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

Small rural congregations don’t really depend on seminary educated clergy. It’s nice to have them, but not a necessity. They don’t even depend on a flow of new families with young children. They do depend on the economic viability of the towns they are in. Dying towns beget dying congregations. But if a town can sustain itself, an otherwise healthy, small rural congregation will just keep on going. It has more to do with the spirit of the place and the Spirit that fills it than with experts on church growth and transformation.

--Steve Wooley, "The Country Parson" blog

The photo above is one I took earlier this summer (Right now, in the subzero chill of NE Missouri December, I'm only having a vague recollection of that thing called summer) of what used to be St. James Episcopal Church in Macon, MO.

This parish in my home town used to be more viable than Trinity-Kirksville. It was a parish that produced a Presiding Bishop, Ethelbert Talbot. Talbot was a local product--he was born in Fayette, MO, and married a woman from Roanoke, MO.

Some years back, when I helped research some of the history of Trinity-Kirksville, one of the things I learned that there were numerous times Kirksville had no vicar and the rector of St. James covered both parishes. Macon was the established parish. Kirksville was the mission church.

But over the years, Kirksville hung on and even grew a little bit, and Macon began to die off. I know very little about the history of the demise of St. James church. What little I know is that for many years, the rector there did double duty for the Presbyterians, and eventually, even with two churches providing salary support, the key pledgers in St. James died. The bottom line was that by the time I came to Trinity, the Episcopal churches in the towns that I call "the three M's"--Macon (St. James), Monroe City (St. Jude) and Moberly (St. Barnabas) were all defunct.

I have looked at a map many, many times, and stared at the "donut hole" these three missing parishes make on the map of our diocese. Steve's post got me to thinking about it again, because as small Missouri towns go, Macon and Moberly are actually growing a little, economically, and Monroe City appears to be holding its own, too.

I keep thinking there is something that the Episcopal Church can bring to this empty spot. But if I were to believe everything I read about "congregational development by the book" it would yell, "Are you crazy? Don't bother." But our interim priest, whose emphasis in his doctorate was in congregational development, never poo-pooed my thoughts about this. Instead, he encouraged me to go on field trips, and he and our priest associate encouraged me to use my lay preaching license to snag some supply preaching opportunities with our neighborly area Presbyterians, who, bless their hearts, sometimes scare me with what all they allow me to do along with them on a Sunday morning. But when I preach in these places, and interact with their worshipers, I feel so incredibly comfortable, because I'm still very distinctly a "small town person."

It creates a yearning within be to be out there in the service of God in the "sparse places."

I keep thinking, "What if a person could come in like Johnny Appleseed and convince a small group of people to fully accept their own ministry of the baptized and raise themselves up--possibly even raise their own clergy up in a Mutual Ministry type setting--what could they bring to the Kingdom of God that simply is not done any other way but in a small setting?" I know I immensely find comfort in "helping make things from scratch and once it's finished, wish it well and move on to the next project." That is what I sort of do as a surgical pathologist. I take a specimen and give a name to what's going on with it. Then I turn it over to the person's primary physician to maintain, and I move on to the next specimen and don't look back.

I can't tell you the congregational development hoo-ha about it--what little I know about congregational development, I feel like I've studied it off the back of a Cracker Jack box--but I do know one thing.

I know rural and small town people.

Now, Kirksville is a small town. But it's not a small town. It's a small town with two colleges (Truman State and Moberly Area Community College) and an osteopathic medical school (A.T. Still University.) By and large, this is a more academic town than the typical small Missouri town. It's a wonderful place and I love living here. But it's a different place. It has a different tone to it. It's not Macon, or Moberly, or Monroe City.

My friends often tease me that no one would ever accuse me of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. In fact, they often claim my glasses are a little fecal-stained. But that is a part of rural and small town people outsiders don't "get." Yes, we sound pretty darn pessimistic at times. We were raised to have good reason. Farms get battered by hail and drought and too much rain. Ranchers have subzero weather and lose calves during calving season. Small businesses get squeezed out by the big box stores. Family-run enterprises have the key player in the family drop dead of a heart attack or stroke. Tornadoes blast through entire towns. Yes, these things happen everywhere...but in small towns the impact seems greater somehow. The big ripples in the center are tsunamis even though peripherally, the ripples dissipate into nothing pretty quick.

Yet, what you see when you watch rural and small town people is they keep quietly rebuilding and re-trying things over and over again, without much fuss, drama, or attention.

Families in these places don't have "a rock"--they have MANY rocks. Yet it's not always easy to get these cussedly independent people to dare to work together. "We take care of our own."

But what I have found over the years is if you can get these cussedly independent people to reach out just a little bit and help each other, they will do it one person, one family at a time--and when they do that, they start to get this wonderful sense of belonging to "something bigger than they are." Something bigger than their little family, their little town, their little groups, both secular and religious.

What you also see in small towns is that the dissenters pretty much keep their dissent to themselves. So an outsider might walk into a small town and on face value, see a conservative, evangelical, immovable object in terms of bringing a church with a liberal theology and a structured hierarchy back to the area. But as a near-lifelong area resident, I also know that small towns are full of wonderfully quirky people with lots of interesting notions they don't always share publicly. I know that GLBT people hide under the radar as "cranky old bachelors" and "two divorced women who share expenses." There are also the "habitually single" who are straight, but were sort of the designated person who "took care of all the old folks in the family." There are people who "used to live in the city" and came back home and quietly took up residence with no frills and far less income because the rat race got too hectic. There are people who raised their kids elsewhere and came home to slow down.

They are people who have a habit of caring for one another in some way.

I think they are precisely the people who would take to our brand of theology like a duck to water. But there's no central core, no "safe zone."

The other kicker is, as much as they all love their little historic church buildings, I believe to embrace a plan to somehow get them back would be the kiss of death for growing these congregations. Those drafty, poorly maintained buildings would suck the life right out of them.

I keep looking at that donut hole and thinking, "How does a person get these people gathered up and going about the business of caring for each other, and having a church home that is unlike any "church" they've ever seen? They probably don't see themselves as "church people."

But they are people who already, in some ways, hear and obey God and follow Jesus, without exactly calling it that. They are people who worry about the stewardship of things, and people and the world, although they'd never claim it and never proclaim it for fear of the wrath of the "Fox News people" and the Tea Partiers to come down on their heads. Polite suburban Episcopalians would not see them as "their people" because they deer hunt, and they get a little grouchy about zoning laws and they own a fair number of guns and are proud of it.

I know they would fit in our church, frankly, because I fit in our church--and I'm painfully aware of all the ways I don't quite fit in the world. But through the Episcopal Church, I've learned I fit in God's kingdom in ways beyond my wildest imagination.

I sit...and I pray...and I feel so called to these sparse places...these donut holes like the one right next to me. I don't know what to do with it. But I know there's something that calls me to the donut holes, and Steve's post keeps telling me to keep listening to that voice.


And what did you learn about this in your visit to Wyoming?

That's easy, Ann. I learned that not only CAN it be done, it IS being done...and it looks so...mutually empowering...and that is what I love about it. What I learned at St. Stephens and from talking with some of the "power behind the power" in the Wyoming Diocese was that yes, there is friction. Yes, there is resistance. But this absolutely huge mutual empowerment arises from the process, and I am heavily drawn to that process.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
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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