There’s something special about country churches. I’m not talking about the idyllic charm of a little white clapboard structure with arched windows and a steeple peeking out from a wooded country lane or a stone chapel tucked away in a valley, complete with grazing cows or sheep as its neighbors.
The something special I have come to know about country churches goes beyond what one sees on the outside. The something special I am talking about is what one can find when finally stepping through an old battered door whose creakiness is actually its way of beginning to tell a story or two of years gone by. For once inside an old country church one will find love—and lots of it.
I never thought I would serve such a church, but one summer a friend from seminary was serving as a pastor in a very remote area in Maine. She was serving there to fulfill the hands-on training required for graduation and ordination. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised when I heard of her decision to spend two months in such a rustic setting. My friend hailed from a more genteel lifestyle. Her middle name was not your typical “Ann,” “Lynn” or “Marie.” Her middle name was an old family name, making her complete name, when spoken out loud, quite impressive indeed.
“You’re going where?” I remember asking at lunch one day towards the end of our spring semester.
“I know. It’s crazy,” she replied.
“It just doesn’t seem to be something you would want to do,” I said.
“I know,” she agreed, adding with smile, “That’s why I am doing it.” And so she packed up and drove the 10-plus hours it took to get to her new home away from home.
I didn’t hear from her too often that summer, as there was no cell phone reception out in the woods. Her calls would come only when she had to make a trip back into civilization, in her case; civilization was the Wal-Mart parking lot, the only place where her phone would work. As she sat in her car chatting she would fill me on all the adventures of life in a country church. She would tell me about the snakes that slithered about on the stone pathway to the house in which she was living in the basement apartment and how she hated making that walk to and fro. She worried if the snakes would get into her apartment. She talked about the black flies that were everywhere. She shared with me the stress of serving two churches that weren’t very close in distance and how she struggled with maintaining a healthy calorie intake when having to be at two coffee hours in one morning. Coffee hours whose tables were overflowing with the most scrumptious, homemade blueberry cobbler, blueberry pie, blueberry muffins, blueberry ice cream—this was Maine, after all. She would share the few highs and the many lows and go into detail on the rare ups and the all too common downs. And so when I asked whether or not she liked it there, she surprised me with her answer.
“Believe it or not. I do like it here. In fact, I think I love it. I know. Weird, huh? The thing is these country churches need pastors too. They need someone to lead them and to love them. It’s a shame so few people want to serve them.”
All of a sudden she got very quiet, so quiet that for a second I thought maybe her Wal-Mart cell phone connection failed.
“Are you still there?” I asked, trying hard to refrain from jokingly asking the question made famous by one phone carrier a few years back, “Can you hear me now?”
“I’m still here,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well, while I plan on going to graduate school after seminary and see myself more in a professor role rather than pastor, I just can’t help but to feel sad to leave here. These churches need pastors too,” she said.
I nodded my head, but she couldn’t hear my nod of agreement, so she continued.
“The thing is, it’s not just about these churches needing pastors. Donna, there’s so much love in these churches. There is this sense of belonging. There is this sense of family. There is still this way of life that says community is everything.”
I was moved by her words, but I was taken aback by her comments that all I could think of saying when getting off the phone with her was a joke. So instead of telling her how powerful and moving it was to hear how God was using her, I said, “Keep up the good work and watch out for those snakes.”
Her words, though, stayed with me, so much so that when a call came a year later from a country church looking for a pastor, I took it. And when the chairwoman of the pastor nominating committee explained how hard of a time they were having finding someone to come to serve their church, I understood what she was telling me. But before the conversation could go any further, the chairwoman had to ask me a question. She wanted to know if I was interested in serving a country church because I didn’t circle that option on the ministry profile I had to fill out. Suburb, college town, small city…they were all circled. Rural wasn’t.
“Oh, hmmm…that…well, I am not sure why I didn’t circle that option. I guess it really doesn’t matter, though, does it? Because God knows where we should all be, right? So I would love to continue this conversation,” I said.
In a few months I was packing my boxes up and getting ready to hit the road out of crazy, congested New Jersey for the country roads of upstate New York where a white steeple church dotting the pastoral hills and valleys of a farming community was waiting for me.
The church was a beautiful sight indeed. From one part of the village, on top of a hill, one could see the 18th century structure. It looked as if Grandma Moses painted it there herself. What was even more beautiful, though, were the stories the old battered doors would tell me every time I entered into the sanctuary. There were the stories of love gone by and the promises of love to come. Yet the greatest story was the one being played out in the present. The story of love that wasn’t this unrealistic we all get along kind of love, but rather the story of real love that meant even when the ties that bind us are put to the test or are strained or even fractured, love still reigns and keeps everything together.
It is in a country church where love is offered up to friend, stranger and even foe. It is in a country church where the struggles are great but the joy in those struggles is even greater. It is in a country church one will come to find something the rest of the world is forgetting—community is everything.
Yes, country churches are in need of pastors but what I have discovered is today’s pastors are the ones who are in need of country churches.