Friday, April 8, 2016

                    Finding Hidden Gems


Who are the hidden gems in your community?

One of the most rewarding aspects of leading future pastors on immersion experiences into rural America is the opportunity to discover the hidden gems who give rural life a special kind of vitality.  They are out there in nearly every small town and rural community.  Sometimes their contributions are known and acknowledged by the people around them and other times they work rather quietly behind the scenes, sharing of themselves and their faith in ways that bring little recognition or special compensation. Each has their own motivation, but all are driven by a call to make life a bit better for the world and people around them.

This January we met a number of extraordinary people who showed us the importance of recognizing that we are an interconnected community, especially in a rural context.
 
I am reminded of Darwin, an 86 year old farmer near Bronson, Iowa.  Darwin is one of the few farmers in our area who still work the land with horses, rather than modern technology. His value for the land in his care, and the animals who assist him, is evident in everything that he does. Obviously, the acreage that he can cover is more limited than the typical farmer today, but he claims a respectable yield without incurring extraordinary expenses.  In the process he exemplifies an ethic of
stewardship that speaks volumes.  What really stands out however, is his love of God and concern for the students that I bring his way every year.  He doesn’t just want to meet them and give a tour.  He wants to know why they are becoming a pastor and how they expect to serve.  He inquires about their hopes and dreams for ministry and the expectations they have for life in the parish. He hesitates to give advice, yet offers a perspective born of many years of faith and hard work.

Another amazing example is Maggie, the chief administrator of Ida Services, Inc., who has made a career out of caring for the “least of these” – men and women who are challenged in one way or another, but who dream of living independently and finding meaningful employment. Working in a small town in one of Iowa’s smallest counties, the challenges are innumerable and funding is a constant concern.  But her care is obvious from the moment you meet her.  While weaving through a myriad of government limitations and regulations, she is a champion for those in her care, looking for ways to help them aspire to a new way of life. Her task is more than providing funding or activities. She and her staff provide personal and vocational training, encourage self-confidence, look for new opportunities, and lend both physical and emotional support and encouragement. It would be easy to walk by the ISI building without paying much attention, and unfortunately, many of the clients who call ISI home have experienced what it is like to be ignored by individuals and society.  But in this rural community, hope abounds in the most unlikely of places.

You will find one in nearly every small town and rural area – a volunteer fire department.  Their work is essential to the community and we usually take them for granted until an emergency arises. These men and women give of their time and train regularly, without compensation, to respond to crises and disasters that they hope never happen, but surely will. We often see them out in public during parades, and steak fries, and endless training exercises.  But there is an aspect to their work that goes entirely unnoticed.  As the fire chief in Battle Creek, Iowa, Deron exemplifies the commitment and even calling that these men and women share.  As he spoke to our group, he talked as much about the importance of self-care and pastoral care for the firefighters after responding to a disaster, as he did about the need for appropriate training and equipment.  While the mission of this organization does not hinge on a spiritual orientation of any kind, this leader is very aware of the role that faith plays in the well-being of those who serve alongside him - and in his own life. And he was not afraid to speak
from a perspective of faith as he described their life and work together.  As such, he uses every resource available in the community to ensure that the difficult aspects of life that they experience do not emotionally injure these emergency responders, and he is not afraid to include the local pastors as the need arises. In his eyes, faith and service are not segmented and kept apart from one another, but are a part of the whole-life experience that many of these community servants share.

You can easily visit these communities without ever meeting these individuals. But the community knows they are there, and in many cases, is very aware of the contributions they make. They are indeed special, but they are not unique.

So where are the hidden gems in your community – or in your congregation? Understanding the role that others play in the life of a small town can help us to be better pastors and better citizens, and in some cases, may help us to utilize those gifts to bring our churches a new kind of life and vitality. It is important to remember that many of these special servants, never experience a call, are never ordained to special office, and may never receive any kind of commendation or recognition.  But their gifts are invaluable to the well-being of the people of our area.  It is our job as church leaders to learn how to recognize those gifts, perhaps cultivate new relationships, and in some cases, learn to work in partnership in ways that enhance the way of life for others. And in the process we can hope that they are recognized and that God is glorified.


The hidden gems are there.  How will you use them in your work for Jesus?

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