Saturday, January 20, 2007

You Might be a Rural Pastor if . . .

OK, let's try this again, and hope it sticks this time, because it's after midnight, and I just lost my whole entry when my newly updated Internet Explorer decided to start blocking stuff. Grrr . . .

Addrianne and I spent the night at Pastor Barbara's parsonage because it had internet access (very useful when doing a blog) and it was closer to the conference that we were going to today. This morning she gave us enough copies of Salem Lutheran's cookbook for our whole group and drove us to Aurora for the conference.

After arriving, we signed in, got name tags, and were fed coffee and donuts. The conference was kicked off with worship, which I quite enjoyed. (I'm not sure if it's due to their dedication to the subject at hand or a matter of most of them having voices that are vastly superior to mine (Sorry, future congregation!), but groups made up of clergy and dedicated lay people always seem to do a beautiful job of hymns.)

The keynote was given by Pastor Steve Tjarks. I enjoyed listening to him. He was an engaging speaker and made several interesting points.

1) Unlike business, the success of a church isn't about quantity, but quality. It's not about how many people you can get in the door, but the quality of the spiritual life there.

2) Rural ministry is all about programs, but about relationship. A rural pastor doesn't succeed by offering all the latest, greatest programs, but by loving and being in relationship with the congregation. A congregation can sense if you love them or are just putting your three years in before going on to something bigger and better.

3) More and more people who are coming to rural ministry are not from rural backgrounds. They feel frustrated and isolated by things and ways of being that they don't understand. Their rural congregations need to be very intentional about making them less isolated (invite them over for the holidays, introduce their kids to other kids their age in the community) and explaining things to them. Their families are also fish out of water, and you need to help them too if you want the pastor and their family to stay. An example: a new pastor came home and couldn't find his family, who had been unpacking when he left. He eventually found them huddled under blankets in a corner of the basement, trembling in fear, because they had mistaken the local lunch whistle for a tornado warning.

He made other interesting points, but I'm too tired to remember them without my notes right now, so you'll just have to trust me on that one. However, I did enjoy, and received his permission to reproduce here, his signs that you might be a rural minister.

The following section is copied straight from a presentation given by Pastor Steve Tjarks at the Nebraska Rural Ministry Task Force Rural Ministry Workshop at Messiah Lutheran Church in Aurora, Nebraska on 1/20/06.

If you are a clergy-person, here are the top 10 signs that you might be a rural pastor.

10) All meetings start later in the summer than in the winter.
9) Poisoning the ground squirrels inhabiting church property poses no moral dilemma for any church council member.*
8) You live on a gravel road, and it's better than many paved roads in the area.
7) Your closest neighbors are accurately termed "livestock".
6) Your church doors are never locked, and no one knows where the keys might be.
5) It is assumed that riding in a combine with one of your members is "real ministry."
4) The parsonage has always been, and will always be, white; both inside and out.
3) The local coffee shop sells gas, oil, tires, livestock feed, ag chemicals, and fertilizer; and the coffee is free. Drinking coffee in this location is considered legitimate ministry.
2) The church cemetery has at least one former pastor buried in it.
1) Your members' stock trailers have never been cleaner than the day they moved you into the parsonage.

Then we had a chance to talk to Bishop David deFreese, head of the Nebraska Synod, over lunch, which included cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream for dessert. (All I can say is that if hospitality can be measured by the desire to feed one's guests, Nebraska must be trying to set the gold standard.) All of the pastors we've talked to while we've been here keep saying good things about him, and it's easy to see why, with his personable manner and good listening skills. He asked us about rural immersion, what worked, what didn't (even taking notes) and listened to our answers. He also talked a bit about rural ministry, emphasizing how, especially in the rural church, it's all about relationship.

After that we attended two sessions of our choice. I (and Adrianne) chose to attend sessions on Ministry with the Aging and then one on Worship. They were interesting, but at this point, I've hit the trifecta of tired, cranky and unable to remember what I'm writing about, so I had better wrap this up.

