By Roland Lovstad
Rev. Todd Kollbaum admits there were times when he prayed God would send him a call or derail the effort to build a regional ministry among three congregations in rural Cole Camp, Mo.
“Time after time, God would remove a stumbling block and I would call my wife and say ‘He did it again!'” said Kollbaum, describing his experience during a session of the “Reaching Rural America for Christ” conference, Nov. 5-7 in Nebraska City, Neb.
In formal and informal conversations, the 114 participants from 14 districts and national offices shared similar stories as they sought to learn about building mission attitudes to share the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ through rural and small-town ministries.
“I have done an extremely good job of getting in the way of rural small-town ministry and God made it work anyway,” Kollbaum told the audience. He described how he was called from the seminary to serve Trinity, Cole Camp, in 2004. Soon after, the nearby dual parish of St. John and Holy Cross asked him to serve their vacancy.
“Since we were involved with a school association, it made sense to strengthen our partnership,” Kollbaum said.
Dr. Ralph Geisler, then a mission and ministry facilitator in the Missouri District, provided support in developing a regional ministry among the congregations, all individually proud of histories and traditions that reached back a century or more.
Saying change is a slow process, the pastor explained how efforts focused on retaining the congregations’ individual identities, respecting their histories, and dealing with fears that one congregation would swallow the others. Kollbaum said the ministry recently held a Reformation Day service attended by more than 100 people from the three congregations. A second pastor, Rev. Michael Boothby, a spring seminary graduate, has joined the pastoral partnership.
“It was phenomenal,” Kollbaum said. “They aren’t losing their individual ministry: they are enhancing it. It has everything to do with God working through talented lay leaders.”
Kollbaum’s ministry is like those encountered by some 3,000 of the 6,142 LCMS congregations that can be classified as rural and small-town ministries, according to Geisler. He currently serves as director of the rural and small-town ministry center, located in the Schroeder Leadership Training Center at Saint Paul’s Institute for Education (SPIFE) in Concordia, Mo. Geisler classifies rural and small-town ministries as those in towns with populations of less than 15,000 where the economy may be based in agri-business, forest products, fishing, or tourism.
SPIFE co-hosted the event with the Rural and Small-town Committee of LCMS World Mission.
In small communities, interactions are among people who know each other, “where the safest thing to be is demonstrably average,” according to Dr. Randy Cantrell, a University of Nebraska rural sociologist who discussed population changes and characteristics of Great Plains communities. He spoke of the importance of establishing “biographies” — listening and understanding the background and histories of the people, as well as presenting one’s own biography.
People who live in rural places are more likely to express contentment with community, family, local church, and trust of their neighbor, but they are also likely to say they hate the lack of available services, Cantrell told the group. If people don’t have access to a town of 10,000, there will be population loss, he said.
At the same time, the sociologist said studies of the census in far western Nebraska found that as much as 30 percent of the population say they arrived there in the last five years.
Cantrell advised churches to recognize the impact on their volunteers and how the changes affect the social network. “For leaders in rural communities, the best they can do is get people together to form networks,” he stated. “If you can get four or five people to discuss working together, you are changing the social structure.”
Often cited at the conference was the estimate that 50 percent of people in rural and small-town communities are unchurched.
Noting those figures, Rev. Scott Snow, director of outreach with LCMS World Mission, reported that funding is being developed for a “rural missionary” who provides resources and build networks with the districts. Geisler currently serves that role on an interim basis. Snow also reminded the audience of existing services including “The 72 — Partners on the Road,” formerly known as “Harvesters for Christ,” which offers trained volunteers to work with congregations to develop evangelism strategies for the community.
The conference also heard from Rev. Dr. Terry Tieman, executive director of the Transforming Churches Network (TCN) and director of mission revitalization with LCMS World Mission.
“We’re talking about how to transform churches that are focused on themselves and help them look outward with a focus on sharing Jesus Christ with their communities,” he explained. He reported that more than 300 congregations in 30 LCMS districts are involved in the TCN process, and he is working with Geisler to tailor the services for rural ministries.
TCN offers learning communities for pastors to learn leadership skills and outreach techniques they can share with leaders and members in their congregations. TCN also offers a weekend consultation that’s designed to help pastors and congregations construct a plan to effectively reach their communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Congregations may choose to continue with TCN in a process that brings local coaches and resources for training.
Rev. Wayne Knollhoff, LCMS director of stewardship, presented “Consecrated Stewards” and “Stewardship 360” as resources that assist pastors and lay leaders in congregations. Terry Schmidt, associate director of schools, presented topics on how congregations can prepare children and youth as missionaries through Christian education and the Lutheran schools. In small groups, participants discussed regional ministries and provided feedback to the conference organizers for future directions and services.
Following the conference, Geisler told Reporter that the LCMS Rural and Small-town Committee would form three task forces to identify needs and resources. One will focus on single-point parishes, another will look at dual and three-point parishes (regional ministries), and a third will work with congregational leadership training for outreach in the rural culture.
Geisler added that Bible studies from the conference, as well as a set of new studies, would be offered on request from the SPIFE Web site (www.spife.org).
“We are sensitive that there is not one way to touch all congregations, especially those in dual and three-point ministries,” he said. “There is a view that many more congregations will need to come together for regional ministry. People seem to appreciate that we are forming task forces and equipping leaders through the districts in order to strengthen congregations to reach their communities for Christ.”
Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Perryville, Mo.
Posted Dec. 9, 2009