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Pastor serves 100-year-old transforming rural church

As the Northeastern Washington town where Tara Leininger serves as pastor and mayor recently shrunk from 285 to 250 people, she said, she’s preparing for the church’s and the city’s 100th anniversaries.

Tara Leininger
Tara Leininger

She sees the status of both in light of a history that continues into the future.

The Metaline Falls First Congregational UCC’s celebration will be on Palm Sunday, April 17, and the city’s celebration will coincide with the town’s “Affair on Main Street” over Labor Day weekend.

Stevens County was chartered in 1911.  It chartered Metaline Falls - Pend Oreille County later that year. 

In 1910, Ione Congregational Church, which she has served three Sundays a month for four years, was started by the Rev. Walter Veasie and his son, the Rev. Carl Veasie.  They also started the church in Metaline Falls, where a group first met in 1908.  It was incorporated in 1911. 

Then it was a long trip on a dirt road and ferry.  Today it’s a 15- to 20-minute drive after the 8:30 a.m. service in Ione for Leininger to reach Metaline Falls to lead worship.

The Secretary of State’s letter congratulating us on our incorporation said that of 3,000 other organizations and businesses incorporated in 1911 only 45 still exist and half of them are churches,” she said.

Both the Catholic and Congregational churches held services at the former public school, now the Cutter Theatre, for many years.  The Congregational Church did not have its own building until 1951.

Over the years, 20 pastors and interim pastors have served the church.  Leininger has been there more than 12 years.

“We have experienced growth when it was possible, and have become smaller as the community population slid, but we are still viable,” she said.

When she and her husband Donivan Johnson moved to Metaline Falls 20 years ago—him to teach music and her, history, social studies and English—they thought they would be there five years.  The community, its surroundings, people, opportunities and the clear starry nights hold them.

Leininger can afford to serve the church on a part-time salary because they live in the parsonage and her husband teaches.  His job continues even as the Selkirk School District’s student population has declined from 560 to 246 students since they came.  Leininger was “riffed” by the district 11 years ago but is advisor for the extra-curricular theatre arts program.

In their first years there, they attended the Catholic Church because he was church musician there.  Then they attended American Lutheran Church in Newport for years he was church organist there.  She did some pulpit supply at the Congregational church and at American Lutheran Church.

“I felt the call to ministry for many years, studying communication, history and religious studies at the University of Montana,” said Leininger, who became licensed with the PNCUCC Committtee on Ministry and was ordained in 2006, despite not having a seminary degree.  She is now within five months of finishing a master’s degree in theology at Whitworth University in Spokane.

“It says something about the UCC that I could be called to ministry and take a unique route, gathering wisdom and experience in years of ministry,” she said.  “The UCC cares about little churches.”

She said she was one of the first in the conference to follow a “new path” to ordination, being called to a church, being mentored by pastor colleagues and then being ordination.

“Whitworth’s master’s degree is geared to working people with intensive class time and people from a variety of traditions and ages on a journey together,” said Leininger, who will be 54 in May and has “not quit learning.”  She stepped away from directing the Cutter Theatre to do the studies.

In planning the town’s celebration, I’ve been reading 100 years of City Council minutes and preparing a readers theater on the town’s history at the Cutter Theatre,” said Leininger, who has been active in theater productions at the Cutter.

“There were controversies over baudy houses and pool tables,” she said.  “The town has been big and tiny.  We had dirt streets forever and issues about cow manure on the streets and the need for sidewalks.”

Much of the town’s history fluxed with employment in logging and mines.  In 2008, the Teck-Cominco Pend Oreille Mine temporarily closed and is deciding if it will reopen and for how long.  The city lost few families, because most miners did not move their families there.  Losses are in support businesses.

“Younger people are not staying here because they leave to find work,” said Leininger.

“We’re graying,” she said of the church and community, “plus, the few younger people in town are not geared to belonging to civic organizations and churches that serve the community.  How the community serves itself is changing, not for a lack of love but for a lack of hands.  Even the graying folks are leaving to be nearer family, services and medical care.”

In its long-range planning, the church is looking at how to minister to a community that’s aging.  When the previous pastor left 15 years ago, about 15 to 20 were attending.  Those numbers grew to 30 in “boom years,” but after teens graduated and young families moved, there’s not an untapped young population to recruit.

“The power of the church is more than numbers of people at worship.  It’s about being driven to keep ministry alive in the community,” she said.  “A church that is graying and declining in numbers is transforming, not dying.  We have to figure out what we are transforming to be and do.

“I’m a pastor of a transforming church,” she said, “and mayor of a transforming town.”

For information, call 509-446-3301 or email


Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © January 2011


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