“We knew it was coming but it is still difficult.”
Those were the words of Rev. John Tschudy in a message to his parish in September, reflecting on the immanent closure of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Williams. After 102 years of service and ministry, Pilgrim Congregational UCC celebrated its last worship service on October 15 and closed its doors forever.
Pilgrim Congregational was one of three churches comprising our Rainy River Regional Parish, sprinkled along Highway 11 in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. The parish shares one pastor, who has led worship in each of the Williams, Baudette, and Birchdale congregations on every Sunday and routinely ministers to members throughout the parish.
I preached at Pilgrim Congregational two years ago when they celebrated their 100th anniversary. I vividly remember the joy present in that sanctuary, the fun-loving fellowship that followed, and the pride they took in their congregation and building. But while on that particular day the pews were filled, worship attendance at Pilgrim more routinely averaged 6 people, and total membership on the rolls was 18. While those numbers may seem extraordinary to some of us, many more of our congregations in the Minnesota Conference are not much bigger.
According to our records, 63 of our 128 congregations in the Minnesota Conference have 50 or less people in worship on an average Sunday. That reflects national statistics in the United Church of Christ, where 2016 figures just released tell us that “49% of all UCC congregations now have a weekly worship attendance of 1-50 individuals”. (UCC Statistical Profile)
For these small congregations, many of whom have served their communities for over 100 years, part-time pastors are the norm. Care and maintenance of the church building becomes an increasing – and at times, insurmountable – challenge. Often, the decline of these once robust congregations can be attributed to the economic and population decline of the areas where they reside.
Nevertheless, the role of small churches and their pastors in their communities is significant. These churches are often the heartbeat of the community. They are the relational center of small communities. They are often the initiators of essential community programs and outreach. The clergy become pastor to members and townspeople alike, depended upon for wise counsel and community leadership, particularly in rural areas. The church buildings become the focal point for all manner of community-wide events. And the legacy these congregations have built over decades of faithful ministry is no less beautiful than any church twice as large or larger.
Small churches are vitally important in the life of their members and communities. They can teach us about perseverance and the value of deep relationships. And the depth of ministry and service they bear long witness to can be an example to all of us.
Let us hold all of our small Minnesota Conference churches in prayer. And let us celebrate their beautiful, living testimonies of faith and hope among us.
Your partner in service,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister