(Editor: What follows is a story of one congregation, St. John's Lutheran Church, Johnsonburg, situated in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. But it is a story which could be retold many times throughout the ELCA in congregations located in other small towns and rural areas of our country.)
Two years ago, I had never heard of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania. When I did find out where it is, I described it to other people as "an hour from nowhere."
Johnsonburg is a small town (pop. 3,000) with a large paper mill on U.S. Route 219, halfway between Interstate 80 and the New York State border. It's an hour and a half from State College, two hours from Erie, and two and a half hours from Pittsburgh.
Would I take a call to intentional interim ministry at St. John's, Johnsonburg?
You must be kidding me. I've been a big city girl all 50-plus years of my life. I've lived in or near Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and New York City, but I've never lived this far from major centers of population.
However, a sense of call is a mysterious thing, and besides, I consoled myself, it was an intentional interim appointment and would last only about a year. I could live through almost anything for just a year, right?
Well, I still make a lot of wisecracks about living out in the woods, but after some months here, I have found myself seduced by the charm and simplicity of being pastor in a small town. However, I have found out that too many citified pastors and seminarians feel as I used to about "the woods"summed up in the phrase, "I wouldn't be caught dead there!" or perhaps, "I wouldn't take a call there if it were the last vacant parish in the ELCA!"
I have finished the year and a half intentional interim here in Johnsonburg, and I believe the parish has done well at resolving the problems that upset them a year ago. It's time for the parish to call its next long-term pastor.
The pastor who comes here will find a healthy parish with adequate finances. The worship is thoroughly liturgical yet flexible. The lay-led Sunday school overflows the space available. The three-bedroom parsonage is charming, in good repair, and well-decorated. If this parish were in suburban Philadelphia rather than in Elk County, candidates would be lined up at the Bishop's door.
Unfortunately, out here in the woods, there are no candidates. Last year, the Bishop had requested four seminarians through the seminary "draft" process, but received only two candidates, neither of whom wanted to be placed in Johnsonburg. Not only is Johnsonburg affected, but other healthy, energetic parishes in this Synod are left waiting for a pastor to come serve them.
One parish filled recently had to wait seven years for its new pastor.
Hey, city folk! Suburbanites! There are some fine opportunities for ministry out here! Yes, life is different than in an urban area, but "different" doesn't always mean "bad."
The people here are good salt-of-the-earth, hardworking, and caring people. They are active in their church and generous to their pastor. They've got problems just like urban folk do: the environment of a small town can exacerbate symptoms of frustration like alcoholism and domestic violence. These people need the saving grace of the gospel just as much as anyone else.
And the woods aren't a bad place to live. There's fresh air, beautiful green mountain forests, pretty rivers, no traffic, front yard flower gardens, decent school systems, sports programs for the kids, well-plowed roads in winter, and cheap prices on everything from auto insurance to lunch at the coffee shop.
In many ways, it's easier to cope out here: when traveling, for instance, it's much less tiring to take a commuter jet out of the small, pastoral DuBois Regional Airport into Pittsburgh, and make connections there, instead of having to negotiate the mobs of people at Newark or O'Hare.
I am very pleased with my new synod. My colleagues here are as fine a group of clergy as I have met anywhere in the United States. Women are well-accepted and appreciated professionally. My Bishop is someone I can respect, someone who makes himself very available to his clergy and parishes. Collegial cooperation through weekly pericope studies and monthly regional clergy meetings is stressed.
Meeting Other Needs
Okay, there are a few things we don't have.
- No professional-quality symphony or ballet within a few minutes' notice, but there's still culture on cable TV.
- A scarcity of "fine dining" in the areathough the local pizza shop has hoagies to die for, and the Chinese take-out is as good as I've had anywhere.
- And no branch of Bloomingdale's (an East coast department store), either, though the local Sears and Penney's have quite reputable merchandise, and if you really need to order something exotic, try the Internet. An overnight package service delivers to the door.
During the first few months of living here, if you're suffering urban withdrawal, try scheduling a overnight trip to a major urban shopping area and overdosing for a day or two on shopping malls, sushi bars, and Stravinsky. Some of my parishioners schedule these shopping weekends themselves. (How often do you really indulge in that when you're living in a city, anyway?)
After a year in the country, you'll travel to a big city for a meeting and wonder why you ever felt so attached to the noise, traffic, and inconvenience.
Out here, people don't get hung up on whether you're pretty enough, fashionable enough, or skinny enough to meet their approval, whether you went to the right college or use the right stockbroker or send your kids to the right school.
The people here are simply intelligent, caring, and financially-secure people who want, need, and deserve a loving, forgiving, and energetic gospel ministry.
I came here a year ago with the attitude "I can survive anything for a year." Now, I'm on my way to my next intentional interim placement, but feeling quite sad that I will be leaving this parish vacant. There still are no candidates for this parish. I truly hope that someone comes soon to serve here and the dozen other vacant parishes in this Synod that also are waiting for pastors.
Is it possible that St. John's new pastor could be you?