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Rural pastor rooted in community at Colfax

By Mary Stamp

Lynn Nelson’s fascination with spiritual questions led the Colfax granddaughter, daughter, wife, mother and grandmother of farmers to serve as part-time pastor of her hometown church four years ago.
Lynn Nelson
Lynn Nelson seeks continuing education opportunities
for insights on ministry

Her call to ministry grew from her long involvement in the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Colfax, and its openness to her questions and challenges.
During high school, she and her family shifted from the United Methodist Church to Plymouth, so she could attend church with her friends.

Now she describes the church as “graying and declining, but vibrant, ready for taking their next steps into the future.”

Lynn grew up and lived her married life on what has expanded to be a 1,500-acre wheat and barley farm with 200-head of cattle, now run by her son and grandson. 

Recently, she moved from the old farmhouse seven miles southwest of town into a smaller house, where her daughter and family lived. Her daughter, who teaches at Colfax High School, moved to the farm.
 
I often filled in to preach sermons when the pastors were away,” she said.  “I was unusually easily accepted as pastor and treated with respect.

Lynn, who has been a volunteer hospice chaplain since the 1980s, became licensed to serve the church.

“I’m good at nurturing and listening, so I nurture, love and bless in the name of all that’s holy,” she said.

She is in conversation with the Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference’s Committee on Ministry, which has accepted her as a “person in discernment” on the path to ordination.  She is considering continuing education options.

“I like the United Church of Christ because it lets us ask questions and does not come with a set of rules,” she said, commenting on the theology and on its openness to alternative paths to ministry.

Starting at a late age and needing to stay in Colfax to assist her daughter, who has multiple sclerosis, she can’t go away to seminary. 

“I’m ideal for this church because don’t cost a lot.  I have a house, food, Medicare and soon Social Security,” Lynn said.

Growing up, she attended church every Sunday, participated in the high school youth group, married after a year of college and directed the junior choir for many of her young married years.  She also taught vacation Bible school and “learned from the children.”

On her own, she engaged in spiritual study over the years.  Since becoming pastor, she has done more Bible study.

I’ve always been drawn by all religions and by the big picture of how we are alike and how small the world is if we do not divide ourselves up,” Lynn continued.  “I let God be as big as God needs to be to embrace the world of arguing children.”

Although her life has centered in Colfax and the farm, the scope of her concern circles the earth.

“Colfax is where I’m supposed to be.  I was born into Christianity, but I believe all religions offer insights and wisdom,” she said.

Lynn had started college thinking she would be a secretary, but she met her farmer husband, Bill, and married him in 1965.  He was from Idaho and had a small operation of cattle he brought to her family’s farm.  When her father died, he took over.

I can ride a horse, rope a cow, cook dinner for 30 and haul it to the middle of the wheat field,” she said, pausing to say that at 66 she has set those activities aside.

She is the eldest of three.  Her brother and sister chose paths other than farming, so she and her husband bought them out.

He farmed until he died three years ago.  Her mother died four years ago.

When Lynn began as pastor, she decided to shake the church up and proposed renaming it, adding “Affirmational United Church of Christ” in front of its name, Plymouth Congregational Church.

I wanted to rattle cages, and use an ‘A’ word to put the church at the top of the list of churches in the phone book so people would call us first,” she said.

“It’s a warm-hearted congregation of older people in a building that’s falling down around us.  The roof needs to be repaired, and we do not have money to repair it without going into debt.  We can’t go in debt because we are an older congregation,” Lynn commented.

 While there’s just “a small handful” of people—about 50 members with about 25 on a Sunday—she said, the church council is looking ahead.

Most members are retired from local farms or businesses.

The church’s pianist is 93. 

“There’s a spark waiting to be lit.  We are older but still wonder where we can go from here,” Lynn said.  “We aren’t willing to limit our possibilities.  We have a drive to thrive.  We pray to be open to how God wants us to be.  We’re willing.”

Lynn said people in the community know she’s available to do weddings and funerals, even if they don’t attend her church. 

For those who wonder where God is, she said she can take the God words out of conversations “to help people know and feel the holy.”

Colfax’s population of 2,800 has remained constant, but fewer young people stay in town after graduating from high school.  Baby boomers no longer fill the grade school and high school, and the economic times are hard.

Farms have consolidated over the years, but are still considered family farms, Lynn said.  In most cases, members of the younger generation are taking over the farms.  Some of the younger farmers are in local churches.

Unlike other small towns that rural highways bypass, Colfax has route 195 from Spokane to Pullman running through the center of town.  It is also the Whitman County seat. 

These dynamics keep the community viable, while other small communities struggle, Lynn said.

For information, call 509-397-3011 or email bamba2@q.com.