Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the joint congregation worship of the three churches in the Son Light Parish. It was an outdoor service on the grounds of Bellevue Presbyterian, in Caledonia, Missouri. Bellevue was the first Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi, organized in 1816. It was an awesome experience preaching in the shadow of this historic building!
These three churches, First Presbyterian Churches of the Leadbelt: Park Hills, Fredericktown, and Ironton share the same pastor, Mark Wiley. Every Sunday morning, Mark does a “circuit” among the three congregations. He begins with an hour drive from his home in Hillsboro to Ironton for 8:45 worship, then heads to Fredericktown for 10:15 worship, and finishes at Park Hill at 11:30 worship. Mark says that often by the time he arrives at Park Hills, the service has already begun, and he walks into the door directly into the pulpit! He also jokes that by the time he gets to Park Hills, his sermon is really cooking! Mark returns home to Hillsboro about 1:30 each Sunday.
The Son Light Parish is a form of church from the 17th and 18th century. That is when ministers were assigned a geographic area of congregations. The minister would go on horseback from church to church, completing their circuit, preaching and leading the sacraments.
Ten years ago, these three congregations were struggling with their future. They did not have a way forward, so they looked backward for possible solutions. They realized they could not stand on their own, so they found a way to stand together. Through the leadership of Rev. Pam’la Cowan, the three churches came together to share resources. That was the beginning. They would later share events, fellowship, and find encouragement through cooperation.
As I look over the 77 congregations and 2 new worshipping communities of Giddings-Lovejoy, I see several congregations struggling week to week. I worry about their future. But when I see places like Son Light Parish, I feel relief. I realize I don’t have to figure out a plan or come up with a program for the survival of congregations. Congregations have the capacity to figure it out for themselves. There is something about life that craves to be lived. This applies to people and churches.
For some, it may mean merging like Berea and Curby did at our last Presbytery Gathering. Others will yolk like Union and Pacific. Still others will try different arrangements, and they may not work. Trying itself is a sign of life. And some have come to the end of their local ministry and will close like Maryland Heights did.
The presbytery is a living organism. We seek to find a way forward together. Mark and Pam’la are examples of the many innovative, creative, and energetic pastors and leaders with ideas to pave the way into the future.
Rev. Craig M. Howard