecota, which are both part of the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod.

“I have an advantage in that I’m a pastor, so I am seen by the community and get to deal with a lot of people, even though it is a rural setting,” Koch said. “However, my wife is more likely to fall through the cracks.”

Bridging the cultural divide

The Rev. Tammy Craker serves Our Savior Lutheran in Faulkton.

“This is my first call as a pastor, and my family and I have loved becoming a part of the Faulkton community,” Craker said. “The whole town and surrounding area has been very welcoming and have accepted us as a part of the community. We are happy to be here.”

Luedke gives one lecture to students at Luther on the aspects of a rural call that are different from a call in an urban area. For example, he explains that students will be leaving a very academic, theory-heavy environment and going into an oral culture — a place where people relate to each other through storytelling. He also explains that when serving an aging population, success likely won’t be measured in increasing membership.

Another challenge is that for pastors to get a footing in the community, they need to take part in community life in a way they might not have to in an urban setting.

Koch had previously lived in St. Louis, where nearly every store or service was in close driving distance. When he moved to Cresbard, he learned that relying on neighbors is a necessary part of rural life.

“I’ve had to go to the neighbor’s to get lasagna noodles, because I was halfway done making lasagna and thought I had some and didn’t. That’s new,” he said. “It forces me to ask for help when before — you just go to the store and buy it.”

The Rev. Nancy Manning, who had a 37-year nursing career before going into ministry and now serves a three-point parish — United Methodist Church in Britton, Claremont, United Methodist and Hecla United Methodist — said she’s noticed that younger pastors don’t always see the importance of building these relationships outside of church activities.

“With younger pastors it does not seem that the focus is on visitation, getting to know each other face to face, which rural churches really thrive on,” Manning said.

Benefits of rural calls

The turnover rate at rural churches can be quite high — some rural churches have had to find a new pastor every two years, said Koch of Concordia Lutheran. Not all pastors settle well into rural life.

But there are always some that do.

Among the benefits of a rural call that pastors cited are the slower pace of life, the can-do attitude and the caring relationships among neighbors.

“In a rural congregation, members know every other member,” said the Rev. Tammy Craker of Our Savior Lutheran in Faulkton.

“There is a close connection to those around you, not only in your church, but in the community at large. If someone needs help, the rural community will do their best to help them out.”

Garness said he has gotten to know people in the community as well as in the parish.

“Going to festivals, parades and basketball games on a cold January night and being part of a community you are welcomed into, means a lot,” he said.

Koch said rural ministry also gives pastors the opportunity to do things that they couldn’t do in a suburban setting, such as see people at work — riding along in a combine, for example.

“The opportunity … to share with them the ministry of presence and the word of Christ at the same time they are doing their job, I think that is unique to rural ministry,” Koch said.

Koch would tell his seminary classmates hankering for urban placements that rural calls can be immensely satisfying with the right attitude.

“If you look at rural ministry like the gulags in Siberia, you will have a terrible time out here,” he said. “But if you look at it as a wonderful challenge, you will approach it with zeal and excitement, and when you are excited, the people are excited, and that’s a wonderful thing.”