Three rural Macon County churches
come together to share a pastor
a circuit-riding minister of the past, Mary Ellen spends a lot of
time on the move. She travels about 10 miles between each of the three
towns which doesn't leave much time for coffee and fellowship following
The Rev. Mary Ellen Waychoff
walks into the sanctuary of Ethel Presbyterian Church before the start
of Sunday worship carrying her minister's robe and a large portable compact
disc player. While preparing for church she visits with parishioners and
catches up on local happenings in the small north Missouri town.
The recent terrorist attacks
in New York and Washington, D.C., are on everyone's mind and a woman remarks
that a relative in the military reserves has been called to active duty.
These times provide good material for sermons.
Following the service Mary
Ellen quickly makes her way to the exit and out to her car parked on the
street in front of the church. Still wearing her clerical vestments she
jumps into her car and turns south on Highway 149 toward the neighboring
community of New Cambria.
"I haven't gotten a ticket
but I was stopped once," says Mary Ellen, smiling.
She pulls into the parking
lot of the United Church of New Cambria and makes her way to the back
entrance and into the sanctuary where most of the worshippers are waiting
for her. "I'm running a little behind," she says which doesn't bode well
because she still has one more service to lead at the United Church of
Bevier 11 miles away.
|Mary Ellen visits
with children from the congregation of the United Church of New Cambria,
the largest parish in the cooperative with around 85 members.
Nearly all religious denominations
in the United States face a clergy shortage and nowhere is the problem
more acute than in rural America where small churches often have the most
difficulty recruiting and keeping ministers. That problem has led some
churches to band together to help each other.
Often that help occurs within
the same denomination, but in Macon County six different churches joined
together more than 50 years ago to create the Macon County Larger Parish.
They realized that one day
they wouldn't have the membership and money to individually support full-time
ministers. That was in 1948 and today the cooperative parish, now just
three churches, continues to minister to the needs of their communities.
Though rural churches certainly
face challenges many are holding their own and even growing, says John
Bennett, director of the Missouri School of Religion Center for Rural
Ministry. "Because of
my work with small, rural churches I assumed most were struggling to survive."
The Center for Rural Ministry
and the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri teamed
up to study changes in rural Missouri churches. The
study began in 1952 when small congregations in 99 townships across the
state were surveyed. Churches were revisited in 1967, 1982 and 1999.
While the surveys found the
number of churches had declined, researchers found many were doing fine.
Rev. Mary Ellen Waychoff divides her time between three rural churches
which make up the Macon County Larger Parish, a cooperative effort
to share limited resources.
"We discovered that contrary
to the common myth not all rural churches are struggling. We discovered
44 percent of the congregations in our survey are growing. And nearly
15 percent of congregations in townships with populations in decline are
growing. It sort of upended our notions."
Some of these Missouri congregations,
especially in agricultural areas of the state where populations have declined
drastically, have merged with other congregations or joined in cooperative
ministries. The Macon County Larger Parish is one such effort.
But despite the strength in
numbers, attracting a new minister five years ago wasn't easy.
An ordained Presbyterian minister
and the daughter of a pastor, Mary Ellen served a small rural Oklahoma
church for several years and was looking to move on when she received
a call from Glenda Wood, the chairperson of the pulpit nominating committee
of the Macon County Larger Parish. She wanted Mary Ellen to come for an
"I thought, three churches,
you've got to be kidding," says Mary Ellen. "I thought there's no way.
Glenda called and said, 'Please don't say no before you talk to us.' "
Still believing she didn't
want to minister to three congregations, Mary Ellen agreed to a phone
interview and it was during that conversation that she felt she was being
called to Missouri.
"I really feel like God put
us together. I was actually talking to two other churches."
With years of experience with
rural churches, Mary Ellen had often talked about how small congregations
needed to share resources and leadership, especially in the pulpit. "That
night after our telephone interview my own words were coming back to me
and taking away all the reasons I didn't want to come here," Mary Ellen
says. And now five years
later Mary Ellen is at home in Macon County.
Of course there are some disadvantages
to the cooperative ministry including the small size of her congregations.
Mary Ellen preaches to no more than 120 worshipers on any given Sunday
in all three churches. New Cambria, the largest, has just over 80 members
while Bevier, the smallest, counts just six members.
the pace is hectic, Mary Ellen believes her talents are well suited
to serving small, rural churches where the minister must wear lots
of different hats.
One of the biggest disadvantages
is the amount of time Mary Ellen spends on the road. On Sundays she keeps
a tight schedule.
Bevier and Ethel take turns
holding the early service while New Cambria, which is between the two
towns, is the second stop.
"The first church understands.
I go early so if people are there I speak to them, otherwise it's, 'See
you all.' And they understand. "At New Cambria I usually have time to
shake hands but that's it. There's no standing around talking."
She also doesn't have time
to attend or lead Sunday school classes. "I'm always preaching somewhere
else when a church is having Sunday school."
The successful partnership
of three different denominations surprises Mary Ellen who basically does
the same service and sermon three times with only minor variations. The
Christian Church traditionally offers communion to members each Sunday,
but under the circumstances the church in New Cambria compromised and
Mary Ellen offers communion there once a month.
Members of the three churches
are less concerned with orders of worship tied to a denomination than
with attending service in their church in their town. That is a common
trend across the United States where ties to denomination, especially
among the mainline Protestant churches, are weakening.
"For people age 60 and over
denomination loyalty is still there, but for Boomers and Busters and Gen-Xers
denomination is not a factor," says Bennett.
"It's truly an ecumenical
parish," Mary Ellen says. Along with preaching Mary Ellen leads a Sunday
night Bible study class for all three congregations and leads a youth
group which for a couple of years was down to just three boys two
brothers and their cousin.
This year at the first youth
group meeting she had 10 kids and is hopeful the group will grow. But
like in any small town sometimes things like 4-H, FFA and sports push
church activities to the backseat.
their numbers are few, members of the United Church of Bevier are
faithful when it comes to keeping their church alive. Though they
could worship elsewhere, the church is too much a part of their lives
She's just happy to have families
with kids attending church. "Some people get all worked up over not having
many young people and I say, 'Do you think we're going to run out of older
Mary Ellen is also learning
the cycles of agriculture. "Sometimes you're going, why isn't anybody
here? Then someone says, 'Well the guys are in the field.' I'm learning."
During the week Mary Ellen
makes hospital visits, often driving an hour and a half to Columbia where
many parishioners go for medical treatment. She also helps with the New
Cambria choir, plays the piano during services in Bevier and does much
of the parish office work, though she has part-time office help.
Mary Ellen is convinced she's
where her talents are needed. "I have skills that can really be used in
a small church. I think in a big one I wouldn't be happy," she says. "I'm
not going to say everyone here loves me. That would be living in a fantasy
world. But I think we're pretty well matched," says Mary Ellen.
"God called me to be a pastor
of a small church."