Friday, December 1, 2023

New Vitality for 

Changing Churches

Finding Hope and Purpose in Our Ever Evolving Identity

As our ministry contexts change, so does the mission of our congregation. Evolving demographics in the community, declining membership in the church, even dwindling resources available to do God's work can all have an impact on how we see ourselves and how we live out our mission and ministry. But even when our church experiences change, we can still have an active and vital life as the Body of Christ. One of the mistakes that we often make is in failing to realize that while change may make us look different, different does not have to mean ineffective. We are still the church...a church called by God.

This video is the beginning of a conversation about how we can revitalize our congregations by reexamining our own perceptions of mission and identity in the midst of continuing change. Click on the link and consider your own ministry context.

                                          New Vitality for Changing Churches

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

 You Know You Are a Rural Pastor

One of my favorites from the past. A reminder of the special nature of our calling to the rural church.

You know you are a rural pastor if…

You didn’t realize that most people actually buy sweet corn.

Your organist has had to leave the service because the cows were out.

You expect attendance to drop during planting, harvest, and deer season.

You learned that “a little lunch” is actually another meal served at 10:30 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.

You have prayed for it to rain – and for it to stop.

You realize that if someone offers you a doughnut, they are not asking if you are hungry.

You know that coffee is just a good excuse to visit.

Your car and your cell phone have taken the place of your office.

You have made a pastoral call with rubber boots on.

You have actually done counseling while riding in a combine.

You regularly drive 100 miles to the hospital, sometimes several times a week.

You have seen neighbors complete someone’s harvest in one day because they had a crisis.

Your church secretary knocks on your door at 6:30 a.m. because she let you sleep in.

You know the names of the dogs on every farm in your area.

You have had breakfast at the sale barn.

You know how to read a plat book.

You know that comments about green and red tractors are about loyalty, not just colors.

You can tell which of your members raise cattle and which raise pigs when they come in the room.

Local doctors are not afraid to call you when a patient needs your prayers.

It has taken you three hours to get the mail from the post office (because so many people wanted to visit).

You tell distance by minutes, not miles.

Pies, cakes and other baked goods regularly show up in your office.

You have received a grocery sack full of beef or pork for Christmas.

Memorial Day is a big deal at the local cemetery and you are expected to pray.

You get a Christmas gift every year from the local funeral home.

You know that scalloped potatoes and ham is its own food group.

You have done Christmas caroling while being pulled on a hay rack.

Your board meeting can’t start until 8:00 p.m. because several elders have to finish milking.

You have to lock your car doors in the summer or you will mysteriously get a sack of zucchini.

Your nativity scene has real sheep.

You have driven 20 miles for an ice cream cone.

You have eaten at least one meal that featured an animal with a name.

You regularly see four or five generations of a family in the same pew.

You know that a veggie burger is a hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.

You are not surprised when your doorbell rings at 2:00 a.m. because someone needs to talk.

-  Skip Shaffer, 2018

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Pastors are invited to join us for an exciting exploration into how we can redefine our ministries for this new era. 

The Application Deadline has been extended. 

Living Into a New Identity

Finding the Purpose of Our Ministry Beyond the Pandemic

This is a difficult time for many congregations. Following the problems of the pandemic, we have for the most part resumed our regular worship and activity patterns. There may be some differences, such as the continued use of masks or the way we take communion, but in most places life in the church has tried to get back to normal. Kind of.

Unfortunately, normal doesn’t always look like it did before. In some places, members are missing, giving has suffered, and attendance at worship and other activities is slow to respond. This has been especially painful in smaller congregations, where connections are deep and relationships matter. Online worship was essential to our continued ministry, but for some it is still easier to watch at home instead of getting the family ready and going to church. Financially we made it through those difficult months by encouraging online giving, but now we find that the connection between worship and stewardship is tenuous at best. In many communities it was difficult to continue face-to-face mission projects because of Covid and pleas for donations took the place of volunteers doing important work in difficult places. Now when we ask for help it can be hard to inspire the kind of dedication that those ministries once had.

