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Finding Rural Churches:
Methodological and Practical Consequences of Invisibililty

Zoey Heyer-Gray and Mary Jo Neitz

Paper presented at the meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, San Francisco, California. August 1998.

What I am beginning to explore in this paper is the issue of invisibility amongst small, rural churches. I'll be discussing some of the implications of invisibility as well as some of its sources because I'm interested in whether visibility and, in turn, accessibility are in fact linked to pastoral presence. First, of course, I should clarify what I mean by invisible: I use the term to mean that a church does actually exist, but is invisible to someone outside of the community who is purposefully looking for the church, someone like me (a researcher from a somewhat distant university who does in fact live outside of the community).

First, I am going to discuss how we arrived at our sample of rural churches (including some of the problems we encountered trying to identify and verify the churches in our geographic area: rural missouri) then I'll talk in greater detail about this issue of pastoral presence in rural Missouri churches.

Our first step was to compile an exhaustive list of all the churches in the four counties we had chosen to focus on. We used a number of sources for doing this:

(1) Looked in phone books, including online databases.

(2) Read through listings of churches from county extension Agents

(3) Scanned the local newspapers

(4) Contacted regional denominational headquarters

(5) Looked for and made note of churches when we drove through the country (drive-by sightings)

(6) Occasionally, but not very frequently, we found out about a church from another pastor in the community

(7) And even less frequently, we found a church through the web (in fact, however, churches that did have information posted always had information in another source, as well), and this is usually where I found them first.)

Phone books supplemented by local newspapers were where we found the bulk of the churches in our sample. Interestingly, the information in the local newspapers did frequently supplement the information in the phone books (not simply a repetition).

Eventually we arrived at a list of 262 churches (265-Trin Ep, -Vine, -AOG). Our random sample of 34 churches was chosen from these 262 churches.

After selecting these 34 churches the next step was to verify that the church still existed. We did this in three ways: (1) wrote a letter, (2) phoned, and (3) if writing or phoning did not work I simply showed up on Sunday morning. Now, verifying that the church actually still existed was problematic for several reasons. First, frequently the address was no longer correct (this is true because rural routes had all been renamed in the last four years and addresses in these outlets had simply not been updated). Occasionally, the address may have been correct, but was too vague to be useful or was nothing more than a P.O. Box so I could not just simply show up for services. Also, in several instances the phone number was no longer correct. And in most cases, even when the telephone number was correct, there was no one at the church to answer the phone. And I did call multiple times, on different days, and at different times of the day. (I found very few churches [2] with answering machines and of those who actually did have answering machines not everyone actually returned my calls.) Eventually, when I could find a name, I had to start calling pastors at home (or at work) because I simply could not reach them--or anyone else--at the church. [Although I was somewhat apprehensive about this, the pastors did not seem at all surprised or bothered (which suggests that it is not unheard of for them to receive calls about the church at home or even at work).]

Now, all of this should begin to suggest to you that there was a definite lack of pastoral presence in many of the churches that we were trying to study. This is an issue that I am going to explore in greater detail. What are some of the consequences of this lack of pastoral presence besides the fact that it makes field researchers work a little harder? But first, where are the pastors? I'm going to answer this question by answering another set of related questions:

1) Is the pastor a resident of the community in which the church and the congregation are located?

2) Is the pastor permanent or temporary? (Really a question of tenure: how long has or will the pastor be at that church?)

3) Is the pastor bivocational? (That is, does the pastor have a job, frequently a "secular" job, in addition to his or her vocation as a pastor?)

4) How many churches does the pastor tend to?

5) How long has the pastor actually been a pastor and/or been a pastor at this particular church?

By charting the answers to these questions we began to get a sense of where the pastors are and are not.

Of the 34 churches, 2 had no pastors at all. (One church is seeking a permanent pastor, the other is a Jehovah's Witness congregation [and, of course, they do not have pastors].) 8 of the remaining 32 churches have non-resident pastors, that is, pastors who do not live in the same community as the church and the congregation. Out of the remaining 24 resident pastors 2 are only temporary pastors, one of which is now gone. Of the remaining 22 long-term, resident pastors 6 are bivocational, that is, employed full-time (and in one instance, part-time) in addition to their job as pastor. Of the remaining 16 long-term, resident pastors whose sole vocation is pastoring, 2 pastor more than one church. That leaves us with 14 long-term, resident pastors whose sole vocation is to pastor a single church. Of those 14, 3 are new pastors and 1 is new to the church that he is currently pastoring (by "new" I mean within 2 years). We are now down to 10 long-term, resident pastors whose sole vocation is to pastor a single church and have been doing it for more than 2 years. Of these remaining 10, one works at a Wesley Foundation on a University campus so although he is stable he has a constantly shifting "congregation" and another has been recently called to another church (leaving the church he was at without a f/t pastor). That leaves us with 8 resident pastors whose sole vocation is to pastor a single church, have been doing it for more than 2 years, and are currently still pastoring that church (about 24% of the sample of 34 churches).

