…and other lessons I learned as a rural pastor.
Early in my pastorate, a woman stopped by our church in rural Washington State looking for moving boxes. I was happy to help her out. We had just arrived in town, so we had plenty of boxes. “Thanks, Pastor,” she said. “You saved my life.”
Perfect. Life-saving was just the sort of work I had gone west to do, and the life-saving I imagined mostly involved making myself useful and fixing things. I was hooked.
Training and circumstances set me up for a fixit ministry. Somewhere in the thick of my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I chose the lofty goal of making my education useful to the larger church. I imagined myself helping people tidy up their theology: a little nip and tuck to their hermeneutical presuppositions. Read the Didache and call me in the morning. The tiny, urban congregation my wife and I joined during graduate school made plenty of space for an eager student to exercise his gifts, and when I started to sense the first inklings of a call, the congregation encouraged me and sent me off. After completing ministry training at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, we set out to serve a small, rural congregation in eastern Washington. I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
There was plenty to do. Our rural community was not exactly the stuff of bucolic dreams. It had come into its own some 50 years earlier when the Grand Coulee Dam was completed, and water from the Columbia River made irrigation possible on a vast scale. Homesteaders arrived in waves, and the town became a melting pot of Hispanic and white cultures straddling a wide socioeconomic spectrum. We had gang problems and hunger problems and the 10,000 indignities of poverty. It was perfect, the kind of tumbledown place that …