Columbia pastor balances two Sturgeon churches with declining memberships

Friday, April 18, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:44 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 18, 2014


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Photos and video by Whitney Hayward. To see more about life in Sturgeon, click here for a series of portraits that provide a glimpse into the central Missouri town.

STURGEON — The 12 members of pastor Mike Will's congregation are sprinkled throughout the 20 wooden pews of Sturgeon United Methodist Church swaying to the rhythm of "It Is Well With My Soul."

Connie shakes a maraca. Susan flips a rainstick. Cookie jiggles a red plastic Easter egg filled with rice and sealed with Scotch tape.

Will stands alone at the front of the church, leading his tiny flock in worship and strumming his acoustic guitar. The choir pews surrounding him are empty; they haven't seen a soul in years.

When the song ends, the congregation sits. Will prays, then begins his children's sermon, even though not one of the dozen in church this particular Sunday is younger than 50. Will, 53, is almost always the youngest in the room.

"That doesn't mean that the children aren't here," he tells them. "They're just not easy to see. We all have a child inside of us."

Sandra "Cookie" Goff sits in the Sturgeon United Methodist Church's pews.

But a child hasn’t regularly attended this Methodist church in a decade. Youngsters only come on occasion now, when their parents take them to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a weekend of homemade fruit salad and "remember whens."

Still, Will finds value in sharing the children's sermon with his aging flock in Sturgeon. It is the same one he gave an hour earlier at Riggs Union Church to four young children in the front of the white wooden one-room building some eight miles away.

After leading the hour-long service in Riggs, he drives 10 minutes north to Sturgeon, gives another hour-long service and returns home in the afternoon to reunite with his family in Columbia.

Will isn't sure what the future holds for his two small churches or for the hundreds of others like it that dot the rural Midwest. Where once the churches were the bustling heart of thriving farm communities, many are now deserted or nearly so.

Sturgeon, which sits 25 miles north of Columbia, was home to seven small churches as recently as two decades ago.

Now there are only three, two with congregations that have declining attendance among younger people. That parallels Sturgeon’s overall population loss in the past decade. The town had 944 residents in 2000 and 872 in 2010 — a 7.7 percent decrease.

Rural flight continues to hit small-town America, according to Matt Foulkes, an MU professor who teaches a course on migration and immigration.

Teenagers graduate from high school, move away for college and tend to never return. Parents move closer to metropolitan areas to work or move their children to a school system with more resources. People get married to someone outside the community and migrate to another town.

As the number of Will's congregants drops, their ages increase. The bulk of his regular attendees at Sturgeon Methodist are now above the age of 70.

Barbara Lyman sits in the last pew on a recent Sunday morning, shooting the breeze after the service with fellow church member Kenny Harrison before the church board meeting.

"This church is going, and we all know that," Lyman said. "We're sad because there's nothing we can really do about it. We've tried all kinds of things, and it just doesn't work, but we're hoping."

Harrison, who has attended both Sturgeon United Methodist and Riggs Union for 14 years, thinks Will's positivity and energy has brought life back into the church.

"It's going to keep going," he told Lyman. "Mike won't let us down, and God won't let us down. I just know that."

The altar at the Sturgeon United Methodist Church was originally constructed in 1887.

Dying church, thriving pastor

A train chugging through Sturgeon fills the quiet interval between worship songs at the Methodist church on a corner of the main street.

The town was built as a stopping point for the North Missouri Railroad in 1856 and named after Isaac Sturgeon, the president of the railroad. At one time, it was the largest St. Louis-bound shipping point, according to the town website.

Now trains do nothing more than blow their horns as they churn through Sturgeon. 

On this Sunday, a train's howl blends with a goat bleating. The duet filters through the wooden doors of the church and makes the congregation giggle in their pews.

Will, who splits his time at Riggs Union and Sturgeon United Methodist, gave both congregations a challenge last year: Raise $5,000 for Heifer International, a charity that provides farm animals — cattle, goats, chickens — to impoverished communities around the world.

At $120 a goat, they could buy more than 40 animals, supplying families with milk, cheese, meat, wool and fertilizer. The challenge came with a promise: Raise the full amount, and he would kiss a goat.

Today's the day they've been waiting for.

"We've got a VIP … or VIG, rather," he tells them. "We've got a Very Important Goat here with us today."

After a representative from Heifer International Missouri, based in Columbia, presents a plaque to the church for its accomplishment, he and Will lead the congregation outside, where a black-and-gray goat stands tied to a pole.

When everyone has shuffled outside, Will bends down to pet the goat and laughs before planting a peck on top of its head.

The goat isn't fazed. It's more interested in searching for grassy cracks in the pavement. Everyone gathers around Will and the goat for a group picture before heading back inside.

The churches had never done anything like this before Will arrived four years ago.

"When I got there, I felt like the church was concerned about their survival," he said. "But I don't feel like that's as a big of deal to them anymore. I try to help them stay positive and focus on what they can be with God's help.

"The churches are not growing in numbers, but they are growing very powerfully in mission. They are solid, little churches, and the people who are there just dearly love it."

