When They Don’t Come Home: A Story of Rural Ministry

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Preparing the Saints for Works of Service

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? (1 Corinthians 12:12–19)

I love my kids.

I love the confirmation kids I get to see and teach every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at school. I love my public school confirmation kids whom I get to see and teach every Wednesday evening. I love my LYF kids who I don’t see as often, but still get to be with them at our monthly meeting. I love the college kids, the kids I got to confirm and watch them grow and develop during their High School years, who have now gone off to college.

What I don’t love is that for most of those kids who go off to college, I won’t get them back. I don’t love it, but I’m okay with it.

I serve a church that is blessed to also have a Lutheran school. Now, besides the church and school, there isn’t much to the town of Woodworth, Illinois. There are maybe 100 people in the town. The nearest gas station is eight miles away. And because of where the church is located, I have had high school kids at up to six different high schools at the same time. But when we get together, there aren’t divisions because of high school rivalries. The unity spoken of by St. Paul in his first letter to the church of Corinth is a unity I see in my high school kids and it is wonderful.

But I don’t get to keep most of my kids.

I don’t mean that they leave the church or that they leave the Lutheran church for some other church. They just don’t come back after college. At least, most of them don’t.

The ones that do return are a wonderful blessing to the congregation and quite often they get involved in the activities of the church very quickly. The ones that do return (or never head off to college) bring a vitality to the congregation that is contagious.

But again, most of my kids won’t be returning, and even though I love them and would love for them to return, I’m okay with them not returning.

I’m okay with them not returning because I know that they will be a blessing to a congregation elsewhere. Part of my thinking in all that I do in confirmation and LYF is to prepare them to be involved in and leaders of a local congregation, knowing full well that their future probably won’t be here at Woodworth.

I think that is one of the tough realities of rural ministry: your kids aren’t likely to return.

But if we think about the big picture of the church, we know that even if they don’t return “home,” the young men and women with whom we work can be a blessing to Christ’s church wherever they are.

With this reality in mind, consider doing some (or all) of the following.

  1. Find out where your kids will be going to college.

I suspect that if you are a youth leader, you likely know this already. Then look up the LCMS congregations in the area and help direct the student toward finding a congregation with whom they can be involved while away at school. Contact the pastor of that congregation, giving him the name, number, e-mail and mailing address of the student so that he has a chance to make contact with him or her.

  1. Have a get together with all college students before they leave.

Invite all of your college students, whether veterans or newbies, to come together for a meal. I’ve hosted such a gathering at my house and I’ve also taken them out for pizza. Talk with them about some of the things they will face as they head off to college. If they are leaving a small town, there is likely to be some culture shock. Veteran college students or members who were in college fairly recently can be a huge help in this meeting, as they will be able to speak personally to some of the challenges the students will face at college.

This meeting presents a great opportunity to remind them who they are as baptized children of God and to send them off with the right mindset.

  1. Keep in contact.

After a month or so, make contact with your students. You could call them (if you would be comfortable with doing so and they would also be comfortable in receiving such a call), but an e-mail, Facebook message or even a snail-mail letter would more than suffice.

Check with them to see how they are doing. Ask about their joys and their struggles. Ask what they have liked or disliked about the church they are attending (yes, I know not all will actually attend, but it still doesn’t hurt to remind them that this is the standard and that it is expected that they will be attending regularly).

Perhaps most importantly, remind them that you love them, are praying for them and who they are as a baptized child of God.

  1. After Graduation…

When it comes time for college graduation, keep in contact with them about where they will be working. If they aren’t coming back to your area, help them to find a congregation in the area where they will be living. Basically, follow the same steps described in step 1.

St. Paul writes, And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14)

Often, a large part of what we get to do in the rural setting is to equip the saints for the work of a ministry that will happen elsewhere.

I miss my kids when they head off to college. I really miss them when they find a job elsewhere. Yet I rejoice when I get a letter from a brother pastor, informing me that one of my kids has been attending his congregation. I rejoice when I get a transfer request for one of my kids from a sister congregation because that is where he or she found a job.

I rejoice because my little country congregation is part of something far larger and greater–preparing the saints for works of service. I rejoice because the work we have done here will be a blessing to a congregation elsewhere. I rejoice because though these college graduates may not be sheep entrusted to my care any longer, they are still His sheep and doing His will…and that’s what truly matters.