With Attendance Down, Rural Churches Pool Resources To Keep Doors Open

May 30, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 6:59 am
Copyright 2019 WFIU. To see more, visit WFIU.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Churches have long been the heart centers of American towns - the place people gather once a week to worship, yes, but also to feel connected to their communities. Now those gathering places are losing their draw. Across rural America, in particular, church attendance is gradually dropping. And with fewer people in the pews, churches are trying to find ways to keep their doors open. From member station WFIU, Brock Turner reports.

BROCK TURNER, BYLINE: Marissa Tweed Harrison is from Tampa, Fla. But she moved here, to northern Indiana, to start her career as a pastor three years ago. Many first-time pastors start in small churches, but now Harrison serves two of them.

MARISSA TWEED HARRISON: Doesn't matter where you are, often, you'll see a trend that that is happening. But I'd say that these congregations have really pulled together their resources for the sake of ministry together.

TURNER: For many, it comes down to finances. And increasingly, small rural churches are pooling their resources and sharing their ministers. Mark Chaves studies American religious trends at Duke University. He says the data shows a distinct urban-rural divide.

MARK CHAVES: About half of rural churches have a full-time clergy person, compared to about three-quarters of urban churches that do. And kind of another angle on that is that there's more of the clergy who work in rural churches also serve other churches.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning.

HARRISON: Good morning. Have a good day, sweetie.

TURNER: On Sundays, Marissa Harrison leaves her home around 7:30 in the morning. It's then a 15-minute drive to her first church, St. Peter's Lutheran, in Camden, Ind., a town of just 600 residents. The church has its founding documents and charters laying on a table with today's service program. Today there are fewer than 20 people here, and they're scattered throughout the wooden pews accented with scarlet benches. Many of them are retired. There are speakers hanging from the ceiling, but Harrison doesn't need a microphone for her voice to fill the sanctuary.

HARRISON: Well, even when she visited me in seminary, she did some of the same things...

TURNER: She says it's a far different church than it used to be.

HARRISON: If you talk to anybody around here, they'll tell you, back in the day, we used to have hundreds of kids. You know, they were all up and down the hallways.

TURNER: She stays just about two hours. Then she gets back in her small, dark blue Ford Fiesta and drives 20 minutes north to Faith Lutheran in Logansport. Slow-moving tractors can make this drive on country roads much longer.

HARRISON: Faith has a Logansport address, which is the town just north of there with about 18,000. But the church itself is located in a cornfield or a soybean field, depending on the year. (Laughter). And so we're about 10 minutes south of the town.

TURNER: The church moved its service back five minutes to give her a bit more time. And today, she's cutting it close. While Faith is larger than her first church, there still only 54 congregants here. A lot of them have been coming since they were kids, and like Teresa Cooksey, say it's the highlight of their week.

TERESA COOKSEY: It's better than everything else I drag myself around to. It's a filling thing. You come in really drugged out and empty, and it kind of fills you back up.

TURNER: The two churches agreed to have Harrison split her time, 25 percent at St. Peter's and 75 percent at Faith.

COOKSEY: Little things you have to be willing to share. It's part of a family thing. You're not, like, an only child. You have brothers and sisters elsewhere that you need to share Mom or Dad with.

TURNER: It doesn't matter the denomination or location, increasingly, pastors in rural America are splitting their time.

MELVIN MATTHEWS: I spend so much time on the road during the week. And in that sense, it's a bit frustrating for me to spend more time actually traveling than ministering.

TURNER: That's Melvin Matthews, a pastor at Seventh-day Adventist churches for nearly 20 years now. Currently, he's pastoring four churches and estimates he travels 200 miles a week getting to all of them. Both refer to their cars as mobile offices, and it's fitting because many spend more time on the road than in their churches. For NPR News, I'm Brock Turner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.