On a mission to fill empty pulpits
DENVER — Low pay and benefits. Overly demanding leaders. Unrealistic expectations.…
CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Matthew Morine’s friends in ministry keep quitting.
The job, tough in normal times, became insurmountable during the pandemic.
Sacred Calling: Read all the stories in the series
“Essentially, our mission is: How do we invest in churches in Colorado?”
The Castle Rock church, which averages Sunday attendance of about 230, wants to be a part of the solution.
“Essentially, our mission is: How do we invest in churches in Colorado?” said Morine, the congregation’s minister for 14 years.
“Castle Rock is an affluent area with lots of resources,” the preacher explained, noting the city’s nearly tenfold growth since 1990. “And we have a strong church.”
That strength gives the Castle Rock church — just off Interstate 25 with a clear view of the city’s landmark castle-shaped butte — the ability to help sister congregations.
Through an outreach effort called Partners in Missions for Colorado, the congregation — halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs — works to equip and encourage small, rural Churches of Christ.
Specific initiatives include: annual “renewal retreats” for ministers, leaders and spouses; occasional bonuses for preachers; scholarships for children to attend Colorado’s Lads to Leaders convention (directed by former Castle Rock elder Don Moore); and minister access to counseling services.
“We’re not looking to pay a church’s electric bills or anything. We’re asking: How can we encourage a minister and his family to stay engaged in ministry?”
Roughly half of Colorado’s 138 Churches of Christ have Sunday attendance of 50 or less, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
“Our focus has been on the ministers and leaders of these congregations,” said Mark Walker, a former engineer and airline pilot who serves as Castle Rock’s executive minister.
“We’re not looking to pay a church’s electric bills or anything,” Walker added. “We’re asking: How can we encourage a minister and his family to stay engaged in ministry? Because it’s so easy to get burned out in ministry nowadays, especially when they’re a one-man show in a small area.”
Partners in Missions for Colorado grew out of an extension program developed by Castle Rock members Bill and Ann Young.
Through the program, 15 to 17 men from Castle Rock travel to small, rural churches to preach — often driving two or three hours each way.
Some of the churches are between ministers.
Others can’t afford one.
Bill Young, 88, grew up in small congregations. As a young man, he thought he’d get an education and return home to preach. He imagined serving a little church in Colorado or Wyoming.
“My life didn’t turn out quite that way,” the 1957 ACU graduate said.
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Instead, Young ended up working with large congregations such as the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, and leading the church relations department at ACU.
But retirement has returned him to his roots, and he’s grateful to the Lord for that.
“It might be a little bit later than I thought it would occur,” he said with a chuckle. “But it occurred.”
Bill and Ann, married for 66 years, visit the participating congregations regularly.
“I just love Bill and Ann so dearly. They have just been a godsend,” said Dennis Coryell, a leader of the Burlington Church of Christ, about 145 miles east of Castle Rock.
“The men that they have sent out here … have been an equal godsend,” he added.
Coryell earned a ministry degree from ACU in 1978. But he later returned home to run his family’s 4,800-acre farm, where he and his son, Zach, still grow corn and wheat.
Castle Rock members preach about twice a month at Burlington. The other Sundays, Coryell might give a sermon. Or the church might watch a video lesson.
Typical attendance ranges from 25 to 30, down from a high of 75 or 80 at one time.
In the last five years, a half-dozen families have moved away for job or health reasons.
After four years without a full-time minister, the Burlington church is talking about hiring another one. Perhaps in a year, Coryell said, the congregation will be in a financial position to do so.
“Again, he might have to do some outside work to bring in some more income,” Coryell said. “Or we might have to get the help of a larger church. But we’re fully committed to growing again, as we were 10 to 15 years ago.”
In the meantime, the extension program is a blessing.
“It’s just been a wonderful relationship,” Coryell said.
Some ranchers drive 45 minutes to an hour to worship with the Walsenburg Church of Christ, about 130 miles south of Castle Rock.
Dr. Brad Brooks, a Walsenburg church leader, moved to southern Colorado after retiring in 2016.
“I am blown away by the perspicacity of Castle Rock in seeing and understanding what they saw: the underserved needs of small, rural congregations,” said Brooks, a 1973 Harding graduate.