It should be fairly obvious that I am comparing these pastors to a kind of idealized pastor: the full-time, long-term, resident, experienced pastor whose sole vocation is pastoring a single church.

Now, it is important to note that some of these statuses are in flux. Student pastors will eventually graduate, interim pastors will, hopefully, be replaced with permanent pastors. Pastors with secular jobs may eventually retire and be able to devote themselves full-time to pastoring.

It is also important to note that the notion of a "long-term" or permanent pastor means different things in different denominations. For example, itinerancy is part of the United Methodist heritage. Congregations expect that their pastor will move on in a particular number of years. Similarly, according to several of the SBC pastors I interviewed, the average tenure for a pastor in their regional associations is a mere 2 years.

Still, despite these caveats, the picture of rural churches that emerges from our data is one of continual flux, one where pastoral leadership is constantly shifting.

I would like now to describe in a little more detail 3 of the churches. I'm also going to suggest that they exemplify 3 different "types" of churches. I've categorized these churches in a sense by the degree of pastoral presence as well as by the degree to which the church is isolated from outsiders [how accessible to outsiders?].

The first church represents the "Invisible Church." This church, a small, Baptist Missionary church on the outskirts of town, has no phone number listed in the phone book, no mailing address, an outdated and inaccurate listing in the local newspaper, no identifiable denominational affiliation, and certainly no website. And even the pastor across the street could not tell me who to contact. When I finally showed up one Sunday to try and find out what was going on I discovered that they had no pastor and had been without a pastor for 2 years. The congregation itself is very small (12 people were in attendance the day I was present) but remains fairly active (they meet regularly for worship and Bible study, they attend denomination meetings and events). And they are seeking a permanent pastor. (Isolated, no pastoral presence) (1).

The second type of church is the church with the "Long Distance Pastor." The church that I'm using to exemplify this type of church is a small UCC church with a pastor who is only physically present at the church on Sundays but maintains contact with certain members of the church during the week. The pastor is a f/t seminary student and will only be at the church for 2 years. She also pastors a second church in the community--a small UMC (so not only does she pastor two churches, they are two churches with different denominational affiliations). Still, despite the fact that she is not physically present she is "reachable," accessible--current phone numbers are listed, she has a cellular phone, she has an answering machine and does indeed return her calls. She is also readily accessible via email. (I would characterize this church as being less isolated than the "Invisible" church and as having a greater degree of pastoral presence) (8 churches fit this category).

Finally, in contrast to both the "Invisible Church" and the church with the "Long Distance Pastor" is the "Visible Church with the F/T Pastor." (Better titles!) This is a large (by rural standards, anyway) UCC church that sits on a hilltop overlooking the town. In other words, it is literally very visible in the community (in fact, when I asked the pastor for directions to the church he laughed because when you drive into town you can't miss the church). They have a f/t pastor whose sole vocation is pastoring their church. He has been with them for 18 years and lives at the parsonage across the street from the church. They also have a f/t secretary (somewhat rare), an accurate phone number and address, even a fax number. (But no website.) (Of the three churches, this is the most accessible church, with greatest degree of pastoral presence.) (7 - 8 fit this category)

Now, I've set this up kind of neatly to suggest that accessibility and visibility are in fact positively associated with pastoral presence and, in fact, to the degree that the pastor functions as a kind of link or bridge to the rest of the world (including in many cases to the denomination), this may be true. But I have also found evidence that this is changing, that congregations are in fact depending less on pastors to perform certain kinds of tasks. So now that I've set out this neat pattern, I want to tell you about some of the exceptions, that is, churches with less pastoral presence but that remain accessible, visible, and vital. Now what I've chosen to highlight in my descriptions are different strategies that the churches have crafted to deal with (as a response to) not having a f/t ordained pastor. (And I am going to stress the status of "ordained" for purposes of this discussion.) Interestingly, these are all churches that are part of a dual or in one case a multi-church arrangement. That is, they share their priest with another church.

