Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Finding faithful leaders

The Rev. John Okan, a native of the Twin Cities, never imagined himself leading four rural churches in a place like Vining, Minn. "When I was initially told of this parish, I more or less kind of laughed," Okan said. "A town of 65, a four-point p...

Small towns face pastoral challenges

The Rev. John Okan, a native of the Twin Cities, never imagined himself leading four rural churches in a place like Vining, Minn.

"When I was initially told of this parish, I more or less kind of laughed," Okan said. "A town of 65, a four-point parish, there's just no way."

He interviewed there solely for the experience, but something clicked. He became pastor of Folden, Leaf Mountain, Nidaros and Vining Lutheran churches nearly two years ago.

"It has been an adjustment to not have a grocery store just down the street," Okan said. But he said he enjoys rural ministry and is glad he accepted the position.

Other newly minted pastors don't necessarily have the same attitude.


The Rev. Charles "Chuck" Traylor sees a different kind of pastor coming out of seminary these days.

"Unless they are second-career people who don't have very high financial needs, (they) are almost precluded from coming to small, rural churches," said Traylor, who oversees Presbyterian churches from western Minnesota to Montana.

New seminary graduates are more likely to be from urban areas than rural. Those who are married need to consider employment options for his or her spouse. And more new pastors have a heavy student loan burden.

All these factors mean they are less likely to accept positions in area rural churches.

"We're getting closer to the crisis stage," Traylor said. "My running line up here is to come to a place like North Dakota or northwestern Minnesota, you either hunt, fish, you're a cowboy like me or you have family up here."

As Traylor tallies the 64 churches in his presbytery, 30 are without an ordained pastor or commissioned lay leader.

While it can be a struggle for houses of worship on the prairie to afford a pastor, those that are able to call one may also have difficulty finding someone for the position.

It's a question plaguing many Protestant denominations: Who will fill our rural pulpits?


Loan load increasing

In the Catholic Church, the process is different. The cost of seminary is paid for by the diocese. The bishop assigns the priest to a church and wouldn't leave a rural pulpit open, said the Rev. Paul Duchschere, vocation director for the Diocese of Fargo.

In other denominations, though, clergy and congregations go through a call process, where each discerns which parish or pastor may be the best fit.

While a pastor may feel called to a small, rural congregation, often these congregations can't afford to pay as much as larger, urban ones. This can affect the pastor's future pension payouts, based on his salary, as well as current debt payments.

A 2005 study by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education shows that the average level of debt for 2001 master of divinity graduates who took out educational loans was $31,376. That figure only includes educational debt.

At Luther Seminary in St. Paul, 70 percent graduate with seminary debt, and the average indebtedness is $41,600.

So some churches offer financial incentives to lure pastors to rural areas despite the lower pay.

In 2000 the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America started an endowment fund to sustain rural ministry. Now in its seventh year, $475,000 has been given to seminarians and pastors as scholarship, loan repayment and pension equality.


The ELCA's Northwestern Minnesota Synod has started a similar endowment program.

"Pastors would never be and should never be highly compensated, I think," said Eastern North Dakota Bishop Rick Foss. "They should be adequately compensated."

Lay leadership

Another way denominations are working to keep their pulpits filled is to tap into a different kind of leader.

"The future of our church is going to be lay pastors," said Traylor, the executive presbyter. "What we have really been stressing is raising up lay pastors and people who are bi-vocational."

An example of that can be found in Lorelee Rude. She's a word processing manager for State Bank and Trust in Fargo and a commissioned lay pastor with the Northern Plains Presbytery, serving the Baker-Downer (Minn.) Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Rude said she first became interested in preaching while living in Texas, and her pastor asked her to fill the pulpit one Sunday. She realized she had a gift for preaching.

She applied and was accepted to the lay pastor program, which involves Bible study, exams and mentoring.


She filled in at the Baker-Downer congregation as the congregation searched for a pastor, and eventually became its pastor in May 2005.

"For a rural congregation, it worked out really well," Rude said. "I have another job that supports me, and they have a pastor."

The Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota is also encouraging church members to take on leadership roles.

This summer, 18 deacons were ordained, the first class of the two-year North Dakota School of Ministry, a program initiated by Bishop Michael Smith. They now are able to minister at congregations throughout the state.

The Rev. Jamie Parsley, assistant to the bishop for communications, sees the deacons as a bridge between the lay members and the priesthood, and a way for rural Episcopal churches to continue.

"Without ordained ministry, they don't have potential to grow," Parsley said.

The right fit

In some cases, rural congregations are able to find a traditional ordained pastor who fits, like Okan in Vining.


He spends each Sunday morning at two of the four churches, and drives about 300 miles a week for his pastoral duties. It's at least a 50-mile drive to visit someone in the hospital.

His wife, Liza, recently gave birth to their first daughter. This will introduce another element into the challenges of rural ministry. But it's still where Okan wants to be.

"I don't think I have a desire to be in a big city, so to speak," he said. "I say that knowing I said I'd never go to a four-point parish."

Okan believes rural areas need to raise up their own leaders and support those who are interested in the ministry.

"I really do enjoy this type of setting. I would maybe at some point want a little bit larger of a town, at least have a hospital or high school in town, but I think I would probably stick to rural ministry," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

What To Read Next
Get Local