Ministering a Small Community

Reverend Elaine Kellogg 

[This article ran in the June/July 2012 issue of The SCOOP.]

We were in the middle of a power outage. It would last for three days, but we did not know that yet. It wasn’t a big deal. We were used to the power going out from time to time, and so we just adjusted. The weather was cold and damp, but not minus 30 or anything extreme, so we carried on.

There was one problem, however. There was a funeral scheduled, and it was going to be a bleak affair without power. I was the minister in that community, and I went to see the widow and apologized that there would be no heat, no lights and no organ music in the church for the funeral, but there wasn’t much we could do. She did not seem upset; after all, she lived in the community too and was dealing with the loss of electricity in her own home as well.

About half an hour before the funeral service was to start, when I was busy doing my usual routine of greeting people to the church, I became aware of some unexpected activity at the front door. I looked out, and there were several volunteers from the township fire department setting up their generator. In a few moments, the church was ablaze with light and organ music. No one had asked me, or anyone else involved with planning the funeral if we wanted the generator hooked up. The firemen simply assumed it would be helpful. It was. We proceeded with the service, with the family feeling better supported in their time of grief. At the end of the funeral, when the mourners were filing out the door, the firemen shut the generator down, so the noise would not intrude on the solemnity of the moment.

That was a typical small community functioning at its best. Everyone in the community knew a funeral was taking place, everyone knew there was no electricity, and key people were aware of how they could help out, so they did. The firefighter who initiated the generator rescue was a person who I knew well. He was not part of the congregation where I served, but he did keep track of me and my ministry, usually with an abundant supply of jokes. The jokes were often along the lines of, “Could you have a talk with the ‘man upstairs’ and arrange a nice, sunny day for …” He also attended every funeral I led, and every supper the church organized. In return, I took my business to him when I needed work done on my car. Living in a small community means being a good neighbour, supporting each other in the day-to-day bits that make up a life. In a small community, everyone has a role to play, the firefighters, the minister, and everyone else.

In a small community, the role of the minister involves being an integrated part of the whole community. Roles overlap in a small place; one person could be a member of a church and chair of some committee there, belong to the local service club, volunteer in another worthwhile program “in town,” and be a necessary participant in driving grandchildren to soccer practice. In some ways, my ministry is to the whole community, not just those who are members of my church. In a small community, effective ministry means connecting with what is going on in the whole community, not just in the church. I never know when someone I have met through a school event, at the time of a wedding, or in a community spring clean-up may have need of some ministry that the church can provide.

In a small community, a lot of ministry is informal and spontaneous. I was doing my grocery shopping one day, thinking about 1% milk and Wilton cheese when I met someone who I knew casually, and we got to talking. Within two minutes she was in tears and confessed that her daughter and son-in-law had just separated, and she was devastated and didn’t know what to do. We talked for a while longer; she explained more of the situation and how she was feeling; I offered her some little bits of perspective and encouragement in her grief. And then we went our separate ways and went back to our grocery shopping. You might think of that conversation as just two people talking in a grocery store, but I tend to think of that encounter as a ministry moment. In fact, a lot of rural ministry happens in this way. When the minister lives, as well as works, in a small place, many opportunities to be a face of compassion, encouragement or support present themselves, often when I least expect it.

Everyone who lives in a small community knows that privacy for individuals and families is difficult. (Some might say that privacy is impossible, but I don’t go quite that far.) This is both boon and bane to the work of ministry. The difficult part of this is the temptation for gossip and nosiness to get out of hand. The beautiful thing about everyone knowing everyone else’s business is that there are multiple ways to show caring and concern. I have been the recipient of this caring, the person who has organized and delivered care to others, and the one who watched others look after their neighbours. There is nothing like it when neighbours respond to neighbours with generous and caring hearts.

This may be the greatest gift of ministering in a small community, that we get to know our neighbours in ways that do not unfold on the same level in a larger community. The residents of the community also get to know me quite well, including all my failings. I make mistakes, apologize as best I can, and then we get on with life. After all, this is how we learn to live together in community, accepting one another for who we are, with all of our failings and strengths, needs and desires, individual quirks and beautiful characteristics.