Rural Ministry Finds Roots in the Farm Belt

Small-town church leaders face unique responsibilities in serving their struggling Midwest agricultural communities

PAUL PETERSON, a former Missouri pizza/deli-shop proprietor, now caters to the religious appetites of a small flock in tiny Rewey, Wis., a no-stoplight town of 232 residents near the three-state junction of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. A student at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and a father of two young daughters, Mr. Peterson is the pastor for the United Rewey Ministries. When he looks out at the pews, he's never sure how many faces he'll see.

``Attendance can be anything from five to 100,'' he says en route to an evening ``Service for the Land'' at the Peniel United Presbyterian Church, which has joined with another Presbyterian congregation and a United Methodist church in recent years.

The car headlights pierce the inky blackness of the country roads, barely illuminating the allied Presbyterian edifice, a small building with no electricity. We drive on farther to the Peniel church, which has lights, heat, but no indoor plumbing. About two dozen regulars, including young children, arrive to participate in a songs-and-sermon observance of the planting season.

Many farming communities in the United States are facing bleak futures, with dwindling populations and a corresponding loss of vitality. The 1988-'89 drought has only hastened the process in parts of the Midwestern breadbasket, driving farmers out of business and disillusioning many of the next generation.

``Young people are leaving,'' says Shannon Jung, director of the Rural Ministry Program, a jointly sponsored activity of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) and the neighboring Wartburg Theological Seminary (WTS). ``Fathers and mothers may not even want their children going into farming, because governmental policies have been skewed against the moderate-size farm.

``[The young people] go off to college at the University of Iowa or Wisconsin. Afterwards they move, perhaps not to Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, but to Madison [Wis.], Milwaukee, or Cedar Rapids [Iowa]. As a result, the natural leadership of the rural community is leaving....''

According to recent statistics, the average age of the Iowa farmer is about 56. And in a report by Prairiefire, a rural-advocacy group in Des Moines, the US farm population declined by 1.1 million - or 18 percent - from 1980 to 1987. Nearly one-third of the people who left rural America during that period were between 18 and 24 years of age.

Churches in the Farm Belt, of course, are challenged, too. Still, many survive. ``Rural churches tend to be very tough,'' says Lyle Vander Broek, a UDTS professor and former rural pastor. ``You'll have churches hanging on for years that you thought were going to die. Some are amazingly resilient and they'll go on with a handful of members. They are intensely loyal to the tradition that the church represents.''

While such perseverance is admirable, ``survival maintenance'' is not viewed as a worthy objective by those in the ministerial ranks. ``I didn't come here to preside over a funeral for the congregation,'' says the Rev. Bill Peters of the St. John Lutheran Church of Olin, Iowa. ``I came here to proclaim the Gospel of life both concretely and spiritually.''

Commenting on the wide horizons of today's rural churches, Roger Fjeld, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary, says: ``Churches ought to be involved in making sure there is good housing and medical care for the elderly; they should be involved in sustaining a good public school; they ought to care about what's happening to local business. We are trying to train students to think about care of the community, and not just taking care of the [church] members.''

The Rural Ministry Program, begun in 1987, is intended to support pastors like Mr. Peters in their work and to specifically train ministers to handle the unique responsibilities found in smaller rural churches.

In a sense, this is a formalization of what the Dubuque (Presbyterian) and Wartburg (Lutheran) seminaries have been doing for years. But the alliance goes beyond just educating farming-conversant preachers; it aims to provide continuing education courses, workshops, and conferences for the clergy and laity in rural churches and to assist in strengthening rural churches and their communities. The program is the seedling for the Center for Theology and Land, a resource center housed in the same office.

These initiatives stem from a recognition that churches are sometimes the last potential movers and shakers on the small-town landscape.

Local schools have closed, their students swallowed up in regional consolidations, and life has often been drained out of Main Street business districts by malls and large discount chains in larger cities that draw customers from near and far. ``Sometimes the church is the only bonding agent left,'' Dr. Fjeld says.

As such, the two Dubuque seminaries have taken steps to familiarize students with the dynamics and issues of small farming communities. The idea is to provide a helpful framework for learning the ``language,'' especially for those with urban or suburban backgrounds. One result of moving toward a study specialty has been the creation of a Rural Semester for Seminarians, cosponsored by Prairiefire.

Pupils spend part of the time living in rural communities and learning about what Dave Harrington, a Dubuque seminary student, calls ``coffee-shop ministry.'' Another part of the semester is spent visiting farm-related organizations, such as grain terminals, extension offices, and local economic-development committees.

There are also Rural Concern Lunches, where a recent discussion topic was a new bovine growth hormone designed to increase milk production.

The rural clergy tends to be wary of such developments, which are often perceived as threatening moves toward bigness and a high-yield chemical orientation, not as progress.

``Economy and ecology are at the very heart of rural life these days,'' Dr. Jung says. Rural pastors are speaking out more forcefully about what they see as irresponsible, even unethical, farming practices. ``It's not cost-effectiveness but righteousness we're concerned about,'' says Tom Albin, a professor at Dubuque's seminary. ``The church has the basic motivation of being a steward of creation.''

From this springs a theology of the land and a commitment to sustainable (not artificially induced) agriculture. At times, this may put pastors at odds with parishioners, but agricultural methods are increasingly viewed as non-negotiable by seminary students. ``My God does not want me to compromise,'' says Barbara Kinley, a Rural Semester student.

As far as ministerial staffing is concerned, mainline Protestant churches could greatly simplify their operations by closing the doors of rural churches. More than 70 percent of graduating seminarians wind up serving small-town churches.

This presents some problems that the Rural Ministry Program is trying to address. One is that rural pastors are often the lowest-paid clergy. Seminary graduates faced with repaying college loans may need to move up to higher-paying posts for their own financial security. Shrinking rural congregations are often hard-pressed to meet even the minimum salary and benefits requirements of full-time pastors, which fall roughly in the low $20,000 range.

Loan-forgiveness arrangements and creative pastoral staffing are often called for. The latter may involve sharing pastors among churches of the same or compatible denominations, the use of part-time ``tent-making'' ministries, and the development of lay leadership.

The Rural Ministry Program would also like to establish the country pulpit as an end in itself, as opposed to a stepping stone to a large, metropolitan congregation. ``We would like to instill in people that they are called to serve, not called to status or promotion,'' says Dr. Vander Broek. ``It's a radical decision.''

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