When the conference was over, we got into the car to try to race the snow to our next destination, and the sky was as white as the ground.

We arrived at our destination, the Carol Joy Holling Center, without incident. This center, located in Ashland, is the headquarters of Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. It's supposed to be beautiful here, but with the cold and the darkness, I am yet to verify this (but I can verify the existence of chocolate almond tart).

Anyway, if this publishes successfully, instead of disappearing, I'm off to bed. I can leave the important things like lounging around and admiring nature from a comfy chair for tomorrow.

*This reminds me of the one of my favorites, the Lutheran squirrel joke. Have you heard it?

There were four country churches in a small Texas town: the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, the Lutheran church, and the Catholic church. Each church was overrun with pesky squirrels.

One day, the Presbyterian Church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn't interfere with God's divine will.

In the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken up habitation in the baptistry. The deacons met and decided to put a cover on the baptistry and drown the squirrels in it. The squirrels escaped somehow and there were twice as many there the next week.

The Catholic church got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God's creation. So, they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.

But the Lutheran church came up with the best and most effective solution. They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.

Just a Few Notes

The capitol building in Nebraska was very interesting looking, so of course I took pictures. Here is the building's dome . . .

. . . As viewed under the power of a persuasive guide.

Prior to the tour, I was aware that Nebraska has a unicameral legistlature. However, I had assumed that it started out that way. Today I found out I was wrong. It started out as a bicameral system. It was changed, at least in part, thanks to the efforts of George Norris. Here is the door to the legistlative body that is no more.

. . . And the door handle in detail.

Two rather famous Nebraskans are Father Flanagan (founder of Boys Town) and Willa Cather (author of works such as O Pioneers! and, my personal favorite, Death Comes for the Archbishop).

Later in the day, as Adrianne said, we met up with Pastor Barbara and we got to talk to members of her church. At that conversion, she not only gave us a lot to think about (and I do agree with Adrianne that the boys missed out), but a lot to eat as well (hot tea and two kinds of coffee cake style breads). We talked about the problems and decline that can be found in rural churches, but it was the kind of conversation that one leaves feeling energized, rather than drained. So, all in all, it was a good end to a good day.

P.S. Pastor Barbara also recommends Open Secrets, so it's not just me.

Friday, January 19, 2007

You Just Have to Love 'Em

Today was an eventful day. For the ladies, it was our final day in Johnson. So, on our way out of town, we pulled over for our favorite Johnson landmark - the sign. Apparently, Johnson has the fabulous barbecue every year. Maybe we'll be back in the future to experience it.

We met Pr. Brenda in Palmyra before heading to Lincoln (the capital!!). Pr. Brenda was praying to open today's legislative session. We toured the capitol building. It is absolutely beautiful. It is covered in art and has gorgeous architecture. It is very tall = 14 stories! Nebraska, unlike the federal government and every other state government, has an unicameral government. That means they only have one house in their legislative branch. It has 49 seats, elected by district (instead of county, of which there are 93). 13 total seats belong to the metropolises (Lincoln and Omaha), all the rest are representatives from rural areas. To conclude our tour, we prayed with the senators and went through half of their agenda (it was a short day), and took our leave.

Next we went to University of Nebraska -Lincoln (UNL). We had lunch with Lutheran Campus ministries there. The program is fairly successful and well known. We met their four peer ministers. The new pastor, Fritz, had a lot to say about what he saw as being a successful campus minister.

Then we went to Region V Services, a group which provides mental health and substance abuse services in 16 counties of Southeast Nebraska. We learned about Emergency Protective Custody, in which police are permitted to place a person who could be a danger to themselves or others in custody and take them to a crisis center. Region V Services has started a program which attempts to lesson the amount of EPCs necessary, by responding to the situation, assessing an individual needs, and attempting to create a safe environment while providing necessary services.

