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St. Maries pastor and church chose intentional long-term ministry

Twenty-six years ago, the Rev. Gary Foster and the Community Presbyterian Church of St. Maries, Idaho, chose to begin a long-term ministry together. 

Gary Foster
The Rev. Gary Foster values making St. Maries his home.

In the community of 2,600 with new housing developments on the outskirts, he is the pastor with the most longevity among the Catholic, Nazarene, Four Square, Lutheran, Baptist, Assembly of God, Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witness, Church of Christ and a variety of home churches there.

When Gary came in 1981, the church was active in community outreach to meet social needs, so that approach framed his first 10 years.

The Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, and other organizations, purchased Valley Vista Convalescent Center as a community convalescent center.  Eventually, apartments, an assisted living complex with nursing care, an Alzheimer’s unit and a locked psychiatric unit were added.

With the community, Gary and the church, which dates back unofficially to 1907, also helped start a day care, a hospice, a food bank and a clothes bank.

In the early 1990s, Gary was also involved in the Human Rights Task Force for Benewah County, concerned that when the Aryan Nations people were squeezed out of the Hayden area they might come to Benewah County.

He also joined the Sheriff’s posse, helping with some searches on horseback.

Gary meets monthly with several other pastors in the Ministerial Association for breakfast, prayer and business.  They share their lives, support each other, meet community needs and give transients meals, gas and motel lodging.

Over the years, they have also done Christmas and Easter cantatas with community choirs, Thanksgiving eve services, Advent and Lent services.

Ministerial association activities rise and wane depending on pastors’ interests and time.  However, he said there has been a consistent Christian witness to those passing through town and needing help.

A third-generation Presbyterian, Gary lived near Fresno, Calif., until he was 27.  He graduated from Fresno State in 1973.  Working with a youth group in his church and meeting with other youth pastors led him to studies at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.  After graduating in 1976, he was associate pastor for five years in Fairfield in the San Francisco area, before coming to St. Maries.

“Miriam and I came here looking for a small, self-contained town where our children could grow up in fresh air,” Gary said. “We wanted to be somewhere with mountains and rivers.

“St. Maries was like a picture postcard coming to life for us,” he said.  “We found a home and have stayed long, feeling it has been God’s call and God’s will.  Miriam also found a career here teaching AP English at St. Maries High School.”

The importance of sports and outdoor recreation to the Fosters and people in St. Maries bonds them.  School sports—football, basketball, volleyball and soccer—are big, and he’s often at games.

“My sermons often use illustrations from golf, skiing and biking,” said Gary, who also played basketball and softball. 

“In a small town, relationships are important.  When I first set up a checking account, I asked the clerk in the grocery store if she would accept a counter check. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘I know who you are.’”

People knew about the new Presbyterian pastor before he came, so the first person he met instantly trusted him.

A small-town pastor has multiple relationships, he said, knowing people in the church, people he does business with, and people he works with in the community and other churches.

“People work, play, hunt, fish and golf together.  Wherever we go, we have friends,” he said.

Now that small towns have been discovered, he’s concerned some trust may be lost.  Growth outside town now makes a daily traffic jam after school at the four-way stop where the only two roads in and out of town cross.

When Gary came in 1981, there was a population explosion in Community Presbyterian, filling the Sunday school and youth group with children and youth.  Those children went to college, married and now have careers. 

“A few came back, and they are the roots of the next population explosion.  One of the blessings of a long-term pastorate is performing weddings for babies I baptized, children I confirmed and youth whose graduation parties I have attended,” he said.

Now the congregation of 140 members is aging, he said, and with it, the energy level is waning.  Even so, he encourages members to be proactive to anticipate growth that is coming.

Gary is the only pastor some  have known. 

That’s positive, he said, because it provides a sense of consistency and faithfulness.  However, it may limit people from hearing different perspectives, said Gary.

Reflecting on dynamics of an intentional long-term ministry, he noted, “Some long-term pastorates, are accidental because the pastor could not find another church after five or six years, so had a series of ‘re-up’ years.

“The challenge of an intentional long-term pastoral relationship is to remain fresh and vital, not only in preaching but also in counseling and community activities,” he said.

Both he and the Community Presbyterian session were intentional about their long-term commitment. 

One value is that the pastor becomes part of the community—knowing how people’s pasts have helped shape them and having a depth of relationship to deal with their lives.

“If a child acts out, we know about an accident, a divorce or abuse that affects them and their family,” he said. 

In the ministerial association, longevity has brought a respect for different theologies and points of view as pastors ask each other about their different worship styles and traditions.

“We learn how each is an appropriate way to express love of God,” he said.

That mutual respect carries over as they preach to and teach people in their congregations. 

Gary realizes there are some disadvantages to long-term ministry.  Some long-term ministers fall into a rut, comfortable in a routine.  To avoid that, Gary intentionally redefined his ministry every 10 years. 

The first decade, he focused on the community action.

The second decade, he became active in denominational activities with the Synod of Alaska Northwest.

Now in the third decade, Gary has a more personal approach, visiting people more often, keeping in touch with what is happening in their lives.

As hospice chaplain, he and the caregiver coordinator have developed a service of memories for caregivers to help them deal with their grief. 

He has also shifted his sermon style to a more conversational, interactive style, preaching without notes.

Looking back, Gary said in his first years of ministry, he wanted everyone to experience an encounter with the living Jesus that affected their whole being. 

He said he was not subtle or gentle in challenging people to change.

While more gentle and subtle today, he knows that people too often let their politics shape their theology rather than letting their theology shape their politics.

“Many assume that being American means God and country are mixed together, as if American politics can’t be sinful or against God’s will,” he said.

He wonders if when people say, “God bless America,” they are being inclusive or exclusive.

“Do we want God to bless only us, or to bless both us and the world?” he asked, suggesting, “We also need to pray for the presidents of Iran and Pakistan.”

Gary believes if political issues are viewed in light of biblical standards, people will allow their theology to shape their politics.  For example, once Presbyterians supported slavery, but eventually realized it was against scriptural teachings.

“On any issue, we need to be open to coming to new understandings based on scripture,” he said.

For self nurture and to nurture others in faith, Gary does daily personal Bible study, along with preparation for sermons, a Bible study for a Lunch Bunch and a Saturday morning men’s group.

“I’m in continual Bible study, reading scripture in the context of the community, sharing what we think it means and what we think God is telling us,” he said.

For information, call 208-245-2686.