Little Church on the Prairie

When I started seminary back in 2000, I was told that there was a good chance that I would end up in small town, rural ministry. At the time I was nervous about that since my plan was to go to a large church in a city to serve as a youth pastor. I grow up in a small town; population approximately 1,600, so I was familiar with small town, rural life, but I wanted something more; something big.

But God had other plans.

I served my internship year at Fir-Conway Lutheran Church; a small church in Washington about an hour north of Seattle. While there I fell in love with small church life. I was “adopted” into a family/congregation and heard the call to be a solo pastor in a small town, rural setting.

Today, I have been the called pastor at Salem Lutheran Church,

(approximately 340 members in a town of about 3,500 people) since June 2004; and because of a contact for services we have had with Belmont Lutheran Church since Dec 2005, this is my early Sunday morning commute to “work”:

Beautiful, isn’t it?

And if you look carefully in the middle of the picture, at the end of the road, you will see this…

…Belmont Lutheran Church.

It’s a beautifully, small congregation, with a big heart, in the midst of this:

Belmont is a congregation of 58 people that worships around 15 to 20 per Sunday. In the midst of Minnesota’s nasty winters I have preached to as few as 5 people (including the organist, who, by the way, drives a couple hours from Minneapolis to play every week. He’s from Belmont and comes home to visit his mother). That is commitment.

When there’s a funeral at Belmont, it feels like everyone shows up to help. Annual meetings feel like a family event. And everyone takes their turn serving on the council and doing their part.

You may ask: How does this tiny congregation stay open with 15 to 20 in worship each week? That’s a great question. You see, there is a farm place across the road and 114.6 acres of land from which Belmont receives rent. And in SW MN, farm land rates are pretty good. Without this farm, Belmont probably would have closed it’s doors long ago; but then again, who knows 🙂

I love serving and serving with my congregation in town (Salem) but there’s just something about preaching out on the prairie, in the midst of corn and bean fields, that you can’t experience anywhere else.

[It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I’ll try.]

It’s not that we feel alone and isolated and therefore we cling to that; trying to keep to ourselves. It’s not that we don’t want others to find us and get “too big”. It’s not that we are poor, simple people, cut off from the rest of the world. Those descriptions couldn’t be farther from the truth for Belmont. Rather, the “thing” about serving out on the prairie is that feeling of being part of a close knit family farm that has it’s doors open to anyone who would want to come in; not keeping to themselves as they share their faith in Jesus Christ. But even that description doesn’t do Belmont justice.

Basically, we are a little church on the prairie with a big heart.

The problem out here on the prairie, though, is that many small family farms are giving way to big corporate farms and thus many of these small country churches are closing their doors. I’ve seen that happen to a number of these country churches in SW MN. It’s sad, really, but I am very grateful that a family many years ago had the foresight to donate their farm to Belmont to help ensure that it’s ministry continues on for a long time.

God is indeed doing something here and I feel blessed to be part of it. We may not have the numbers that other congregations have but it’s not quantity that matters but rather quality. We can’t control the growth of a church; only the Holy Spirit does. The fact that Belmont is small doesn’t indicate that it is doing church wrong or is deficient in someway. All it says is that the Spirit has chosen to use this small congregation for big things.

So next time you are out driving in the country side, and you come upon one of these country churches; stop, look, and give thanks; for these churches were the beginning of the Church in the rugged, rural frontier. These congregations were the foundation for a way of life that continues to be important today. These small congregations are not deficient because they are small but rather, they are big with passion and faith. It’s not the size of the church building that matters but rather the faith being lived out in it’s members.

Lord God almighty, I give you thanks for those pioneers that built the Church in a rugged and wild land. I give you thanks for the people who passed on the faith. I give you thanks for the ministry of these places. It’s not the size of the building or the number of people but rather your Spirit working through people. Oh God, you are awesome in this place. In Jesus name I pray, Amen

The (small country) Pastor -|—

A Christmas reflection and blessing

Oh boy…my least favorite day is coming up tomorrow.  Oh well…I have one more opportunity to proclaim the Christmas Gospel this morning before the post-Christmas blues hit.

Last night (Christmas Eve) was wonderful.  We were greeted with a couple inches of that beautiful white stuff; a sanctuary full of family and friends; wonderful music from our organist and my wife’s family on brass along with a confirmation student of mine. We had the privilege of former students reading scripture along with two of my release time kids and two of my confirmation students. I also got finish leading worship while holding my little girl (who celebrated her first Christmas).  And all of this while worshiping our awesome God who came to us at Christmas time in Jesus Christ.

A wonderful night!

Now I am preparing to head out to my country congregation (Belmont Lutheran Church) to lead Christmas Day worship.  And that will be wonderful in it’s own unique way.