We met with Pr. Barbara, who we met when we first landed, she took us gals back to her home stomping grounds. She lives about 12 miles from the Kansas boarder in South-central Nebraska. I fell asleep in the car and woke to find we had left the gentle rolling hills of the east to the flat-as-a-pancake plains of the central region. We had dinner at the local bar (which is basically the only place to eat out around here). Then Barbara had arranged for us to meet with some of her parishioners. We met with four couples, all long-term members. It was very interesting to talk with them. We talked about trends in the church, especially in regards to attendance and pastoral care. We talked about what was working, what had them excited: they said they were excited about the way their congregation was like family. We also talked about what was troubling them. The were really concerned that parents were not attending church, nor requiring their children to do so past confirmation age. Moreover, the children are so very busy with extra-curricular activities that coming to church has slipped to a very low position on the priority list. We mused about what could be done. The couples were very receptive of us as we talked about our impressions and theories about what we saw in rural ministry. We talked about the "lack of boldness", as Trish put it, that we viewed among rural parishes. We felt that churches who were vital were being risky. They had strong programs, such as bible studies and prayer ministries which encouraged faith. They were intentional about their hospitality and their forming of community.

As we talked, the one thing that kept passing through my head was something that I had heard several times this week. All any parishioner wants from their pastor, and perhaps from each other (and I might venture to guess that this expands beyond the rural communities) is love. Pr. Barth, from the prison, mentioned that when he spoke of a former call. He asked the call committee in his interview, "What do you want from me?" They responded, "We just want you to love us, Pastor." It was clear from the response of the congregates at Salem Lutheran (Barbara's church) that this is what they desired and what they were concerned wasn't being produced at seminary. I guess that this is a question that the church must grapple with: how do we let people - all people - know that they are loved, both by God and the community of believers?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Of Milk and Parlors

Any idea what the above photo is a picture of? (And no, cows will not cut it as an answer.) It is a picture showing part of a milk parlor. What the heck is a milk parlor? It's where the cows go to get milked. While those cows are standing there, they are being milked by automatic milking machines. There are two rows of cows being milked and between them is a much lower central aisle where workers run around collecting the milk. OK, maybe you felt no pressing need to know that, but I felt a pressing need to tell you, because until today if someone had said "milk parlor" to me, I would have envisioned something very different. In fact, the first image that ran through my mind when I heard those words was of a sort of cafe for elderly British ladies who thought tea was too hardcore. As you now know, I was quite entirely wrong.

One thing that amazed me today was the vast quantity of feed that a feed lot goes through. I would have thought that I had a clue, seeing as I lived down the street from a feed lot for four years, but I was honestly astonished at the amount of feed they use. Here is a picture of food being mixed for the second feeding of the day and it's not enough to feed all of the beef cattle at the operation either. All I have to say is that's just a whole lot of feed.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is Henry, the feed lot rooster, because, well, doesn't every feed lot need a rooster to pamper?

Full-Chicken Body Scan

Hello, reader! Sorry I've missed you the last couple of days, they have been long and busy. The last two nights have been straight to bed once I returned home. It has been cold and windy, which take a lot out of a person. Joy has done a great job of updating you on the last few days. As I reflect on them, I have learned a little bit about pastoral care in a rural areas. In many ways, it is not very different from ministry in other contexts. However, one must take into account the mindset of the congregants one serves and the local and regional context. We alsso have discussed the importance of intentional community in rural areas. We have noted that less "vital" churches (as Discovering Hope calls them) are programs of the community. In contrast, vital churches create programs for the community. Of course, "for" means that these programs are methods by which the church bears the good news to the community. However, those programs may take on a variety of different looks. St. Matthew, St. John, and Long Branch all sew quilts for Lutheran World Relief, which is one example of such a program. Long Branch has also been making strides to become more hospitable, as another example.

Now, to today's activities and, eventually, the event that named today's post.

Today was farm day. We started with an hour long drive to Palmyra to meet Pr. Brenda. She lead us to Praireland Dairy near Firth, Nebraska. There, we got to see how they milk cows. They are set up to milk 120 cows per hour. They milk each cow three times a day!

