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Rural church people learn about boundaries in relationships

On the verge of burnout as an urban pastor trying to fit into rural shoes, the Rev. Nell Taboloff of the Chewelah United Church of Christ found renewal in connecting with other rural pastors at a Rural Pastors Institute program.

Their common experience of “always being on call” meant many worked too hard.  Everywhere they go in town, they meet people in the church, making it hard to distinguish between work and life.

The program offered boundary training, which Nell finds relevant to share with her congregation as they seek to be a safe space, welcoming the people God is sending them.

Since the church became an “Open and Affirming” United Church of Christ congregation, some of those drawn by the welcome are mentally ill or disabled.

Nell joined 50 pastors for two weeks in each of the last two years for an intensive encounter and went to four regional meetings through a project of the Center for New Community in Chicago, an ecumenical, grassroots organization, which seeks to keep pastors committed to rural ministry.

Chewelah is Nell’s first rural pastorate.  She considered herself a city minister, as do many rural pastors.  She had served churches in Kentucky and Louisiana after graduating from the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Six years ago, she decided to go to Chewelah, even though she had no training in rural ministry in seminary.

 “I worked too hard and ignored signs of burnout.  It was hard to set boundaries,” Nell said.

The Rural Institute helps pastors deal with such isolation and learn self-care, so they stay in rural communities longer.

From other pastors, she learned about common issues in small communities:  Many people are in grief about changes.  Children leave. Schools close.  Farms close.  Population drops.  People move in and out.  Wal-Mart stores come and small stores close.  People drive through a small town’s downtown to shop at a mall in the nearby city, she said.

With other rural pastors, Nell discussed church growth, spirituality, rural sociology and worship life—even what to do about music when no one can play the organ or piano.

“We shared practical, creative solutions to everyday problems,” said Nell.  “Rural ministries are worth the investment of our time and energy. 

“Problems in rural America seem overwhelming, but recognizing that faith is built on sharing stories, naming problems and talking about them in church helps us handle them,” she said.  “We considered how we can be neighbors to each other.”

Nell gained language to address theological issues of rural life in general and for the specific context in Chewelah.

“Usually ministers start in rural churches, prove themselves and go some place else.  Rural churches train pastors for suburbs and cities.  That disheartens rural people.  They need pastors to come and stay, valuing their community and ministry with them,” she said.

In the valley around Chewelah, there are some farms, but only seven percent of the county’s economy is in agriculture.  The main employers are the school district, the hospital, the long-term-care home and clinics.

The population of about 2,000 rises and falls with the availability of employment.  Changes in public assistance also affect the local economy. 
Poor people moved to rural communities for lower-cost housing and then moved back to cities to meet job requirements.

“Chewelah is becoming a retirement community and a bedroom community for Spokane,” Nell said.  “Our days as a true rural community are numbered. Our growth relates to the ski hill, the casino, the golf course, and hunting and fishing.”

Many people have also come to Chewelah because it’s a quieter, safer place, where they feel less judged.  Some suffer mental illnesses.

In that context, Nell helps her church develop an intentional ministry as a sanctuary,a safe placefor people to be—emotionally, psychologically, physically and theologically.

“If people feel safe in church, they take hope into the community.  That helps counteract fears that arise from so many losses,” said Nell, who preaches about domestic violence, justice and other issues affecting people’s lives.  “We have information in the narthex, and we have trained ushers and greeters to respect people’s privacy and to welcome high-needs people.”

The 125-year-old church with 125 members is a community church.  Some think that means it is nondenominational, but the Chewelah church belongs to the United Church of Christ (UCC). 

Chewelah UCC is one of a few rural UCC churches that has voted to be an “Open and Affirming” congregation. 

The church began the study under an interim minister, because many applicants were gay or lesbian.  Members discovered that the training was about being welcoming in its broadest sense.

“We are open to everyone who comes from the area’s subculture of marginalized and mentally ill people,” she said. 

Welcoming people who have a hard time each day has created awareness among members about how to be helpful, yet remember the need for boundaries in ministry with mentally ill people.

When a rural church ministers to people with special needs, the pastor and the members can easily overwork.

Nell led boundary training for the congregation, so members can help without being overwhelmed someone needs more help than they can give.
“Older church women who want to help everyone need to set boundaries. 

There is no cure for the mentally ill, and no end to their needs,” said Nell, noting that people coming have about 19 different diagnoses related to addiction, depression, anxiety, phobias and multiple personalities—many requiring medication.

“You can’t hide from your neighbor here,” she said.  “Needs are evident.  In suburbs, needs are social, but here, it’s about the need of neighbors because of proximity.  We know the people in need.  We know what children are in trouble.  We know the man who thinks he will win big at the casino.  They are our neighbors. 

“Although people come and go, we see quickly who needs ministry, and we try to incorporate them into the community,” said Nell, who believes everyone needs somebody, and the church can “provide that somebody.”

From people suffering mental illness, church members learn about generosity, compassion, excitement, courage and faith that God will provide for each day. 

“They teach us to be patient with the speed of their lives,” she said.  “The friendships and compassion make a difference. 

“When the church voted five years ago to be open and affirming, we chose to leave no one out.  Members saw it as a justice issue,” Nell said.

 “Having made a public statement, the church is living it out,” she said.  “When we voted to be open and affirming, it was a beginning.  We always need to talk about what it means.”

Although not everyone agrees, Nell believes all need to feel safe and to have a right to be at church, free from judgment. 

“We continue to challenge ourselves about what separates people, welcoming those who disagree with our being open and affirming,” she said. “They also have part of the truth, and we should not say, ‘This is our stand and you are either with us or must leave.’  Being open and affirming is a call to constant evaluation, listening and discerning.”

Affirming her denomination’s promotional slogan, Nell said that “God is still speaking” through everyone, especially through people who see things in different ways.

Because the church accepts those who disagree as brothers and sisters, and welcomes their stories, many who disagreed have stayed.  They speak out, open their Bibles and share. 

“We encourage dialogue, not debate with winning or losing,” Nell clarified.

For information, call 935-8046.

Copyright © January 2005
- The Fig Tree