The challenge facing many of our congregations is not a matter of faith and belief. Christ still matters in our small and rural churches. The bigger problem is the tension between activity and convenience. Our old models still work for some, but technology has proven that sitting in a sanctuary is not the only way to worship God and that serving on committees and being a part of the congregational “work force” may not be as inviting or as inspiring as we once thought.

The answer is not to give up and stop serving God, so the question we face is this – how can we be the church in this place, even if our numbers are down or our resources are fewer?

Many small and rural churches are suffering from an identity crisis.  As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings.  In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors.  Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel.  But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?

Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community.  It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself?  These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline.  Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is less important than before.

In this post-pandemic world, churches can learn to express their vitality by discovering additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ.  While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community.  Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words.  A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.

Every small and rural church should ask this question  - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?

If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for decline and eventual closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself.  But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin.  Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity.  And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.

Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be.  The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can we do well in this place to bring glory to God?"

What does this look like in real life?  A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community.  In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us.  In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or helping with a Thanksgiving meal for people in need. Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner.  On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised. Even a few loyal volunteers can have a big impact.

Those churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?

Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church.  Because numbers only tell a part of the story.  The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this very special place. We are beginning to learn that the call of our churches beyond the pandemic is not to return to normal, but to discover what new forms normal can take as we live out our faith in the name of God.



Thursday, May 12, 2022

 Feeding Body and Soul

Visiting the Ministry of Farmchurch

Last Sunday I looked at our new class of Confirmands sitting in the front row and thought about how wonderful it was that God had planted this amazing crop of young members in our midst. I preached on Mark 4:1-9 and encouraged them to plant their seeds of faith in the right kind of soil. We talked about the dangers of weeds and distractions and apathy and of course, ended with a word of hope and encouragement that we receive from Jesus, right here in this story, that the best soil of all is found here in the opportunities that God has given us. Faith and service, worship and witness, caring and love, they are all a part of the crops that we are allowed and enabled to grow.

And that’s when it hit me. We are not supposed to think about such things while we are preaching, but I do, all the time. It struck me that the themes that we touch on so often in our rural settings, planting, growing, cultivating and harvesting, are not just activities that the farmers in our midst engage in as a lifestyle and a vocation. And they are not simply a metaphor for the work we do as Christians out in the world. Sometimes they actually go together. We all have the opportunity to nurture crops of faith, while at the same time getting our hands deep in the soil and helping to provide for those who are in need around us. Worship and service are two parts of the same cycle, each encouraging and reinforcing our need for the other.

One of the best examples of this dynamic is found in the work and ministry of Farmchurch, a ministry that started as a vision of Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase, literally springing out of a dream, and ending up in the rich soil around Durham, North Carolina. It is both church and garden, focusing on the actual need to grow crops from the ground that will eventually feed the men and women and children in need in the surrounding area. We all try to feed the spiritual lives of our members and many of our churches hold food drives of different kinds to supply the pantries in our areas. But this amazing church takes that work one step further by finding meaning and metaphor in the process of planting and harvesting, of succeeding and failing, of worshiping with their hearts as well as their hands. They witness God at work in a very special way. It is a great story.

Check out the work of Farmchurch at

Like many unique ministries, you may not be able to replicate their work in your context. But I would be surprised if you don’t find an idea or two that you will be excited to introduce to your church as a way of bringing new vitality to your work in this place God has planted you.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

                  Do Pastors Get to Celebrate? 

I can still remember the day I told my family that I was going to be a pastor. My mom and dad are faithful people and raised me and my brothers in the church. We learned the importance of faith and service and hope by following their example. So when I got up the courage to finally tell them that seminary was in my future I expected to receive support and encouragement and maybe just a little bit of pride. Instead, my mom cried. Not tears of joy, but tears of sorrow.  All she could say was, “You will never be home for Christmas.” Guess what? She was right.