After the dairy farm, we went to the Smart Chicken Processing Plant. We doned hairnets, frocks, earplugs, and hard hats to see how a full, freshly plucked chicken becomes the various parts or gets tied up for oven roasting. The chickens come to the plant in Waverly from another plant outside of Tecumsah (where, Pr. Brenda was told, they do the "sacrficing"). They look very similar to a chicken one might put in their oven for a special dinner. People hang them by their feet onto two miles of chain. The chickens fly around the plant. Every chicken as the very tips of their wings cut off by machine. They are scanned, by computer, to maintain only perfect chickens for whole chickens, everything else is dropped at various times to be cut by people. From the control station, one can see a picture of each individual chicken. The computer images has lines pointing to flaws. Sometimes they are not obvious, such as skin imperfections, and sometimes they are, such a missing wings. Our guide told us that the missing wing probably was a wing that was broken in transport, which cannot be used. The scraps and "inedibles" are taken to be made into dog food. Smart Chicken is unique because it is "air chilled," a process that allows the birds to be frozen without using extra water.

Then, we went to the Feedlot. There, cows are "finished." That means they are fed a diet which we cause them to gain the most weight, going from 700 pounds to 1200 pounds in 150 (or so) days. They had lots of black angus cows. They host 1600 cows at a time. Each cow eats 40 pounds of feed a day (I think that's the right number).

We we able to enjoy old-fashioned ice cream sodas at an old-fashioned drug store in Springfield, near the feed lot.

We ended our evening by bowling. My best game? 86. I'm a terrible bowler. Zach bowled the best game - apparently a personal best - at 150. I also owned the worst game with 27. Told you I was terrible.

Tonight is our last night in Johnson. I hope to write tomorrow to tell you about our time in Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska. Until then, God's Blessings!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In Which No One Complains that There's Not Enough to Do

We did a lot today, like most days here. Just in case some of us were harboring hopes of a quiet J-term of rural relaxation on LSTC's time, those illusions should certainly be gone. The Nebraska Synod takes this immersion business seriously.

Today we toured a funeral home and talked with the funeral director. The outfit seemed very well run and professional. I was surprised to find out that it's a one man operation. That one man took time out to talk to us about the business, what he does and how the pastor fits into the picture. (I really liked the cookies that he fed us too. The chocolate chip ones were especially yummy.)

After that we went back to St. Matthew's and not only were able to see the ladies in action at their Wednesday quilting group, but had a chance to get in on the action.

Featured above are Adrianne (yes, the other contributor to this blog) and Zach, another one of our classmates, showing off their mad skills.

Next we toured the local hospital and our host pastor in Johnson, Pastor Catherine, told us how they work out chaplaincy for the hospital, because there is no hospital chaplain. She also talked about her work with the rescue squad, which is entirely volunteer (much like the local fire department). Then we headed over to Good Sam's, the local assisted living facility, and immediately sat down for lunch. We toured the facility, talked with staff, sat in on bingo, and stayed for coffee time (And yes, there were snacks, why do you ask?) Our final tour of the day was of the local grain elevators. The trip taught me that there's a sort of conveyer belt, covered in little metal buckets that scoop up grain, which goes straight up and dumps the grain when it gets to the top.

After a break, relaxing and playing cards, I joined the males of our group (Zach and our professor, Peter V.) in observing Pastor Catherine's confirmation class (which had three students). However, before the class ended, I had to leave and join the other females in going to observe the confirmation class at Long Branch (which has 13 kids in its program). During confirmation, they made sure that we didn't starve with pizza and goodies. The confirmands did skits and tried to answer the question of who Jesus is. When confirmation ended,we were allowed to wander around the church and discovered that behind the altar, they have a large cross lit with pink neon. It's not what I was expecting to find in rural Nebraska, that's for sure. I suppose it just goes to show some of the assumptions I make, conscious or not.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

