By Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership
My internship site was on the plains of eastern Colorado in a rural community about an hour’s drive from Denver, the population of which was about 1400. When I was first assigned the site, I went to my seminary dean and asked him if he was trying to kill me. I had been raised in cities and suburbs and did not think I had what it took to do ministry in a rural setting. My dean told me I’d have the best year of my life and asked me to give it a chance, so I did. He was right.
The day I arrived at the parsonage, where I would live for the year, about five families from the church were waiting for me on the lawn. They were there to help me unpack my U-Haul. They had arrived early to stock my fridge and pantry. The parents introduced me to their children and instructed them to call me “pastor” (as a sign of respect) even though I wasn’t ordained yet. That year, a farmer in the community invited me to walk his corn fields with him while he taught me about waiting on God for rain and growth and harvest. It was some of the best theology I’d ever heard. I spent many Friday nights in the fall at the high school football games, where I would cheer for the local kids and visit with church and community members, hearing their stories and being welcomed into their families and their lives. With some other women of the church, I joined the community choir and sang at Christmas vespers. Nearly the whole town showed up for the event (and I’m not exaggerating). Leaving that community at the end of my internship year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. That church formed and prepared me for ministry in a way no professor could do.
Since then, I’ve been a pastor at two churches, and both have been in the city. Now that I am on synod staff, I have had many opportunities to return to the country. I have worked call processes and been invited to council meetings in Washington and Fayette counties, and nearly everything I learned on internship and came to appreciate about rural ministry still seems to hold true. I know the stereotypes about how conservative or closed-minded people in these areas can be, but my experience has been rather positive. These communities continue to teach me to make a case for rural ministry. Here are some of those lessons:
- Hilary, a fourth-century bishop, once wrote, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” This rings true for me every time I’m driving out to an early morning worship, greeted by a pink sunrise, or home from an evening meeting under an expanse of country sky. There is a connection to the Creator out in the country it’s harder to have in the traffic and the noise of the city. I seem to breathe more deeply out there, too.
- People in rural communities are good at talking about and sharing God’s abundance. Many of them tend gardens, and they will tell you all they did was plant the seeds and weed the beds while God provided sunshine and rain. So, when they have more zucchini than they can use or more tomatoes than they wish to can, they’ll fill your arms (or a bag they’ll hand you) with produce, and when you thank them for their generosity, they’ll tell you it was God’s doing. They are just giving out of what God provided. It is stewardship at its finest, and it comes so naturally to them, they have no idea how beautiful it is.
- They know how to care for their own. When someone is sick, they do not hesitate to visit. They make casseroles and pies, and they don’t call beforehand. They just show up with food as an offering of love so that you don’t have any chance to refuse it. They teach you about grace in a way no book can.
- Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, points out that people in the plains tend to speak about the concrete and personal: weather, the land, other people. For someone from the outside, this can seem like superficial conversation, but what they’re really saying is their faith is grounded in these things. What they are really talking about is all God has made, and they are in awe of it.
- They know something about being small. They live in small communities or towns, and they have small budgets and church attendance, but they also know what God can do with small things. They have hope, and they will remind you to have it, too. Jesus once told a story about a tiny mustard seed which grew to become a tree in which others could find shelter. Small does not mean lesser. It might even be the starting place for faith and a home.