When it comes to Christmas, pastors and their families often get the short end of the stick. While others plan their holiday vacations around those days off, sometimes traveling to be with family far away, those who serve churches move steadily toward one of the busiest days of the year. Not only do we have to work on Christmas, but our work is often magnified, with more services and obligations than usual.

No news here, but this is one of our busiest seasons. Not only is our worship jam packed with meaningful traditions and rituals that help us to express our faith during the Advent and Christmas seasons, but our church and social calendars are full of extra events, each important in their own way, but each taking extra time out of our already busy schedule. Last year Covid caused many of us to change our schedules and alter our routines. But even with the virus still a part of our lives, church life is slowly but surely returning to some form of normal.

As pastors we work hard to ensure that the events of the holiday season are meaningful for our members and that our churches reflect the central nature of Christ’s birth to our faith. We want our members to have a good experience and most of us work extra hard making that happen. But after the Sunday School Christmas pageant, the choir cantata, and the candlelight Christmas Eve services, there is one thing all pastors seem to share – we are very tired. And in the midst of all that it is very easy to forget to celebrate in our own hearts and spiritual lives. Too often Christmas seems to come and go with everyone else having a good time and we just want a few minutes to take a nap. 

But Christmas is not just for our members. Pastors need to celebrate, too. Not just in the leadership that we provide or the quality services that we design, but in our hearts. For as we say year after year in our holiday sermons, the whole point of this season is found not in the presents or songs or even in the event of our Christmas worship itself. The real impact of Christmas is found in how our lives are changed by God’s intentional presence with us. That is easy to overlook in the midst of the busyness of this season. But it is what makes the difference between just celebrating another Christmas holiday and actually living out our love for Christ in our day to day lives.

It is hard to imagine that such a small child could have caused such a commotion.  But our traditional Christmas readings from Matthew and Luke assure us that the few people who were there recognized that it was indeed a very special event.  Some came from a great distance, just to see and praise the child.  The story of the wise men is hard to forget.  They followed a star until it led them right to the place where the child was.  And it is important to remember that in the same way, we all follow a star today.

Our star is the gospel message; the Word of God as we read it from the Bible, proclaim it from the pulpit, share it with each other, and show it in our care for one another.  That star is one of the few guarantees in life.  For we are assured that if you believe it with your heart, follow it with your faith, and live it with your life, it will lead you straight to our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

This is an incredibly busy time for rural pastors. The services are numerous, attendance is usually up, and activities abound.  We are often challenged and perhaps even a bit stressed by the many obligations that crowd our calendars and by our perceptions that each activity is essential to providing a meaningful experience to each of our members.  In the process of “doing” Advent and Christmas it is actually possible to miss out on our own celebration of the season.  I have to admit that there have been times when I have come up for air after the Christmas Eve services and realized that everyone else has been celebrating but me.  And while it is understandable how we might fall into that trap, it is completely unnecessary.  Because the most basic lesson that we learned in seminary applies to this time as well – it is not about us.

Pastors and church leaders are more than just paid employees in the Christmas service machine. Like everyone else in the church, this time is for us as well.  When God came to be with us, he came to be with all of us.  Not just those in the pew, but everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Therefore, it is up to each one of us, pastors especially, to make an effort to remember that this season is not about what we do, but what we receive. And the greatest gift of all was given in the name of the child we celebrate this week. I hope you will take the time to experience the Christ, not just tell others about him, as you celebrate the nativity with your family, your church community, and your own faith.

That star didn’t disappear when the wise men went home.  It is still there, waiting to point you to Christ, ready to lead you on your journey of faith.  Even those of us who have committed our lives to God and who serve as leaders in the church need to be reminded of this every now and then. We need to remember to celebrate with our lives and our families and our faith, as well as our work and service to the church.  And that, put very simply, is what Christmas is all about!

Take time to celebrate this week. Christmas is for pastors, too!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021


40th Annual Rural Ministry Conference 

March 8, 2021

Engaging and Ministry with Cultural Traditionalists 

Online Zoom, Wartburg Theological Seminary


for more information -

We live in a deeply divided society with divisions along political, social, cultural, urban/rural lines.  This conference will be helpful for pastors who see these divisions in their communities and congregations and are looking for ways to minister to all people.