This is the Good Life

We have been spending most of our days in Johnson, Nebraska, and it seems like time that you, dear reader, got to know a little more about the place. (Here are two websites with detailed information of the kind that you're not going to get from me in this blog.) Some of the area's biggest employers are the nuclear power plant and the prison, neither of which are located in Johnson itself. It has a very friendly small town flavor. Doors are never locked and you will likely find car keys sitting in unlocked cars. (Even their approach to the possibility of prison escapees has that sort of flavor. One strategy is to leave the car unlocked, the keys in the ignition and a candy bar in the front seat. In other words, all an escaped prisoner would want to do is get out of such a small town where everyone knows each other, so just make sure that there's no reason for your paths to cross during their attempted flight.) This is a town that loves to feed people (as my waistline would happily attest to) and very much sees itself as a community. If your house burns down and you don't have insurance, up springs a drive for old furniture and a rental is found that you can stay in for a while without worrying about rent. For the population, there's a fair number of churches in the area, most of which are Lutheran. Some of the churches (Lutheran and Methodist) have combined their Sunday schools to make sure that despite their small size, they can continue to offer it to their youth.

Here's what you first see when you enter Johnson, Nebraska.

. . . And as you get closer . . .

Tonight we saw some basketball games at the high school, boys' and girls' varsity teams. The junior varsity teams also played earlier, but we missed those games because we were busy being fed by the ladies of St. Matthew's. (They were only feeding a total of nine people, including themselves, but it was the sort of meal where they put four sticks of butter on the table, just in case we were feeling a wee mite peckish.) Both of the teams won their games to the hearty approval of the sizable crowd that showed up to support them.

In such a small town, where they have their own school, all of the grades are housed together, K through 12. However, they had some things that really surprised me, in one of their media oriented classes, all of the students were playing around on laptops, they have a class where students work on designing an electric car (they currently have two cars in progress) and in keeping with the Johnson lifestyle, none of the lockers have locks.

Earlier in the day though, we had visited one place where the no locks rule most definitely did not apply, the state prison. We also got to meet with a pastor who is the guy to talk to about things like prison chaplaincy. He was actually called by the Nebraska synod to work with a congregation that is inside the walls of the state prison in Lincoln.It strikes me as something that could be a very challenging ministry, but a challenge that Pastor Barth is up to. I think the man has skills. (There's a bulletin cover used by the Followers of Christ congregation, which was designed by one of the congregants, that I found pretty interesting and appropriate and will share on this blog as soon as I can find a place to scan the image.)

So to sum it all up, today we learned a lot, ate a lot and played a lot. Come back tomorrow and see what we get up to next.

More Power!!!

Good morning! Yesterday, Monday, was an exciting day. We had the opportunity to tour Cooper Nuclear Plant in Brownville, Nebraska. We learned a lot about the facility and how the Nuclear Plant works. Did you know that nuclear power is actually all about steam? The nuclear reaction creates heat, which heats up water in pipes, turning it to steam, it then moves a turbine that is HUGE (we saw the top half of it, and it was at least twenty feet tall). They use the Missouri River to cool the water before moving it back into the reactor to become steam again. We got to see the top of the reactor (which is covered in concrete, so we only saw the concrete) and the pool where spent fuel is held. That's right, pool. The nuclear fuel gets to a point where it is still radioactive, but it is no longer useful in creating power.

After we toured the plant, we had lunch. Over lunch we talked about how safe the plant is, there are lots and lots of safety measures in place so that the public is safe. However, nearly everyone expressed a concern about the environment. True, the nuclear plant produces significantly less greenhouse gases, but it does release a small about of steam that is slightly radioactive. What might happen to the birds or to the ozone layer? Also, as I mentioned before, the water from the Missouri River is used to cool the steam. It is then returned to the river, but at a much warmer temperature than when it was drawn out. What effect might that have on microorganisms in the river? We agreed that, as a short term solution, nuclear power may have the fewest side effects, but, overall, the healthiest choice is a lifestyle change.

After the power plant and lunch, we went to SENDS, a program that works with developmentally challenged adults. It was very neat to see these adults working hard and trying to work with the culture around them.

After that, we toured Auburn Public Works. They have six generators that run on electricity or diesel fuel. This is a station that supplements the "base power," such as that provided by Cooper. They generally only run a few hours and are notified when to run by Nebraska Public Power District.

