Shady Grove Wesleyan Church
Charles Vollmer, pastor
“I had to brush up on my farming knowledge in order to be able to understand the issues. Most of the people don’t use computers or have e-mail accounts. They aren’t the type of people who like to chat on the phone.” So says a member of a devoted yet shrinking population—pastors of small-membership rural churches.
Changing population demographics, the demise of the small family farm, and harsh economic realities have all negatively impacted America’s rural churches. Thousands of these small congregations, the hands and feet of Christ in their communities, have had to close their doors or combine with other congregations to survive. Three recent graduates, all mature students in “second career ministry,” are taking on the challenge.
In his first pastorate Howard Russell (NES ‘08) served a 190-year-old Baptist church that had a strong charismatic influence. It was the only remaining church in town and there was open hostility between two traditions that threatened a church split. He recalls, “The traditional Baptists and the contemporary Pentecostals were at odds with one another. By the time I’d arrived, many of the Baptists had already left, which caused a lot of suffering.” He credits his master of divinity studies for providing him the perspective to minister from the centrality of Christ, “to bring healing and eventual unity to the congregation.” He led the church to a blended worship style, reintroducing hymns that had been removed from the service and ensuring that all had a voice in the church again. He balanced a Bible study geared toward the remaining Baptist population and an intercessory prayer meeting for the Pentecostals. By the close of his four-year tenure the church had become a non-denominational community church that affirmed both the authority of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Charles Vollmer (NES ‘08) believes the parish context is essential in the rural setting in how it can unite isolated populations. Parishes, although shrinking in number and size, are a way to bring together those who might not normally be in a church setting, in areas where there has always been “traditionally strong core values for God, country and family.” Vollmer believes that rural ministry is ideal for second career people “who have experienced the hardships of life from the perspective of a laborer or agricultural worker.” He cautions it is not for those without patience or thick skin but, he says, it can be one of the most rewarding ministries in that you can gain the loyalty of your parish and that loyalty can be passed on from generation to generation.
Like his classmates, Jeffrey Roets (NES ‘09) serves a very small community of believers; this one is in Amish country, in the middle of a large dairy and farming community. The distance between pastor and parishioners is great and the people Roets serves are older, conservative Christians with country ways and country mentality. Communication is one of the challenges he faces. “It has taken a while to gain their trust, but I feel that I am making progress,” he notes. “They are open and willing to almost anything I want to do. They love Bible study and hearing the Word. I feel very blessed … the education and field training I received has really prepared me for the ministry.”
Although filled with challenges, these pastors affirm that small-membership rural church ministry is among the most rewarding. Of his vocation Russell reflects, “rural areas have fallen on hard times, and America’s “Bread Basket” needs the Bread of Life: the Light, Love and Hope that is in Jesus Christ.”