Lessons From a Rural Parish

Lessons From a Rural Parish

by Matthew O. Staneck

I visited Wyoming in September 2015 with a group of pastors from New York. This visit was the second of a series of meetings between pastors from the Wyoming and Atlantic districts. The week consisted mostly of nitty gritty meetings in small groups with the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and in some cases even the Synod handbook (I recognize the irony of this grouping). We were earnestly trying to listen to each other and come to an understanding regarding our differences. Ministry in Wyoming and New York can be very different and beyond the day-to-day differences there were serious enough theological differences that warranted us getting together to pilot a new program the synod was spearheading. The visit to Wyoming was eye opening in a lot of ways—just as I’m sure the visit the spring 2014 visit to New York for the Wyoming group was eye opening. 

There were scheduled excursions to break up the monotony of the meetings. One was a hike, another was a visit to a shooting range, and the one I went on was the tour of a tri-parish that took us back and forth across three state lines: Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. At one point during this trip we even stood at the place where these three states meet. For a guy who has lived his whole life in a region known as “the tri-state area” (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) this was indeed eye opening. A tri-parish itself is a set of three congregations served by the same pastor. This is common in rural areas and is even becoming more common these days in other areas as individual congregations become unable to provide for a pastor. All three congregations had challenges that you may be able to predict: they were all aging and shrinking.

There were two things in particular that stood out to me about these places. The first was the generosity of the people. They were filled with pride that pastors from New York City were visiting their churches and so they put out their best spreads of food and silverware, they made their best pots of coffee, and they baked their finest desserts. The second thing that struck me was that as we listened to them talk about their congregations there was a heavy hopelessness that hung on their every word. Sure, they had hope in Jesus for their souls and they were confident in that. But they had very little hope at all for their churches. Their towns were depressed, their farmers were losing their farms, their people were dying, and those left behind were in a sort of post-rapture existence. Everyone and everything they had ever loved and known were gone and they were left to sort out the pieces. 

The last congregation we visited was distinctly memorable. The location was the most desolate, especially in contrast to the state it was in; Colorado. When a New Yorker thinks of Colorado he thinks of Denver and the Rocky Mountains, but out there at Zion in Grover it was nothing but fields and the air—and the wind turbines. The wind turbines, though an attempt at reviving the area, were a point of pain for the locals. Not only had they lost their farms and their people, but they were now losing their view. The scenery that could have been the backdrop for so many great American novels was littered with giant blades on sticks. There wasn't a place to which you could walk, run, or drive to get away from the eyesore. You were just stuck with it.

I think about this trip to Wyoming from time to time and I always end up thinking about this tri-parish and especially Zion Grover. The church is a typical rural building with an appropriately sized sanctuary and a similarly sized parish hall beneath it. A medium sized brown door serves as both the entrance and the exit: an entrance into the narthex and the mysteries of God and an exit to the mysteries of creation. While we were there it was impossible to not think of all the people who have entered those doors for Sunday services, for Sunday School, for wedding ceremonies, for baptisms, and for first communions and confirmations. The reasons were limitless in a place that seemed so limited. Then, a short walk from the gravel parking lot was an unassuming graveyard. When we saw the cemetery the heaviness of the place really hit us. We imagined all the people who had exited that brown door in a brown casket and were ushered faithfully by their loved ones to their resting places. Most of the gravestones were old, and most of the people lying underneath had lived long lives. But there was one grave for a young child that stopped me in my tracks. I still don’t know exactly why the visit to those graves has stayed with me the way it did, but perhaps it simply occurred to me that life out there in rural Colorado wasn’t all that different from the life our people experienced in the city.

The people left behind at Zion were really ministering to one another, even though their example will never take center stage at a church conference or church-wide convention. This simple act of service to one another—to look after one another until the end comes—feels like a Life Together script come to life. [1] This kind of ministry reminded me of the parish sexton. In parish ministry today a sexton has become a glorified guardian of the church keys, but historically a parish sexton took care of the entirety of the church grounds, especially and including the graveyard. These parishioners out there beneath the sky and wind turbines were guardians of the church—they were an entire parish of sextons.

We need congregations like this to teach us and yet we are losing congregations like this. There’s a wisdom ensconced in the walls of these places that is similar to the wisdom of the greatest generation. We have to sit at the feet of these people before they are taken from us—before they exit the brown door one last time and take their rest beneath the stars which are as numerous as Abraham’s descendants. And what is the lesson that they have for us? Life is worth it. Life can be hard, life can be cruel, but life is worth it. And parish life is worth it. The success of life is not measured in the number of accomplishments but in caring for each other. This is especially true about the local parish. These places and people teach us to care for each other in a world that carelessly discards people and places. We can learn from these folks that the parish is a place of and for the community. We can learn that ministry in a community is essential to that community’s wellbeing.

Places like this are a gift—a gift from Christ himself. Christians are not in the habit of rejecting God’s gifts; not from the altar, not from the font, and not even those hidden in the walls of left behind congregations. The gifts of the altar and the font reveal what is behind the veil, beyond the wall. Beneath the sea of stars and skyscrapers we all rest in the grace of Christ despite our apparent and palpable differences. And yet the love of Jesus which flows from his font and altar bend us all towards the face of God. On Sunday we all enter the same door—the same gates—inside the house of God. On every Sunday and all the days between we see each other in, we see each other out, and we see each other through this life in Christ. Then, on the last day we will all rise from the gates of our graves and the once empty fields will clap their hands in abundance. 

[1] Referring to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

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