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NEXT Church panel: Deep rural Kansas has produced a model worth looking at

Three small PC(USA) churches cooperate and innovate 

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton

LOUISVILLE — The future of the church, says the Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton, is in deep rural Kansas.

“The future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) could be what I have learned from rural churches in Kansas,” the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita told the NEXT Church national gathering last week. “We can save ourselves a lot of pain and trouble in the coming years” by studying the lessons learned by three churches there, Neelly Burton said.

Three churches in Western Kansas — First Presbyterian Church in Tribune, First Presbyterian Church in Leoti, and First Presbyterian Church of Lakin — told their story of what Neelly Burton called “a new model for being church.”

Janice Farenholtz was born in Tribune and returned there with her husband. “It’s a place to me of great beauty,” with flat landscapes and beautiful sunsets, she said. “Our small church joined two others to form a three-church group.” All three churches were without a pastor. “We decided we were going to be an active, moving, growing church without a pastor.”

With help from what Farenholtz called “a longtime friend,” the Rev. Charles Ayres, the churches formed a steering committee, which met as the need arose.

The churches came up with goals and hired a discipleship coach, the Rev. Bob Wade, to come live among the faith community in Tribune for three months.

“It was an awakening in each of our congregations,” said Wade Dixon, a district magistrate judge and ruling elder at the Tribune church. “We came to a new understanding of who we are and what we can do.” After making some tweaks in the original concept, the model became “We can continue our relationship with God and continue our mission work without a called pastor,” Dixon said. “We can do most of the things a called pastor can and would do, and we have been able to tap into adjoining communities for pastors when we do things you need to be ordained to accomplish.”

“It has been really cool to see people do things that are outside their comfort zone,” Dixon said. “We are learning it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background and education is. What matters is your trust and faith in God and that relationship.”

The soil in Western Kansas is amazing, Neelly Burton said. It can produce more grain with less moisture than any other region in the country. “The members are similar to the soil on which they depend,” she said. “These congregations were transitioning to an other-centered sharing of talent using the unique ministry of each church.”

“We hear from other churches that ‘We are about discipleship,’” she said. “In the deep rural, this couldn’t be lip service or nothing would get done. They learned to embody discipleship” — serving communion, paying visits and developing a preaching pool. The churches agreed to stick with the Revised Common Lectionary each Sunday. “Each congregation,” Neelly Burton said, “gave life to discipleship.”

The Leoti church, Ayers said, is “in hospice mode” with budgetary constraints making it increasingly difficult to keep up a facility that once hosted 4-H fashion shows and still holds an annual community melodrama.

Many there “were anxious to sustain the place,” he said. “They wanted continuity with the three-church dynamic and the preaching pool.” In time, the session decided to lease the church property, including its manse, for $1 to a nonprofit that would pay for maintenance, repairs and utilities. The result is Agora, a meeting place for the community that emphasizes community networking, Ayers said.

All three churches “are full of good people who grow food for the rest of the country and create new life and new initiatives in their communities,” Neelly Burton said.

As for many churches in deep rural America, “where they are now is where other churches will be, maybe sooner than they’d like,” she said. “Let’s be honest: this model could provide new life and new viability to the PC(USA). This is a map for how to be the church we are called to be right now.”

“Those of us with full-time calls may not always have them,” she said. “In my own presbytery (the Presbytery of Southern Kansas) I can identify churches likely on their last installed pastorate. Why not be part of something new?”

“Come out and see us in Kansas,” she said. “The future is waiting.”

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