By Tim Leeds
There is a shortage of pastors on the Hi-Line. It's a problem now common across denominations and across the country, particularly in its vast rural stretches.
"The difficulty at this point is that we don't have as many people going into the ministry as we have openings," said the Rev. Jessica Crist of Great Falls. "We always have more churches needing pastors than we have pastors coming out of seminary."
Crist, assistant to Bishop Rich Omland of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Montana Synod, said the shrinking economic base in rural communities makes it even more difficult to attract ministers.
Lay pastor Zoe Coutts arrived at the First Presbyterian Church in Havre on Jan. 19. She is the first full-time pastor at the church since 1992.
"I plan on being here for quite a while," Coutts said.
She will be ordained Monday, and installed at the Havre church on March 9.
Coutts said an ordained commissioned lay pastor goes through a slightly shorter version of the training a minister has in the Presbyterian Church, and can perform essentially all of the same duties.
About the only restriction, she said, is that she can't minister to more than one church.
St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Havre helped the First Presbyterian Church for several years, with the Rev. Caroline Kyle ministering to both churches in 1992 and 1993, and the Rev. Kenneth Greene ministering to both from 1993 to 2001.
Now St. Mark's is without a minister, and the Rev. Brad Ulgenes of First Lutheran Church is helping with the ministry there.
"It's not a merger, it's a sharing of ministries," he said. "We're all in the mission field, and we're all sharing resources."
The Rev. Tim Singleton of the Central Hi-Line Parish of the Lutheran Church said part of the problem stems from declining population, and the declining offerings that come with it.
"We just have not as many people worshiping on Sundays and not as many offerings," he said.
Part of the problem is that pastors aren't getting as much help as they used to with the cost of going to seminary, Singleton said. They face the higher tuition charged by private schools, and they don't have programs to help pay student loans if they go to a rural area.
Another problem is finding work for spouses. Ulgenes said many pastors are attracted to more urban areas because of the opportunity for spouses and children to find work or go to large schools or colleges.
Montana State University-Northern provides that advantage for the Hi-Line, he added.
The Rev. Catherine Card, also of First Lutheran, said people believe rural living doesn't offer much social life or work availability. That perspective particularly affects women ministers.
"I think it takes a different kind of commitment," she said.
A married woman minister coming to a community hopes her husband will be able to find work, she said. A single woman has to be prepared to find her own entertainment. There are fewer opportunities to socialize than there are in a larger community, Card said.
The Central Hi-Line Parish is seeing the effects of declining population and resources, Singleton said. The parish used to have six congregations, with two pastors ministering to them. The congregations included Rudyard, the Goldstone Lutheran Church north of Rudyard, Joplin, the Immanuel Lutheran Church north of Joplin, plus Hingham and Kremlin.
"The idea was to bond together so the little churches could afford a pastor. Well, so everyone could," Singleton said.
Now he is the sole pastor to five congregations.
The Immanual Lutheran Church recently left the parish, because it couldn't afford to stay in, he said. The congregation now meets every other week to have Bible study, fellowship and prayer and other activities, but has no minister, Singleton said.
Being the minister to five congregations is difficult, he added.
"I don't see everyone every week where normally you would," Singleton said. "I feel always a little out of touch and a little schizophrenic."
Lay people in the congregation are stepping in to help, but Singleton said he wishes it was happening faster.
The Rev. Peter Guthneck, who covers the Catholic parishes in Rocky Boy, Box Elder and Big Sandy, said having another priest would be helpful, but he thinks more church activity by lay people is a blessing in disquise.
"The lack of ordained ministry is calling lay people to do things they should have been doing all along," Guthneck said.
The priests and religious sisters were often assuming tasks that could have been done by lay people in the past, he said.
"If you're doing the administration part of the parish, you can't do all of the ministry you should," he said.
The Rev. Joe Diekhans covers the Catholic churches in Chester, Inverness and Hingham.
He said many lay people make his ministry much easier. Natalie Ghiekere is the pastoral administrator and religious educator in Chester, and Diane Folk is the religious educator at the Holy Family Center in Rudyard. They, and other lay people, give him more time to minister to the congregations.
"We do have some well-trained active lay people who are capable of doing the administrative and pastoral jobs," he said. "It gives me a certain sense of freedom."
The problem extends along the Hi-Line and beyond, Crist said. The Lutheran Church used to have two pastors in Malta serving four churches. Now one retired pastor is serving all four on an interim basis.
The Chinook Lutheran and Presbyterian churches had been sharing one pastor, who recently left, she said. The Lutheran pastor in Chester also serves Ledger. Big Sandy and Box Elder had an interim Lutheran pastor, although a new pastor is coming in March, and Valier has been without a resident pastor for three or four years, Crist said.
The problem is nationwide, and crosses denominations, she added. The Jewish seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, that sends rabbis to Billings and Great Falls recently had a shortage, she said.
The situation is prompting some innovations, she added. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is promoting internships, and the Montana Synod is offering a lay training program.
"Many denominations do," she said.
The Lutheran candidates go to four retreats in Great Falls over two years, and study from books and videos in between.
Ulgenes said six to eight people from the Hi-Line are coming to First Lutheran to study for the lay ministry. They study tapes from seminary classes, teachings about the Old and New testaments and preaching seminars, he said.
Once they are licensed, they can preach on a Sunday-by-Sunday basis to fill in for pastors, Ulgenes said.
Meanwhile, the Montana Synod is setting up a program to help new ministers with student loans. Ulgenes said he hopes individual parishes look into helping out.
The necessity of lay people stepping in to help with the parishes is really a blessing, Diekhans said.
"I think it's fantastic. They are the church, when you think about it. The people are the church. They are very aware of the needs of the community and they have a relationship with the people involved," he said. "I think it's one of the best things that's ever happened."