We had a nice, quiet evening watching movies with the girls and Pr. Catherine's grandson, Davison.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Those Pictures I Promised

I just had dinner at Marianna's (Adrianne's host) house. They have a USB port and were kind enough to grant me access to it, so here's a couple of pictures of St. Matthew's (the only Lutheran church in the area that isn't known by its location, because it's the town church).

I thought that the altar was especially interesting. The Last Supper at the bottom even has its own little lights that were on along with the overhead lights during the service.

Below are some pictures of what I see out the backdoor of the place where I'm staying (before the fresh snow rolled in last night).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

It's All About the Pie

Two pastors (a married couple sharing a call) came up and talked to us this afternoon. And talk about a small world, it turns out that his (the male half of the husband and wife team's) sister goes to the other ELCA church in my hometown! No one else here has even ever heard of my hometown, so that was a shocker. They had a lot of interesting things to say, but Adrianne already covered it, so I'm only going to cover a few highlights that were of particular interest to me.

First off, they recommended a couple of books for people going into rural ministry. One was Dakota and one they said was named Working, but I think might have actually been this book. (Why all of these book links? Because I love books, probably way more than I should, but I love them.)

Second of all, there is no easy answer for the single pastor. I am the only completely unattached student in my group and when I asked about what a pastor does with parishoners fascination with their love life and desire to set the pastor up, I got a lot of "ummm . . ." in response. They said to try to find a spiritual director outside of town and some other activities outside of town, but it didn't sound like anything would have a real effect on the situation, just make it easier for one to accept it. Apparently it's just a side effect of being a single, rural minister, much like coffee is a side effect of being Lutheran.

Why visit Nebraska, people? For the hospitality and above all, for the food. Everyone here is so welcoming and inviting, it's amazing. The food is amazing too. Every meal is tasty and home cooked. If we're too full for seconds, we better have good excuses, like we ate too many donuts (after breakfast and before lunch) and too many cookies (at the meeting after lunch) and we're trying to save room for dessert after dinner. I had some pie this evening that was fabulous. So I'm telling you, come to this place for the hospitality, stay for the pie. It's worth it.

Cluster Pastors

Today, Sunday, I worshipped at St. Matthew, just like Joy. In the afternoon, all of us (Joy, Trish, Zach, our Professor, Peter, and me) met with Pr. Catherine and two other pastors from the area. The other pastors were a husband and wife team from a church known as "Long Branch." Apparently, Long Branch, as well as "Stone Church" (St. John) and "Hickory Grove" (I believe it is really St. Paul) are better known by their geographic location than their actual names. Long Branch is also ELCA.

The Cluster Pastors and our class had the opportunity to dialogue about what it is really like to be a minister in a rural context. We discussed everything from being a parent to dealing with cultural changes in the surrounding communities. The pastors were also very open in their discussions about how they feel their churches could institute change and allow for evangelism. All three pastors were very clear that being a rural minister is difficult at times, but it is worth it.

A Quiet Sunday Morning

OK, the ground is now all white and very pretty.

I went to church this morning and it's a good looking older church. (I have pictures, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I can't upload them right now, but I will as soon as I can.) They use the green book (the Lutheran Book of Worship or LBW) at St. Matthew's and you'd think I'd know it pretty well by now. After all, it has been out for 20 or more years at this point, I think. But you know, I was completely knocked for a loop, because they used setting one instead of setting two. It's not that there's that much difference between the two, all of the words we used were the same, just the musical settings are different.

The old stone church, which Adrianne saw, is still using the red book, not the new cranberry book, but the old red book, the one that came before the green book. I don't remember ever using the red book. It would have been interesting to attend a red book service. Apparently it's not that different, but there's thee's and thou's.

I always felt that it must be tough being compared to a pastor from twenty years before. but one of the ladies that was visited yesterday was talking about the pastor from 100 years ago and talking about the Dust Bowl (which Nebraska has made great strides since and no longer resembles). All I can say is "Wow" that's a lot of history that church members remember, and a lot to live up to.