In fall 2021, the Castle Rock youth group traveled to Walsenburg, where many rely on wood for heat in the winter. The teens split and delivered firewood to the community.
Twice in recent years, Castle Rock has sent guest preachers on a regular basis while the 25-member Walsenburg congregation sought a new minister.
Hiring a new preacher for a small, rural congregation can be a long, arduous process, Brooks noted. He found out about the extension program when the Youngs visited one Sunday.
“They said, ‘We would like to help you,’” Brooks recalled. “And so I felt like dropping to my knees and weeping.
“I’m grateful for Castle Rock,” he said. “Without them, my wife (Marian) and I would have despaired repeatedly, just based on the roller coaster of hiring and things like that … but also the sometimes stony soil that we find ourselves in.”
Besides providing fill-in preachers, Castle Rock pairs older women in its congregation with younger wives of ministers and leaders in the smaller churches.
The “Women Encouraging Faith” volunteers act as mentors and confidants.
“We just want to be there for them, and we try to remember their birthdays,” Ann Young said. “But especially, if they have prayer needs, that’s what we want to know about.”
Crystal Reeves’ husband, John, preaches for the Flagler Church of Christ, about 100 miles east of Castle Rock.
Crystal, who works full time as a public school cook, said she has benefited from her connection with Castle Rock member Nancy Baugh.
“The ladies at our church are wonderful,” Crystal said. But the pairing with Baugh “is neat because I can share with her things that might concern me that I would rather not share with my closer friends here.”
Like Crystal, John said he appreciates Castle Rock’s commitment to building up the kingdom outside its own walls.
This past summer, for example, Castle Rock members created “VBS in a Box” for two Colorado congregations.
“They’re not trying to control or rule over the smaller congregations,” John said. “But they’re trying to do it from the point of view of, ‘Hey, how can we help build the body of Christ in this particular region?”
The son of a preacher, Alec Robison never envisioned himself as a minister.
That changed in 2020 when he abruptly lost his job driving one of Schwan’s signature yellow delivery trucks.
Circumstances — providential ones, as Alec and his wife, Heather, see it — led to him becoming the full-time minister for the Woodland Park Church of Christ.
“Alec says he didn’t think he’d ever do it,” Heather said. “I always knew he’d end up here. He’s really good at preaching, and it’s like, he’s not going to ignore it forever.”
The church, about 60 miles southwest of Castle Rock, has 40 to 50 members in the winter. When the snow melts, attendance hits 70 to 80.
“Even amid the turmoil of COVID-19 … it always felt like they were a part of the family. That’s true even though we’re up here in the mountains in the middle of winter.”
The couple, who have an 8-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, speak glowingly of the spiritual support they’ve received from Castle Rock.
“Even amid the turmoil of COVID-19 … it always felt like they were a part of the family,” Alec said. “That’s true even though we’re up here in the mountains in the middle of winter.”
At the leadership retreats, the women break into separate classes where they can talk more intimately with each other, Heather said.
“They really emphasize having that connection with each other,” she said. “They’re making sure you’re not feeling overwhelmed or alone or under too much pressure.”
Morine, the Castle Rock preacher, believes small churches can grow.
But before evangelism can happen, he said, congregations — and their leaders — must be healthy.
For Morine, a conversation with a minister weighed down by unrealistic demands and unfair criticisms emphasized that point.
“Ministers have to give this facade of, ‘All things are perfect. I’m always working. I have everything handled.’ And you can only live in that facade for so long.”
“I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re crying out for help, aren’t you?’” Morine said. “He just started crying.”
To Morine, the interaction underscored a common struggle: “Ministers have to give this facade of, ‘All things are perfect. I’m always working. I have everything handled.’ And you can only live in that facade for so long.”
Partners in Missions for Colorado doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
“We can help give them tools and resources and really invest in the leaders in those churches,” he said.
As overall membership declines in Churches of Christ, Morine thinks the approach has potential beyond the Centennial State.
“Our large churches usually get so resource heavy that they don’t invest in these other churches,” Morine said. “I think those smaller churches could be a mission field because if they become stronger, we can start building up our numbers again.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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