Pastor’s Column: Bringing Life and Health Back to a Flat-Lining, Hurt Rural Church
This is a part of our “Growing and Thriving Rural Churches” Series
Doubling Church Membership in Past Decade
I have been a pastor in urban and rural areas. The church I now pastor is in a small town in west central Minnesota. For 40 years Morris Evangelical Free Church has always attracted people of all ages including younger people, families with children from different Christian backgrounds. The Biblical teaching and expositional preaching, along with an informal environment, has been the main appeal for decades. It also was the church where a newly married couple from different Christian backgrounds could agree on.
Growth continued until mid-2000s at which time it “flat-lined” and started to decline like most churches. This was a critical time when strategic decisions on worship style, ethnic outreach, and defined roles in leadership helped the church pursue its clear vision. In the last 10 years the membership has more than doubled and the average Sunday attendance has increased about 40%. Currently, we have 540 active attendees (including babies), within a demographic of 5,200 in Morris and 10,000 in Stevens County.
There is a frequent phrase in Ezra and Nehemiah, “And the gracious hand of the Lord was on me (us.)” This signified God’s favor accompanying the actions of His people. How I have seen God working in this church goes well beyond my ability to lead, beyond the expertise of our staff, and beyond the gifted individuals who make up our body of believers. What are the main things that kept our focus on Christ and our passion for the Gospel to reach the lost?
Prayer as a Real Value
The first initiative was the formation of an active, intentional prayer team. Both men and women who had a passion for prayer became a part of this team that would meet regularly. We studied the Prayer Saturated Church by Cheryl Sacks which gave us some guidance on how we could build prayer into the life of the congregation. For a team like this to succeed, it must not be just an auxiliary ministry of the church. The senior pastor must trumpet prayer as the most important work being done. Over the past nine years this active team has become honored by the congregation, as the value of personal and corporate prayer continues to pervade. I have actually discovered that it is better for me not to be part of that team but the one who continually empowers the team. I communicate with them each week and meet with them from time to time, but they are the ones who have taken off with it. I believe God has honored that move. Several times, as a church, we could have turned back into the wilderness, but God preserved us though resolving some deep personal conflicts and the congregation going forward.
Reconciliation Makes God Smile
I noticed early on that the people at Morris EFC were good folks but they were hiding hurt. They were very nice and hospitable, but deep down they were hurt from previous conflicts that involved a previous youth pastor. This issue mounted and divided the congregation, resulting in three full-time staff members leaving, including the senior pastor. There was a great deal of distrust to overcome.
I came to Morris with full ignorance on how deep the distrust was. To make matters worse, the new youth pastor (who was brought on alongside me) was having a polarizing effect on the congregation and having family issues. The elders and I had to release him to a recovery church. Now we went from deep hurt to devastation. If it were not for the wisdom and credibility of our district superintendant, I do not know where we would be today. He dropped his schedule and came to us on short notice helping our leaders to pull together.
The Peacemakers series was implemented from January to April which helped us plant the first seeds of reconciliation. We used it as sermon-based curriculum for all our small groups. This set into motion applicable skills as time went on. It has taken the greater majority of the past nine years to rebuild the trust and reach the unity and harmony we now have. In a small town, people are not quick to leave a church for another especially if there are family ties to it. They are forced to get along. The hard work of peace-making and reconciliation must be done in the rural or small-town church if it is to move forward, being blessed by God. Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Rom. 12:18). I have discovered that we quit too soon. Yes, I too, had to swallow my pride and humble myself on three separate occasions to be part of a mediating effort between another member of the congregation and myself.
There is no substitute for a mature, godly worship director who can use the variety of media and creativity to communicate the message of the Gospel. Worship is today’s language that is engaging our young families. At the time we were considering change, we had two blended services. Our previous worship leaders were weary. Also, our multi-generational congregation was split between singing more hymns and singing the latest contemporary songs. We decided to split the services into very traditional and very contemporary with little in between. Our elders agreed to bring on a contemporary worship leader on a trial basis by contract. This man turned out to be one of the greatest assets for our staff and we eventually offered him a full time position. We now have two contemporary services with a more outreach oriented Thursday evening service called The Journey. At the same time, we continued to honor those in our traditional service by enriching and refreshing that service. Surprisingly, our traditional service is growing as well.
Sometimes a pastor can throw cold water on enthusiastic leaders by micromanaging. I find my greatest joy in handing off the ministry baton and seeing someone else run with it. One helpful resource for our staff and boards is Tim Addington’s “Leading from the Sandbox.” This helped us bring clarity to empower and release leaders and volunteers to function at their greatest potential within their ministry context, yet within the constraints of our mission and vision. When we started working in alignment, there was less potential for confusion and conflict. This required that we take a hard look at what we were doing. Hard choices had to be made simply for the sake of effectiveness. We had to eliminate some good programs so we could do the better things.
The way paid staff are selected is primarily by the congregation or within the West Central area. I place a high importance on paid-employees who have vested interests in the church already. Understanding and appreciating the culture cannot be overestimated. I am the only one on staff who is not from the area. As a result we have a synergetic relationship without any “silo ministries.” They feel empowered without me looking over their shoulder.
Elders as Shepherds
How I work and minister with my elders is key. We have been going through the patient process of transforming the elder role from that of board of directors to shepherding. Each elder has 15 families they care for and look after. We only have half our congregation covered at this time. My important role as pastor is to equip the elders to pastor others. I meet with them twice a year, one-on-one, for accountability and equipping. Congregational care is a high value as one of our elders has a special mercy gift. He and I meet regularly to keep on top of the care needs of the congregation.
With such a synergetic staff, we could easily run ahead of the elders. I make sure we understand our role of creating and suggesting ideas to the elder board and then implement their final decision. This requires me to take the extra time and energy to keep the elders informed and up to speed, so our meetings and decisions can be efficient with effective results.
This shepherding focus proved to be very helpful when we had three couples going through a marriage crisis, all during the same year. It happened that each of these couples were under elder care. By virtue of the relationship they had with their elder, all three couples were accountable to their shepherd. As they were making it through the “deep weeds” alongside their elder, it was not necessary for me to involve myself.
As dramatic demographic changes are happening in our cities with increasing religious and ethnic diversity, the same is true in pockets out in the prairie, including in Morris. Just south of Morris is the largest dairy operation in Minnesota. The mission field has come to us with numbers of Latinos who work there and on the hog operations. With much encouragement from our district we launched a Latino ministry seven years ago. It took some time to sell this to our congregation as they were apprehensive of the unknown, but in the end the church moved forward. After frustrating attempts to secure a Spanish pastor from Chile, due to homeland security and immigration restrictions, the Lord led us to our perfect match in Pastor Hector Franco, a young, educated pastor from Elbow Lake, just 30 miles north. He is fluent in both English and Spanish and proved to be a very competent pastor. We have adopted the “Church within a Church” model which has worked so well to integrate both cultures. The children know English and are part of our Sunday school and VBS. As much as I love my English congregation, our Latino family treats Nancy and me so well. They offer to cook us some of the best original Mexican cuisine.
Cultural Fit for Rural Community
Finally, it is helpful that I am a cultural fit for this area of west central Minnesota, after being a Nebraska farm boy. I will operate farm machinery for a couple of weeks in the fall for one of our farmers as a diversion from ministry. I keep up on the trends in farming through reading and media. More important, I really love this group of people Christ has put in my care.
Marlin Mohrman has been Lead Pastor at Morris Evangelical Free Church in Morris, Minnesota for the past 9 years.