In small towns across the United States, vital UCC congregations are making their witness to the world.
Zion UCC church member Bradley Moser helps give the building a facelift for the Medina, N.D., congregation's 100th anniversary. Karl Limvere photo.
Like many rural areas, the Medina area suffers from depopulation, meaning the survival of both the town and the faith community are undeniably intertwined. Limvere says that the only choice is for the church to take an active role in community development.
Author of the UCC's rural justice resolution forwarded by the UCC's Northern Plains Conference and adopted by General Synod 23 in 2001, Limvere says that the goal is community development, which is not like economic development—the increased flow of money through the community, whether for good or not. "We want to talk about community development,Ó he says. "How do we make it a better place for people to live and work and to carry out their life?Ó
Zion UCC is active with nonprofit organizations dealing with such issues as sustainable agriculture and a national refuge outside of Medina. Organic production and natural resource-based tourism are other regional issues.
"If you look at the histories of the community and the church and put them side by side,Ó says Limvere, "you'll see the church has always provided leadership. At one time, the church was the center of the community. I think we have to reclaim that understanding, that the church needs to be in the center of the community.Ó
A few months ago, Zion UCC decided to paint the church building in preparation for the centennial celebrations. Volunteers, aged 5 to 80, showed up and, and before long, the entire building was gleaming with a fresh coat of paint. "That, to me, is part of the beauty of this community and the rural church,Ó Limvere marvels. "I'm convinced that anything the members of this church want to do, they can accomplish. They have that kind of cohesiveness, that kind of community spirit.Ó
Farmer pastor ministers ecumenically
Ministering to a congregation of predominantly farmers and ranchers comes a little easier to the Rev. Keith Kraft of Mobridge, S.D.
He was one himself before being called to the ministry. In the mid-1990s, Kraft had already taken a course in sermon writing and was dabbling in pulpit supply in his spare time when hard times hit.
"People ask me, 'You're a farmer and rancher. How did you get to be a minister?'Ó Kraft laughs. "I tell them, 'God called and the banker pushed!'Ó Now a full-time pastor, Kraft is kept busy by Mobridge United Conmenical mission that takes place within the town limits. Mobridge Ministerial Association—comprised of the local Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Baptist, United Methodist, UCC, Church of God and Evangelical Free churches—has operated a thrift store for more than 20 years. Out of that, the association also runs a food pantry and fuel assistance program.
"We get along fairly well together,Ó says Kraft of the team of pastors in Mobridge. "We don't talk a lot about theological differences. We focus on the concerns we have in common—that is, the care of the people here in town.Ó gregational UCC. Mobridge is a "town in a sea of prairie,Ó a self-sufficient borough of 3,500, requiring travel of two hours in any direction to arrive at a major city. Kraft jokes that with geography like that, "it's hard not to feel like you're on the job 24/7.Ó
Being visible at community events like high school sporting events is par for the course in rural ministry, says Kraft, in order to stay connected with the people in the community. "I don't feel like I can take a day off unless I leave town,Ó he says.
In terms of mission, Kraft and his congregation are a vital part of an ecumenical mission that takes place within the town limits. Mobridge Ministerial Association—comprised of the local Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Baptist, United Methodist, UCC, Church of God and Evangelical Free churches—has operated a thrift store for more than 20 years. Out of that, the association also runs a food pantry and fuel assistance program.
"We get along fairly well together,Ó says Kraft of the team of pastors in Mobridge. "We don't talk a lot about theological differences. We focus on the concerns we have in common—that is, the care of the people here in town.Ó
Small-town congregation reaches out to wider church
Franklin, Conn., is a small town of 1,800 people, a rare rural spot in the state of Connecticut. The town is surrounded by state gameland and fisheries, a nature conservancy sanctuary, and large wooded areas. Besides offices and retail, businesses include a few dairy farms, a mushroom and egg farm, horse farms, even a farming museum.
The Rev. Linda Barnes, pastor of Franklin Congregational UCC, has big shoes to fill as the pastor of the only church in town, but she couldn't be happier. She grew up in the country, the daughter of a teacher in a one-room country schoolhouse. And even though she hails from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she feels at home in Franklin.
"Even though my background is Pennsylvania Dutch, not New England Yankee,Ó she says, "the 'don't-change-ittoo- fast, work-hard, pinch-a-pennytwice, enjoy-being-in-the-country, it'sokay- if-you've-got-dirt-under-your-fin- gernails' attitude is the same!Ó And stubbornness goes with it, she adds lightly. "I tell them stubbornness is another form of strength.Ó
Aside from the Rev. Samuel Nott, who served the church in the late 1700s, spanning an incredible seventy-two years of ministry in Franklin, the church has seen a lot of turnover in the pulpit. "It was a starter church for some ministers, a retirement church for others,Ó Barnes says, explaining why, for several decades, no minister seemed to stay for more than five years.
Now in her 12th year at Franklin, Barnes jokes, "The people who were trying to get rid of me at year five are used to me by now. And the people who weren't that crazy about me but just don't like change are now on the side of me staying, too!Ó
Barnes' goal is to connect her congregation with people beyond the town.
The church has an established "Covenant to CareÓ relationship with the Connecticut State Department for Children and Families, part of a state program that matches social workers with churches, allowing the congregation to supply food, cleaning supplies and other essentials in times of crisis.
Reaching out even further, Barnes and the Franklin church are making ties through the UCC's Connecticut Conference with their Global Partnership church, the Presbyterian Church of Korea.
In September, a student pastor at Yale will begin her year-long term at Franklin UCC. Barnes is excited for a chance to show a future pastor the joys and challenges of rural ministry. "The best thing about rural ministry is the relationships,Ó says Barnes. "Every Sunday, I know everybody in the pews. Quite a few have grown up in the church. People here really are a church family.Ó
One-of-a-kind hotline helps Nebraska farmers in crisis
The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline is currently the only such phoneline in the country, a place where farmers can call for counseling, vouchers and food pantry assistance or just a listening ear. The hotline, in existence since the farm crisis began in the 1980s, is an ecumenical effort—UCC, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churches volunteer time and effort—supported in part by gifts to the UCC's Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM).
The Rev. Ian McLean of St. John's UCC in Syracuse, Neb., is on the board for the Farm Crisis Response Council of Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska. He says that the hotline offers an anonymous place where farmers can talk openly about their fears and problems. "They like the anonymity,Ó says McLean. "It's nice for them to talk to somebody they're not going to see on a regular basis.Ó
Things will get better, McLean hopes. Just last summer, he recalls dust blowing across the highways during the brutal drought that brought hardship to the entire farming community.
"There was no rain at all,Ó he remembers. "Kind of a Dust Bowl. It was like something out of the pictures we'd see in history books of the Depression.Ó
The phone isn't ringing quite as much at the hotline this year, and that's a good thing. Even so, McLean says he isn't sure what the future is for many of the farmers in his congregation and the town of Syracuse. The hotline even offers career counseling for people thinking of getting out of farming. It's a big decision for those who regard farming as their livelihood, says McLean, "but there's a point where you've got to feed your family.Ó
St. John's is doing what it can—some recent workshops on alternative methods of farming were well attended—to help smaller, family farms find ways to compete with the market-crunching effect of big corporate farms. McLean has faith.
"The thing I love about Nebraskans is their high degree of contentment. They're real 'salt of the earth' and it's a privilege to serve them. But as a pastor,Ó he says, "when they're hurting, you're hurting.Ó