Looking back on all the preparations, family time, worship, etc, I just don’t understand how someone could possibly look forward to Christmas being done.  I will welcome the rest but I will be anxious for next year. In the meantime receive this Christmas blessings from me to you as you worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ:

May the joy of the Christ-child fill your hearts.
May the joy of the shepherds lead you out to glorify and praise the Lord.
May you ponder with Mary all the things that God has done.
May you have the tenacity of the Magi to follow Jesus each and every day.
And may you bask in the awesome love of God.


The pastor -|—

A poor sinner

I had issues this morning.

I have been a pastor now for just over 7 years.  I have presided over communion for just over 7 years.  I have known the Words of Institution for just over 7 years (even longer than that because I knew well before seminary).  But today it was like I have never said those words before.

I was standing up front at Belmont this morning leading worship.  I had just received the offering and the congregation was standing.  I turned around holding the chalice and began the Words of Institution.  The problem is that we start with the bread and then go to the wine (at least that is what I normally do).  I found myself lost as I realized that I had the wrong element…so I had to wing it…trying to make it look as if I meant to start with the wine.

I failed.

I stuttered and stumbled through the Words of Institution like I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was totally frazzled and my rhythm was totally gone.  I even saw someone out there smile at his wife as he knew I was struggling.  I think part of the problem was that I have become so accustomed to the Words of Institution that I found myself relying of the words themselves and not on the proclamation.

That is going to have to change.

My hope and prayer is that people still heard words of promise regardless of my failure.  My guess is that they did hear words of promise ~ thanks to the Holy Spirit.  I trust that God still used me in some way ~ for you see ~ when I preach and lead worship it is not about what I do but it is about the Holy Spirit working through me.  One reason why I am certain of this is because if it were about me; if it were about my speaking ability; if it were about my so-call talents;  I would have been fired long ago.  But as it is God can use a poor sinner like me to proclaim the Good News.

Praise be to God!

The other explanation of what happened this morning could be that I need a vacation ~ something that will be happening very soon 🙂


Lent re-thought

I am excited about Lent this year…not to say that I haven’t been any other year, but this year is going to be different.

At the Belmont Lutheran Church (the small county congregation I also serve) annual meeting on Sunday we decided to try something new for Lent.  For our Wednesday Lenten services we have been averaging around 10 per week.  So for a while now I have been pondering the future of these services.
–Do I need to re-think what we do on Wednesdays?
–Do we need to change the time of the worship?
–Do we need to change the location (share a service with Salem in town)?
–Or what?

Well…on Sunday I offered an idea that I heard from our Methodist friends down the street.  Instead of Wednesday evening Lenten services what about having home cottage meetings on Tuesday nights?

Are you intrigued…then allow me to elaborate…

What Belmont decided to do is meet in someone’s home on Tuesdays during Lent at 6:30pm.  We will gather together in a circle and have a time of worship/devotions (I am not sure how this will look yet).  The bulk of the time will be devoted to some teaching.  I envision this to be a cross between a sermon and a Bible study.  I will do the majority of the teaching but allow for questions, feedback or discussion.  People can come and just sit and listen or get involved…it’s up to them.  After we are done there will be some refreshments and fellowship time.  The thinking is that this will be a more intimate setting and thus more attractive to people.

I am not sure what the topic will be; whether I will do a series in a particular book of the Bible, some aspect of Jesus life or whatever.  The idea was suggested that I use the topic from the Lenten small group that I will be leading called “The Seven Wonders of God’s Word” from Augsburg Fortress.  That idea intrigues me so I am going to explore that as well.

So I am excited about this new thing we are about to do (I will post updates here during Lent).  I am not sure how it will be received.  My hope is that the home we meet in won’t be big enough, but we’ll see what happens.  But in the end we need to remember that where 2 or 3 are gathered there is Jesus right there in the midst of them.  So either way we will praise God.


By the grace of God

I have been a pastor for just over 6 1/2 years now (hard to believe sometimes).  During that span I have never woken up on a Sunday morning feeling sick (knock on wood).  I have woken up tired after getting to bed late the night before or just not sleeping well, but I have never been sick on a Sunday morning…until yesterday.

When I went to bed on Saturday night my stomach wasn’t feeling that great but I figured I would sleep it off.  As the night wore on I wasn’t getting better.  I wasn’t feeling nauseated but I was still in the bathroom a few times (I won’t elaborate on that).  After a very long night my alarm went off at 5:30am.  I was shot.  I had absolutely no energy.  I laid in bed and prayed, “God…I have no energy.  There is no way that I will get through this morning on my own power.  I feel like crap.  Please grant me the energy I need to lead these two worship services this morning.  I need you.