The first church is a small Episcopal church that is part of a regional network of 5 churches. The congregation sees their priest about once a month and they rely on a retired priest in a nearby community as well as a deacon to fill-in at the worship services that their priest cannot attend. This church also has a warden and a jr. warden who, along with other lay members of the congregation, take care of the day-to-day functioning of the church. Some of the day-to-day tasks include things like opening the mail, returning phone calls, as well as maintaining the church, making sure the heat gets turned on, etc. This congregation has also managed to get approval from the local ministerial alliance to have a lay person represent the church at their meetings.

(It is somewhat ironic, although not very surprising, that it is the priest who has spearheaded this arrangement, who has, in effect, encouraged the congregation to become more independent because, really, this was their only alternative to being closed down.)

The second church I want to describe is a small Catholic church that is part of a dual parish arrangement. The priest is at the church twice a week for mass, but they do have a full-time pastoral administrator that lives at their parsonage. The pastoral administrator is a sister and she can do most things except, of course, perform the sacraments (now you know why I insisted on the status of "ordained."). Again, I mention this as one of the strategies for dealing with not having a f/t ordained priest. I also wanted to point out that this church has quite a bit of turnover--the priest and the pastoral administrator are replaced about every 5 years (although this is staggered so that the parish does not lose both at once). Another thing I find compelling about this congregation is the relatively high-level of female lay participation in the worship service itself. Not only do the lay people take on the tasks of, for example, maintaining the church, but they participate very actively in the production of the worship service itself.

(So this is the second strategy: if becoming part of a network won't work for you, get another type of church official, church worker to administer the affairs of the parish.)

The third church is a small Lutheran church that, again, is part of a dual parish arrangement. The priest comes to church only on Sundays (and occasionally for special events and meetings). What I want to point out about this church is that there is a lay woman who is not even officially something like a secretary but who receives calls for the church and, in the words of the priest, acts as his "eyes and ears" in that community. (Now in contrast to the previous two churches this is a much more informal arrangement.)

What all three of these churches have in common is lay people taking over some of what we might consider strictly pastoral duties--maintaining the church, maintaining the presence of the church in the community, and producing the worship service. By doing so they are ensuring that their churches not only remain open, but that they remain vital as well as viable spiritual institutions.

I'd like to end by very briefly highlighting some of the consequences of our finding that very frequently small rural churches have a distinct lack of pastoral presence. And I'll do this by pointing out some of the consequences for, first, religious work, second, for the congregation, and, third, for those of us doing research on churches.

First, without a f/t, permanent pastor who does the religious work? As my last three examples point out, very often it is members of the congregation who do it or, quite simply, it does not get done. Now whether they are happy and enthusiastic about doing these things is, of course, another issue.

Second, who tends to the congregation, specifically to their spiritual needs, if the majority of the time the pastor is not present? This is really a pressing issue for many of the churches, one that is still unresolved for many of them. I've heard many complaints from members of the congregation that they simply do not see their pastor enough: the pastor does not visit enough, the pastor does not visit every time a member of the congregation is in the hospital, the pastor does not always know when a member of the congregation is in the hospital...in other words the pastor isn't always present at certain important moments. (This is hard on the congregation, particularly when they are accustomed to a different kind of pastoral care (and can remember when Fr. Joe visited once a week). But it is also hard on the pastor, as well, who, in many cases, would like to be present.)

Finally, our findings suggest that those of us doing research on small, rural churches may have to look NOT to the pastor but to members of the congregation for certain information about the church. A pastor that has only been there 6 months and is still learning everybody's name is most certainly not going to know as much as the 71 year old woman that has been a member of the church her whole life. And I'm not just talking about knowing the history of the church: I'm talking about being aware of those informal, casual arrangements that have evolved over time but no one has ever bothered to write down.

I'd also like to point out that, as researchers, it is important that we think about which kinds of churches make their way into our samples and which do not. Are "invisible" churches that are nonetheless vital, functioning spiritual institutions in fact missing from our samples? (And what are some of the implications of this?)

I'd like to close with one last question, which is intended to invite a response from some of the other members of our research team, specifically those who worked in urban settings. My question is this: Is this phenomenon of the "absent pastor" and of pastoral leadership that is in fairly constant flux a rural phenomenon or is it a small church phenomenon?




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