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Rural ministries: Keeping rural churches alive

Despite dwindling numbers, small church keeps eyes on the goal: Outreach

October 30, 2009
By KAREN SCHWALLER/Farm News staff writer

MILFORD - Jennifer Hesebeck knows that, while at times bigger can be better, it isn't necessarily what all the people want when it comes to choosing where to worship. And so she leads her congregation of 67 with as much workmanship and pride as those who lead hundreds or thousands of people every Sunday.

Hesebeck is in her third year as lay minister at Excelsior United Methodist Church, located about 10 miles northwest of Milford. Established in September 1893, the church and its property resemble something out of Little House on the Prairie.

The structure is surrounded in every direction by rich Iowa farm land and features a small township cemetery just behind the church, with a handful of members buried there. The church itself is simply decorated on the inside and can hold about 75 persons.

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THE Rev. Jennifer Resebeck pastors a small rural church near Milford. Rural churches are challenged in keeping their doors open with dwindling attendance and larger churches in bigger communities luring worshippers away. She said gimmicks won't keep a small church going, adding that only outreach can do that.

"I speak to about 25 members here (on an average) Sunday," said Hesebeck, adding that the congregation there tends to be more mature in age. But even with that, she said, the church still maintains a children's church program, puts together special music and programs throughout the year, has an active United Methodist women's group, and conducts a religious education program for youth when they determine there are enough kids for it.

Five of their youth were confirmed in the last Confirmation class two years ago. "Ours is more of an older congregation, so my sermons are geared more toward adult things," Hesebeck said, "but we tend to do family activities, like going bowling together or going out for pizza (as a church family), things like that.

"But we still do sometimes have a children's sermon where the kids come up to the front and (experience) the sermon in terms that they can understand."

Lola Belle Flint, 90, has been a life-long member of the church. She was baptized and confirmed there at age 16, and also had two sets of grandparents - along with her own parents - who helped others keep the church going.

"The last two Confirmation classes had members who were fifth and sixth generation families of the church," she said, speaking of the members' dedication to that little church.

She remembers when church elders decided to install a basement, along with an indoor restroom, furnace room, kitchen and dining area in the 1940s.

"The fall festival helped to pay for that," she said, adding that that festival still happens today. "And today we even have one of our members who does the auctioneering."

Some of Flint's memories include church members gathering around the pot-belly stove to warm their hands, and she remembers watching the adults light the lamps on the side walls of the church before the services. She also remembers Sunday school picnics in a nearby grove, where large tablecloths were spread on the ground and food placed on them because there were no tables. She remembers a special service and tent celebration in 1993, when the church celebrated its centennial.

She and her husband, Marion, live in Lake Park, and while she says the town has a lovely Methodist church, she feels a special calling to this one, even though they make a bit of a drive to get there.

"We feel there's still a place for a small country church, not only for those who live in the area, but for those who have lived there before, left and have come back," she said.

While there are things to like about belonging to such a small congregation, Hesebeck said that times today present great challenges to those who oversee small rural churches - particularly with youth programming. Hesebeck's program is run as a one-room experience with youth of all ages, teaching the same message in age-appropriate ways.

"It's hard to compete," she began. "We're several miles from town, and it's not convenient for parents when there is nothing else for them to do from the time they drop off their kids until they pick them up.

"Many of them stay and help out on those nights because of that. Even just to go Christmas caroling, we have to drive some distance to do it.

"But the flip side of that is that we can have a hayride if we want to."

Since the church is small, it presents challenges when funerals, weddings or summer youth events come along which bring large crowds. At those times, she calls on the help of area sister churches in Lake Park, Milford and Fostoria to house those larger events. Hesebeck said the last wedding at Excelsior United Methodist Church was 15 years ago.

Being located in the country also means that Hesebeck needs to think about winter weather on Sunday mornings and the safety of the congregation.

"Most are driving at least a few miles to get here, and if there is any question about the roads or even just the cold, we don't have the service," she explained. "Cold is different out (here) than it is in town. When the crops come out and there is nothing to stop the wind and the snow, it's a lot different situation. Sometimes our roads aren't even open for everyone to get here."

The church's rural location even presents challenges of an agricultural nature now and then. Hesebeck said a man once called her on a Sunday morning to inquire about the start time of their service.

"Turns out he was going to be spreading manure that morning (in the vicinity of) the church, and he thought he would wait until after our church service was over," she said as she laughed. "I appreciated that."

Heat bills in the winter, light bills, building and cemetery upkeep expenses, running a youth program, paying the minister's salary, it would all seem to be a daunting financial reality for pastors of small rural churches. But Hesebeck said that, though their church does struggle with these issues, its members support the church as fully as they need to.

"Even the families who have moved away are very loyal to our church," she said. "We have received bequests from former members, and our regular church goers are very faithful. We have an auction in the fall, which is always very successful."

The church recently installed an elevator to run from the basement to the church upstairs and also remodeled the basement restrooms to make them larger and handicapped accessible.

Even with the basic financial backing they have, Excelsior United Methodist Church still cannot afford to hire a full time minister, with the salary, pension and insurance that would typically accompany such a position.

So Hesebeck was hired as a quarter-time lay minister after taking some college lay speaking courses. Today, she is able to do Sunday morning services, along with funerals and Confirmation ceremonies. The Methodist church law says she needs a licensed (ordained) Methodist minister to either perform or help her with baptisms, weddings, or distributing communion.

"Really, I have the same duties as a full time minister when it comes to everyday things," she began. "I'm on call 24 hours a day, I visit people in the hospital and pray with families when they have lost someone and I listen to people."

Excelsior United Methodist Church is all about outreach, Hesebeck said.

"We're always looking for sources of outreach, but our human side asks how we can keep the doors open. Ministry is reaching out, and if we keep worrying about dwindling numbers, we're not doing what we're here to do - being a light to our community. Our (outreach) keeps us vital as a congregation."

Even with the issues that are unique to small, rural churches, Hesebeck said there's something to be said about worshipping " away from the hustle and bustle."

"People are comfortable here," she said. "It's quiet, and if during a service you look out the window and see that the beans are changing, it can become a prayer experience because you know that you'll soon be out harvesting, and it becomes a prayer for a safe harvest.

"There's a sense of family here. People have told me that while others are driving to the (Iowa Great) Lakes, they are really taken by our 'quaint little country church.' It's taking a step away from the tourism of this area.

"Some of our farm families come to worship in their overalls and work boots. That's worshipping together as a family in a small country church."

To find out more about Excelsior United Methodist Church, go online to

Contact Karen Schwaller by e-mail at



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