Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

One of the things I have enjoyed this summer is the fact that being a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal church seems to land me a couple of opportunities here and there to supply for the Presbyterians. Granted, it's a little daunting to lead worship with "someone else's liturgy" when we are talking about a liturgy that is somewhat similar but a little more "free form" than I am used to, but it has given me an opportunity to observe what is happening in mainline churches in the rural Midwest...and I am guessing there are some similarities through the rural areas of the United States.


This is 1st Presbyterian Church in Macon, MO. It was...well...interesting leading worship in the town one grew up in, and even more interesting when one's mom decides to show up and observe! But one of the things doing supply here reminded me of is that all over rural America, mainline churches have wonderful old grand buildings that they can no longer maintain, and congregations can scarcely balance "maintaining the building" vs. "calling a full time pastor."

Standing on the chancel at this church is a gorgeous view. Wonderful old hardwood. Two sets of curved pews. A magnificent smaller pipe organ. A choir loft. But all these things need money and love. The history of this church during the 1960's and 1970's is interesting. They were spared calling a full-time pastor for many years. The rector at the Episcopal church, St. James, also covered 1st Presbyterian during his tenure there. So both churches were spared calling someone full time (a novel concept for those days.) His retirement contributed to the death of one parish (St. James) and the decline of the other (1st Presby.) It makes me realize that there were a lot of brave pastoral souls in rural Mo. in the 1980's and 1990's who stood in the gap in these churches. But as the economy changed, and the world of the need for health care benefits changed, and the little rectories and parsonages churches owned simply were not enough house for people, and seminarians started racking up student loans, affording seminary-trained clergy AND an edifice that is grand, but "too much building" for a congregation to maintain, caught up with them.

It's a reminder that when times are better, perhaps we humans get a little too much into edifice-building.

I could not help but feel genuine compassion for this congregation. Wonderful, dedicated people, who are trying their darndest to keep the place together, without the means to call a pastor without yoking their parish. I sense there is a piece of them that still wants their spiritual community life to grow, not just "be maintained." The problem is time is not on their side. They are aging. Some have spent a lifetime giving their time, talent, and treasure to the place. It's an odd mix of God's love and fear of failure that goes with a lot of mainline congregations in small town--hope and despair all rolled up in one. Prayer and fear go hand in hand in congregations all over rural Missouri.

Also, in these days, younger people who do choose church, don't want their grandmother's church, necessarily. There's a lot of what I call "church entertainment" out there. It presents a challenge in my mind. How do we reach young people's minds? How do we challenge them to have a faith beyond what a building looks like, or what music they prefer?

Next up, we have the Brookfield, MO Presbyterian Church. Not quite as big a building, but a little bigger and more active congregation. But the fact remains they are also pastorless. Theirs is s little different situation. They, in some ways, understand the need for a "Sabbath." They are taking time to deal with who they are and who they want to be as a congregation.

I have discovered from my Presbyterian friends these are not unusual situations. In the Missouri Union Presbytery, less than half of the churches have a full time, full-salaried pastor. Many are existing on week-to-week supply preaching. Some are using commissioned lay pastors. Some are hiring part-time ordained people. But many of these arrangements simply "cover Sundays and emergencies." They are not situations where people learn to grow, both spiritually, and attendance-wise. Many are married to "too big a building." How do churches move to the needs of millennials when you are busy caring for your grandparents' house?

These are all charged questions and difficult ones. No one wants to throw away the past. Memories are bound up in those old buildings--names are at the bottom of stained glass windows. People left things to the church. We feel obligated to care for things that were left to us.

But wait--there's more!!

Now we move to the other half of this story...


This is the rose window at the Brookfield Presbyterian church.

It should not surprise you to discover it used to be in the (now-defunct) Episcopal Church in Brookfield. You can see where it was in this picture...


What used to be the Episcopal church building in Brookfield is now a private residence. It's a small church building--almost chapel sized. It shows the influence of a style of architecture embraced by the Cambridge Camden Society in the 1800's. In both the Episcopal dioceses of Missouri and West Missouri, churches built in the late 1800's and early 1900's often looked like an English chapel plopped into the rural outposts of the Midwest. They attracted attention because they looked almost foreign. But as these little parishes declined, they simply were closed, once the struggle became too great.

What's interesting is in both Macon and Brookfield, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians seemed to like to be neighbors. The building above is not more than a block and a half from Brookfield Presbyterian.


This is the (now defunct) St. James Episcopal Church building in Macon, MO. It's a little bigger than the one in Brookfield, but not a lot bigger. Like the one in Brookfield, it is roughly only a block away from 1st Presbyterian Church in Macon. Like Brookfield, it was eventually closed and deconsecrated and turned into apartments/office space.

These are hard times for rural churches who have an expectation of "formally educated clergy." A classic seminary education puts graduates into six figures of debt. Many Episcopal dioceses (including mine) are trying to bridge the gap by self-educating "diocesan trained priests." The Presbyterians are training commissioned lay pastors. My Presbyterian friends told me in the Missouri Union Presbytery, fewer than half of their churches have full time pastors.

There are no right answers when the choice is "less than effective presence," vs. "no presence at all." The "no presence" part is what haunts me as a long-time rural person--these closed, deconsecrated, rehabbed Episcopal churches really gnaw at me. When I look at a map of the diocese, I find myself drawn to the giant hole that exists in the center of a triangle bounded by Kirksville, Hannibal, and Columbia.

I find it impossible to accept that rural northeast Missouri has no need of the faith disciplines and theology of the Episcopal church. I find it impossible to accept there is no one living in that hole that desires the inclusiveness of "our brand of church." Yet, I also find it impossible to accept that putting the Episcopal church back in that empty hole can't be done.

I have no clue how this can be done. But I do know that it involves not being married to a crumbling religious infrastructure. I sense that if these places rise from the ashes, it might well be without the buildings.

2 comments:

Hello,

I'm Julie King, and I serve as a long-term "temporary pulpit supply for these churches while I am in seminary (with the hope that I may be their full-time ordained pastor when I am finished). I was interested in reading your blog entry about your experiences at these two churches. Yes, it is a struggle sometimes in rural areas. But God is still working in these two churches and many others, which is why these churches are still going. I believe God still has work for them to do, and I'm excited to walk with them as we learn God's vision and assignment for us. Our communities and our larger culture need the rationality as well as the spirituality that Presbyterian (and Episcopal) traditions bring to the religious table. And people are starting to find us and experience this!

I hope if you are south and southwest on a Sunday morning, you might join us for worship again. I'd love to visit with you!

Blessings,
Julie King

P.S. I understand what you mean by preaching in your hometown--I'm a Macon native too!

How wonderful that you are the keeper of that circuit, Julie! Like you, I believe God still has work for both of them, too. Yes, I think both congregations have several rational and spiritual people rolled into the same bodies. I might take you up on that offer some Sunday!

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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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