Rural Missouri Magazine

Answering the call
Three rural Macon County churches
come together to share a pastor

by Jeff Joiner

Like 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 services.

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.

The 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 interview.

"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.

Though 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.

Though 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 to close.

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 folks?' "

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."

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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