Our keynote Speaker Tex Sample will explore this division by looking at a key demographic, cultural traditionalists.  Cultural traditionalists are the largest demographic in rural America and one of the largest in the country. This demographic is not limited by age, gender, or denomination –who knows- you may be a cultural traditionalist.

The presentations of Tex Sample will provide a description of this important group and offer suggestions for working with cultural traditionalists.  These presentations are valuable not only for small town and rural congregations but will provide a greater understanding of this demographic found in many, if not most, congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample brings years of ministry experience, teaching and research to this topic.  His most recent books include A Christian Justice for the Common Good, and Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain.  Tex Sample has participated throughout his career in both the church and the community, with a focus on social, racial, gender, and economic justice issues, community organizing, and interfaith movements.  He has been one of the best received presenters at the Rural Ministry Conference. See his tab for more information.

The 40th Rural Ministry Conference will be held via Zoom on Monday, March 8, 2021. 

Leaders and Speakers

Keynote Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample became pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri in July 2018. He previously served this congregation on an interim basis in 2014. Sample is the Robert B. And Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology where he taught for 32 years. He holds a B.A. degree from Millsaps College, an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology, a Ph.D. from the Boston University Graduate School. and a D.D. from Coe College. Sample is a freelance lecturer and speaker in North America and overseas. He has published 14 books. His book, Blue Collar Ministry: Facing Economic and Social Realities of Working People, was named a “Judson Classic” by the Judson Press, and his book U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches was the bestseller for Westminster/John Knox Press for over two years. His most recent books A Christian Justice for the Common Good and Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain, are both available from Abingdon Press. Sample has participated throughout his career in both the church and the community, with a focus on social, racial, and economic justice issues, community organizing, and interfaith movements. In 2016, he received the Invictus Award for Social Justice from the Liberty, Missouri, Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee at its celebration of MLK Day; later that year, he was given The Equality and Justice Award by The Greater Metropolitan the world meeting of his denomination.

Sample was born and grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and as a young man drove a cab, worked in construction, and was a roustabout in the oilfield. Sample is married to Peggy Jo Sanford Sample, who is a water- media artist and a musician. They have three children, one of whom is deceased. “Tex” is his real name, not a nickname. His father named him after Texanna Gillham, an African American woman who lived near Shelbyville, Texas.

    Bible Study Leader: Rev. Dr. Richard J. Shaffer Jr., is the Senior Pastor and Head of Staff of the Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a diverse, hybrid congregation with parallel ministries in the western suburbs of Chicago and the rural landscape of north-central Illinois. He has also served rural congregations in Iowa and Minnesota. His blog,, provides resources and guidance for church leaders who are interested in transforming the work and mission of their rural congregations in the midst of a time of intense transition in the church.

    Prior to returning to the pastorate in 2017, Skip served for twelve years as Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where he had the opportunity to share his experience with men and women who were learning to become leaders in the church. He has taught classes in rural ministry, Reformed worship, clergy ethics, Presbyterian polity, and ministry and money, as well as a number of other ministry related subjects. His responsibilities at the seminary also included serving as Director of Distance Education, Director of the D.Min. program, Director of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, and Director of Seminary Programs. He has been a part of the seminary’s successful lay pastor education program and continues to teach classes online each year.

    Skip’s wife, Jaimie, serves as Circulation Supervisor at the University of Dubuque Library. They have two adult children, a twelve year old granddaughter who runs the household, thirteen chickens, and a lively golden retriever named Brinkley.

    Workshop Leader: Jennifer Prinz is Portico Benefit Services’ regional representative covering the ELCA Region 5  (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Jennifer has more than 25 years of communications and relationship-building experience, in both faith-based and health care organizations. She previously worked as a gift planner for the ELCA Foundation, serving the state of Illinois. Prior to that, she was Director of Professional Development at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.