Blessed are the Rural - A Meditation on the Blessings of Rural Ministry
The population of Cresbard, SD hovers between eighty and one hundred people when it’s not pheasant season. Cresbard has a bank, a post-office (open four hours a day), and a community center that offers food at inconsistent and unpredictable hours.
Cresbard has no school and what few children she has must ride two separate buses to get to school twenty-three miles away.
Cresbard has no gas station.
Cresbard has no grocery store.
Cresbard is forty-three miles from the closest stoplight.
Cresbard is forty-five miles from the closest Redbox.
Cresbard is 220 miles from the closest Sam’s Club or Costco or Barnes and Noble.
Cresbard does have a tavern…but it isn’t open. Anybody with the rare combination of work ethic and business acumen who is capable of making a living by running a restaurant in a small town like Cresbard can use that same work ethic and business acumen in a larger town and make a lot more money.
Cresbard also has two churches. There is a United Methodist Church and there is the congregation I serve, Concordia Lutheran Church.
Concordia Lutheran Church cannot sustain a pastor on her own. She’s too small. Thus, she forms one point of a dual-point parish. The other congregation, Immanuel Lutheran Church, is located eight miles to the west about a mile outside of Wecota—an unincorporated town whose sign boasts a population of nineteen people. But that sign was put up before I buried Elroy, Don, and Dale, and their widows moved elsewhere. Now the population is less than fifteen.
Both Cresbard and Wecota reside in Faulk County, population 2364 according to the 2010 Census. Of those 2364 people, over 400 of them are Hutterites.
Open fields, few businesses, scant people, and constant wind. This is the place where God has called me to shepherd His people…and in this place, the Lord has taught me a thing or two about Himself.
When I first received my call to Cresbard and Wecota from the seminary, I didn’t suffer from a bout of depression. I didn’t think that these people living in this remote location were beneath me. I was genuinely excited to serve them. I did not suffer from the superiority complex that is masterfully detailed and confessed by Richard Lischer in his memoir Open Secrets. I was naïve though, and I remember looking at the demographics and saying to myself, “Are there even enough people living here for Satan to waste his time?” The short and simple answer is “Yes.” Satan, that prowling lion, is a frequent visitor of Cresbard and Wecota.
Rural ministry is an odd duck. It has a lot of unique challenges, and chief among them is the lack of people. Almost every other challenge associated with rural ministry can be traced back to this simple fact.
Evangelism. Even rural congregations want to grow. But to whom will the Word of God be sent? Faulk County SD only has 2364 people to work with. Four hundred of them are Anabaptists living in colonies, and of the remaining 1900 people, over half of them live 15+ miles away. Additionally, most of the people living here have strong family ties to this area and already have a church home…even if they only infrequently attend.
Reconciliation. If two people or families get into a dispute, you can’t just ignore them and fill their vacant pews with some new couple or family. There is no new family to choose from. You can’t just ignore the bitterness and anger and pain…it has to be addressed…or else you lose them forever. If I compiled a list of people who formerly worshiped at one of my congregations but don’t anymore because of some grudge or old offense by a previous pastor or congregational member…it would be a list that rivals my membership rolls in length. It’s sad. Reconciliation can’t be ignored or brushed aside, your neighbors are too close and too few to replace them with someone else.
Self-Esteem. Rural congregations have low self-esteem. If they lose their pastor and need to call a new one, their first thought is, “Who would ever be willing to come out here to serve us?” And on those occasions when the man of God arrives, the next question is “How long will he stay?” They openly wonder ‘Will Pastor’s wife want to stay more than the obligatory three-years a pastor must serve before the DP releases his name for call lists?”
Why are rural congregations predisposed to thinking in this way? Because there are so few people, and life's typical opportunities are very limited. The choir is small—if they have one. The youth group is sparse—if they have one. The extracurricular opportunities for children are few and far between. The opportunities for a wife to find gainful employment are thin, and if the Pastor is a single fellow, the opportunity for him to find a wife is thinner yet. A social life is almost non-existent. I’ve already told you the school is really far away, and I’ll add that the doctors are even farther yet.
There is also the problem of the high turnover rate. Rural congregations typically call a guy from the seminary (it’s how I got here), because their limited numbers preclude them from paying an experienced man from the field (and why would he come out here anyway?). It’s common for the new pastor to put in his three years and then take the first call he gets to a larger congregation closer to a Wal-Mart, thus confirming their suspicion that nobody wants to serve them.
Rural folks are the proudest and most industrious people I know…but they have terribly low self-esteem.
Finances. Fewer people means fewer dollars. Fewer dollars means lower pay and a reticence to drop any money on a new projector for the SS classroom (if they can find SS teachers to teach). Good luck raising the funds to go to the National Youth Gathering, or Higher Things, and good luck having a youth group with enough kids to justify the trip. It’s just more challenging.
In the midst of all these challenges, you have real people with real sins who need real forgiveness from the real Jesus Christ. In this sense, the pastoral task isn’t any different here. These people need a pastor who loves them and cares for them. They need someone to visit them in the hospital, they need someone to preach to them the pure Word of God. They need a competent pastor to lead them through Bible Study and visit them in their homes or at work.
The past five and a half years have caused me to reflect on rural ministry and all its challenges. Those reflections always take me back to the same Bible passage: 1 Corinthians 1:19…which is a citation of Isaiah 29:14. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Living in Cresbard, SD I have noticed something. Nobody invests here. There is a reason why the population of the town and the county has been decreasing rapidly since the 1960s. Nobody invests here. There’s no mechanic in town because nobody has invested the time and effort to make that work. There’s no tavern, grocery store, gas station, laundromat, hair stylist, or other shop in town for the same reason. People don’t invest here. Houses literally sell for $25,000…and to invest money into fixing up a home is a fool’s errand because you’ll never get that investment back if and when you need to sell that home later on. Businesses aren’t chomping at the bit to get a foot into Cresbard. There aren’t enough people to justify the expense.
Other than hunters who enjoy shooting our pheasants from mid-October through mid-December, nobody invests here…except God. For whatever reason, God decided to put half as many LCMS congregations in Faulk County, SD (two) as there are in the state of Maine (four). It’s foolish.
But God, it would appear, is a fool. He invested in Cresbard and Wecota. Just like Israel, He didn’t choose them because of their righteousness or uprightness of heart…for they are a stubborn people. But He did choose them.
There’s not much in Cresbard or Wecota, but should you ever find yourself in these exceedingly rural locales, you will find, of all people, Jesus Christ. He’s here. Week in and week out, He’s here: feeding, sustaining, and forgiving His people from the treasures and storehouses of His unending grace. It’s foolish in the world’s eyes…but as Jesus twice-told Pontius Pilate, His kingdom is not from this world.
If you’re looking at it in worldly terms, I’m wasting my time serving as a pastor out here. But the wisdom of the wise has been destroyed by He who has revealed His power in the cross. And so the foolishness of Christ is liberally preached among God’s people in Cresbard and Wecota, SD, and I’m honored to be able to do so.
Rev. Timothy Koch
Pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church Cresbard, SD and Immanuel Lutheran Church Wecota, SD.