In the fall of 1974, a young man named Jim drove an hour north from Pittsburgh, arriving in a small town with a college on its highest hill. He was the son of an ornamental iron worker, born and raised in a city built by steel. He spent the next four years having his faith formed while sitting in the creaky wooden pews of Harbison Chapel. He married a Methodist minister’s daughter and became a minister himself, too. For over 35 years, he pastored rural churches situated in small towns that sometimes don’t even make it onto a map. Those small towns became his home, and since I’m Jim’s daughter, those places became my home, too.
A Place and a People
I call Western Pennsylvania home, a place where the night air smells of fresh-cut hay and pickup truck exhaust and every winding road seems to lead to a Presbyterian church. My faith was formed while sitting in the creaky wooden pews of churches whose steeples were built long before I or my parents were even born. I am a child of rural and rust belt America; I would not be who I am today without the winding rural roads, church potluck casseroles, and organ-accompanied hymns of my youth, nor the people who also hail from these hills, ate beside me in the fellowship hall, and sang offkey harmonies during the offertory—my people.
My people were farmers and football coaches, math teachers and mothers, labor and delivery nurses and funeral home directors. The people of small-town Western Pennsylvania are not perfect, and neither are the people in its churches. Watching my dad be a pastor also meant, at times, watching him be a counselor, a social worker, a coach, a teacher, and about a dozen other odd jobs that seminary courses never specify as part of the calling. To be frank, the work I watched my dad do as I was growing up wasn’t particularly glamorous. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that maybe that’s the point.
The Unglamorous Work of Everyday Faithfulness
In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson writes this about pastoral vocation:
“Pastors enter congregations vocationally in order to embrace the totality of human life in Jesus' name. We are convinced there is no detail, however unpromising, in people's lives in which Christ may not work his will. Pastors agree to stay with the people in their communities week in and week out, year in and year out, to proclaim and guide, encourage and instruct as God works his purposes (gloriously, it will eventually turn out) in the meandering and disturbingly inconstant lives of our congregations.
This necessarily means taking seriously, and in faith, the dull routines, the empty boredom, and the unattractive responsibilities that make up much of most people's lives. It means witnessing to the transcendent in the fog and rain. It means living hopefully among people who from time to time get flickering glimpses of the Glory but then live through stretches, sometimes long ones, of unaccountable grayness. Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity: deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life. This is hard work and not conspicuously glamorous.”
Anyone who has ever been to Western Pennsylvania may find the visual imagery Peterson uses to feel familiar. Fog and rain, long stretches of grayness, work done in obscurity — these are not just metaphors, but descriptions of the experience of living, shepherding, and caring for the congregations of rural and rust belt America. As Peterson points out, this is not easy or glamorous work. But for people like me, like my dad, my grandfathers and grandmothers and siblings and friends and neighbors, the most important kind of work can take place there: the work of the Gospel.
Being a minister of the Gospel in rural and rust belt contexts is not easy. “To proclaim and guide, encourage and instruct as God works his purposes,” as Peterson writes, is not a task that can be done alone; nor was it supposed to ever be done alone. As Luke 10 testifies, this work—the work of the church—was always meant to be a group effort:
“After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of Him to every town and place He was about to visit.”
Together in Small-Place Ministry
Part of the mission of the Project on Rural Ministry is to help address some of the challenges Peterson describes and rural pastors can often feel in the work of being “sent out” to the towns and places they have been called to minister. For the lonely pastor, a phone call or a coffee with a fellow PRM cohort member acts as a moment to “blow on the embers,” — a chance to be listened to, to laugh, to offer affirmation that the flickering glimpses are, indeed, a testimony that Gospel work is really happening. For the resource-strapped pastor, the energy of a group of a dozen eager college students on spring break acts as a needed break in their unglamorous daily routine. For the pastor who is caught off guard by how much the day-to-day job doesn’t fit the written job description, access to social workers and worship leaders and graphic designers acts as a way to become a better steward of the details. Two by two.
One thing I appreciate about the Project on Rural Ministry is that its focus, assistance, and resources are not just in one area — the PRM affirms that the experience of ministering is just as winding as the backroads of western Pennsylvania. There are blind corners to steer around, dips and valleys to navigate, unexpected obstacles blocking the intended route. But there are also scenic views along the way, too: acres of sweet-smelling grass, hilltop vistas, and detours that, though unexpected, lead somewhere good. It’s encouraging to know that the pastors of places like Fombell and Franklin, Mercer and Moundsville, Eastbrook and Irwin, are not experiencing the winding journey by themselves, but with people who understand, desire to help, and are committed to work of Gospel in rural and rust belt America.
A Plentiful Harvest
Throughout my years as a rural pastor’s child, I witnessed the truth of Luke 10: “And [Jesus] told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest.” If I’ve learned anything about the Gospel in all the sermons I’ve sat through, it would be this: how it spreads, where it spreads, and who its “workers” were and are could never be described as tame and tidy, polite and perfect. But, as meandering, mundane, complicated and inconspicuous, and whatever other sets of adjectives fit your rural church context and the imperfect people that worship there, the Gospel gives hope that the Lord of the harvest is with us in this work.
This work is not done; it never is. But in places where the night air smells of fresh-cut hay and pickup truck exhaust and every winding road seems to lead to an old church with creaky wooden pews, the seeds are being planted. The workers have been sent out and the harvest is happening: right here in rural and rust belt America.
Grace Leuenberger is a 2016 Grove City College graduate. Alongside her parents and three older brothers, Grace grew up in four different small towns within northwestern Pennsylvania. Since graduating, she’s taken on a few different creative roles at ministries, non-profits, and small businesses in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and now Kent, Ohio. Her interests include cooking and baking, running, writing about life and faith for Mockingbird Ministries, and learning to play her banjo.