After some arguing with myself I finally rolled out of bed.  My programmable coffee maker was doing its job so I made a bee line for the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  I couldn’t drink it…believe it or not the coffee just didn’t taste good.  You know something is wrong with me when I can’t drink coffee.  I got ready and headed over to the church.  I got into the pulpit and ran through my sermon.  I could feel the lack of energy in the sermon and I prayed again that God would give me the energy that I needed so that God’s Word would be preached despite Satan’s best efforts to keep me from doing so.

At about 7:30am I went back to the house and laid down on the couch (I need to leave for Belmont Lutheran Church by 8am).  I tried not to fall asleep because I knew I might not wake up until it was too late.  I laid there in a fog and prayed some more.  I finally got up at 7:50am.  My stomach was feeling a little better and I had a little more energy (but still not 100%).  My wife was concerned about me driving the 8 miles out to Belmont but I assured her I would be fine.

Worship at Belmont began at 8:30am and I was feeling good.  Not once during the worship service did I think about not feeling well.  My energy seemed to return and I preached the sermon with my normal energy and passion (at least that is what it felt like to me).  Worship at Salem was at 10:15 and I was still going strong.  Salem’s annual meeting followed worship and then our famous potluck.  I got home after 12noon and was out like a light by 12:30pm for a 2 hour nap.

So my streak continues…by the grace of God.  There is no way I could have survived Sunday without God by my side.  I know that if I were sick enough that I couldn’t go, someone would have stepped up and worship would have still happened.  But on Sunday God wanted me there and so it happened ~ by the grace of God.


Where 20 or 30 are gathered

I just received a copy of this book.  Last summer I attended a summer collegium at Virginia Theological Seminary on leadership in small congregations.  I saw this book on the website and thought it looked interesting.

The country congregation I serve (Belmont Lutheran Church) has a membership of 58 with about 15 to 20 in worship per Sunday.  There are certain things we can not do out there because of our size but there are certain things we can do because of our size.   For starters…worship is more intimate.  When I am preaching it feels like I am leading a small group. If someone is not able to be at worship to perform an assigned task, someone else quickly fills in.  It’s like a family that compensates for any void that happens to exist.  Coffee fellowship after worship feels like a family meal.  When there is a funeral everyone shows up to help minister to the grieving family.

The continuing challenge is to encourage Belmont that they have an important mission in the Body of Christ.  The other challenge is keeping worship fresh and engaging.  These past couple years I have seen plenty of evidence that Belmont also wants to keep things fresh; not wanting to get stuck in a rut.  As a pastor that is very encouraging.

I am looking forward to reading what these authors have to say about worship in small congregations.


Up and down

I have an up and down week coming up.

Tomorrow is Sunday (so that is naturally an up).  At the country congregation I serve (Belmont Lutheran Church) we are celebrating the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  It is one of the favorite things I get to do as a pastor.  I get stand up there with the family and sponsors sharing what baptism means; encouraging them to follow through with their baptismal promises and then pour water on the baby’s head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It is a wonderful time and one I truly cherish and look forward to.

Also tomorrow I am continuing my sermon series in the Old Testament with the story of Abraham (but I am only preaching that sermon at Belmont…more on that in a bit).  The story I am focusing on is chapter 22; when God commands Abraham to sacrifice is son, his only son, the one whom he loves.  I know, I know…it seems strange to preach such a text on a baptism Sunday but the sermon focus was planned long before the baptism and the baptism was planned without any thought to the sermon focus.  But I think God brought both of these events together for his glory.  I am excited to see how all of this plays out together.

At Salem (instead of the sermon on Abraham) we are hearing a faith story from a saint of the congregation.  David had a stroke back in June of 2010 and has traveled a difficult road.  I have always known him to be a man of faith but the stories I have heard him tell me have given me goose bumps.  Finally…back in December…I asked David to share these stories with others and he agreed.  So tomorrow I am going to “interview” David as he shares his incredible journey.  The only down side is that we won’t have time to hear all his stories.  I guess people will just have to go and visit David to hear more…which he won’t mind.

Now the down part.

On Tuesday I am burying a saint of this congregation who died on Thursday night.  When Cindy went in for surgery back in November we expected her back in town in 5 to 7 days…that never happened.  She never got off the ventilator.  After a long battle her body finally began to shut down before she went home to meet her (and our) Lord.  This is going to be a hard funeral for many  but I know Cindy and she is going to want to truth of the Gospel proclaimed…so that is what I am going to do.  Funerals are bitter sweet for me; I mourn the loss of the deceased and mourn with the family, but I also get to proclaim the Good News of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the midst of mourning (and to some who probably haven’t heard).  I don’t look forward to people dying but I look forward to God using me during these times.

So its going to be an up and down week for me but I know that God will be glorified in all of this.  I know that God will use me to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.  I know that God will not leave us.  And I know that God will continue to sustain us.

Up or down…God is faithful.  How can we not praise him for that?