Many rural Presbyterian churches share their pastors with one or two other churches in partnerships that enable them to survive and thrive despite small numbers in the pews. But northwestern Wisconsin's Pioneer Parish, part of the Presbytery of Northern Waters, takes this approach to a distinctly higher level.
The parish consists of six churches spread all over Douglas County and drawing members from two other counties. The Rev. Richard Blood has served as head of staff for the past two years, assisted by a part-time youth director/lay pastor and several other lay pastors.
"Basically it is and always has been a circuit-riding station," Blood said. "The earliest pastors in this place did exactly that and did it on horseback or by horse and buggy."
Blood's enumeration of the churches gives a sense of the parish’s breadth.
"There's Country Peace [Presbyterian Church] south of Superior. That's furthest west. Furthest east is Iron River, and in between are Brule and Lake Nebagamon and Solon Springs and Gordon. From the office here in Superior it's about 40 miles to Gordon and 40 miles to Iron River and 17 down to Country Peace. The others are in between."
Formed more than 60 years ago, Pioneer Parish has long been regarded as the largest multiple-church rural parish in the denomination. Blood said it still holds that status, though it has consolidated somewhat in recent years. It once boasted nine churches, and in 2000, there were eight congregations and three pastors. Country Peace Presbyterian is the product of a merger of two other churches a few years ago.
The parish has about 300 members, with the congregations varying considerably in size. A few average 40-60 people on Sundays, but others number about a dozen. People older than 60 are the biggest group, but there are younger members.
Blood said the parish has been a model for a number of others, with a unique organizational structure that was written into the Book of Order: "We have an intermediate governing structure that nobody else has. We have this thing called the Parish Council, which is kind of like a session of the sessions of the six congregations."
Naturally, keeping the parish going is logistically challenging. The Parish Council's worship committee works out a pulpit rotation three months in advance, ensuring that each church will hold a service every Sunday. Blood preaches in two churches each Sunday so that every congregation sees him one Sunday in every three. The youth director preaches three Sundays a month. Other lay pastors and retired pastors fill in the rest of the time.
Sue Hendrickson, part-time office manager for the parish, has played a big role in keeping things running smoothly for the past 25 years. She's in charge of producing the bulletins and monthly newsletter from the parish office in Superior. For efficiency, all the bulletins for a given month are prepared at the same time.
While the congregations normally worship and do most other things separately, programs like confirmation are conducted collectively.
We had 17 students in our confirmation the last go-round," Blood said. "Our confirmation service was a joint service where people from all over the parish came. Three were probably 250 people there."
Blood, who has been in the ministry 20 years, much of that time in campus ministry and rural churches, is impressed by the parish's dedication to mission and service.
"There’s more of a mission mindset in this place than I've ever seen just about anywhere," he said.
For example, the parish is a big supporter of Presbyterian Clearwater Forest, the camp and retreat center in Minnesota's lake country. Blood said the Brule congregation "might not have more than 30 people in worship on a given Sunday, but they're sending 24 kids to camp this summer. They essentially round up all the kids in town and send them to camp, believing the spiritual experience they have there will make a difference for a lifetime. The parish as a whole will be sending 42 kids to camp."
In other efforts, the congregations participate strongly in local food pantries. They also interact frequently with the schools, communicating about and responding to families in need.
Hendrickson, who is about to retire, said she's found great satisfaction in her work with the parish, in part because the local communities need the churches. She traded her work as a substitute high school teacher for the parish position when it opened up 25 years ago.
"It's been a wonderful job, something that has a lot of meaning and need," she said. "Towns lose their identity when the churches leave and schools and stores close. It's a wonderful thing when people can get together in their own community."
For Blood, the toughest part of pastoring the parish is the number of meetings. There are six session meetings and a parish council meeting each month, "which anybody who's a pastor in a Presbyterian church would think sounds a lot like hell. It's not like the meetings are all onerous, because they’re all friends, but there are just way too many of them."
But the work offers many rewards.
"Even though I don't get to spend as much time in the various communities as I'd like to, I’ve been received with such warmth and friendship in each place," he said.
He added that the congregations have a great tradition of lay leadership, because for the most part they have had nonresident pastors and have had to learn to be self-sufficient.
"They do wonderfully," he said. "If you’re not there when worship starts, it goes on anyway."
Pioneer Parish is located in the Presbytery of Northern Waters, one of the hosts, along with the presbyteries of Twin Cities Area and Minnesota Valleys, and the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, of the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which will be in Minneapolis July 3-10.