About 20 years ago, Sturgeon United Methodist had 60 to 70 people in attendance every week. Now, average Sunday attendance is about 14.

On the wall of the Methodist church hangs a dark wooden board once used to display attendance from week to week. A stack of numbers in a box on a table below remain untouched, collecting dust.

The Union church in Riggs belongs to the United Methodist Conference and has been served by a United Methodist pastor for decades. It is in a much smaller building than its sister church in Sturgeon.

But unlike Sturgeon, it is the only church in its rural neighborhood. It sees double the attendance as the Sturgeon United Methodist church and has two families with children who regularly attend.

"Four years ago when I started my ministry at the two churches, I thought the churches would grow more in numbers of people," Will said. "But they have not."

Joyce Kemner attends Sunday service at the Sturgeon Methodist church. Kemner has been going to the church since 1970.

Sturgeon Christian Church, which served as a hospital during the Civil War, has been able to bolster its attendance by drawing people back to their hometown at special times.

The church can have more than 100 people in the pews on holidays such as Easter, Christmas or Mother’s Day, according to Bob Flanagan, the pastor.

For the most part, though, his congregation averages 35 to 50 people on any given Sunday.

Several churches in the Sturgeon area have come and gone, most closing their doors because people stopped coming. Many families moved their children to Sturgeon Baptist Church or to churches farther away, where there are thriving children’s programs with a lot of resources.

Both the Christian and Methodist churches used to hold Sunday school, but there aren’t enough children these days to warrant anything more than a short children’s sermon.

During Lent, Sturgeon United Methodist and Riggs Union have been collecting Easter eggs for the community egg hunt, which will take place Saturday at the Sturgeon Recreation Center. But neither church will host any children's events around the primary Christian holiday.

Rather, in additional to regular Easter Sunday services, there will be a Good Friday service at the Methodist church in Sturgeon and a community sunrise service on Easter Sunday at Sturgeon Christian church, where Will will be preaching.

Pastor Mike Wills scattered palm leaves down the church aisle on Palm Sunday."You can look at it form a distance and say, hey, you've got 14 in worship, you might as well shut it down," Will said. "There's this mindset of the world which is to look at things and judge based on criteria of what the word says they're supposed to be, and God's like, 'Get rid of that.'"

Without young families or children filling the pews, the future looks dim. But Will is making sure his churches are doing as much as they possibly can with whatever time they have.

He's the president of the Sturgeon Area Ministerial Alliance, which comprises six churches in the Sturgeon area. It runs a food pantry that feeds 500 to 700 people every month and a thrift store in the basement of the Methodist church.

"If it is in God's plans for our churches to start growing with younger members, that would be great," he said. "But we are not going to worry about it. We'll focus on being the most faithful and loving church that we can be until we can't be anymore. That's our attitude now, and people are on board with that."

H.C. Russell counts the offering following church services on Palm Sunday. The church hopes to raise money for a new chairlift to replace a broken one, which now prevents a church member, Elinor Russell, 87, from getting down the stairs in the church basement.

A traveling ministry

Every Sunday morning, Will drops his teenage son, John, at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Columbia, where his wife, Julia, is a full-time associate pastor.

Since the time they met in a seminary in Denver, married and moved to Missouri, Will and his wife have served as pastors of different churches. Even though both their lives are built around Sunday morning services, it's rare for them to attend a church together.

"Julia and I would love to worship together more, but we have accepted our unique situation," Will said. "We always talk about worship when we get home after church, asking, 'How'd it go? What'd you do? What'd you say?'

"We get to share a lot together, and we try to be at each other's churches whenever we can."

On April 2, Sturgeon Methodist and Riggs Church pastor Mike Will sits in the sanctuary of the Methodist church. He's been the pastor of the church for more than four years.

During the week, Will splits his time between an office job at McDonald's on Business Loop 70 West, where he handles finances, and shared parenting duties at home.

Between his office job and his wife's full-time position, the Wills earn enough so he doesn't have to count on the small salary provided by the United Methodist Conference.

Despite moving to a part-time position between two churches with minimal resources, Will said he enjoys working in the smaller, less demanding setting. He was the campus minister at the United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia for 11 years, where he said he often led worship for more than 1,500 people, but now he feels more freedom.

"I don't feel like I need to have it all figured out or control all the details." Will said. "It is so important to allow God to work as much as possible.

"Serving these churches has really helped me grow in faith and trust in God. It has allowed me to take bigger leaps of faith than I would have felt comfortable doing in a larger church setting and the results have been stunningly beautiful."

The future

During a sermon at Sturgeon United Methodist church on a recent Sunday, Will asks the congregation for prayer requests.

One woman asks to pray for a family friend with cancer. Another asks for sanity. A third asks for their church to grow.

"What will be in our future?" Will asks. "I don't know, but right now we're living on faith."

H.C. Russell listens to pastor Mike Wills give his sermon on Palm Sunday at the Sturgeon United Methodist Church. Russell is an usher at the church.

For now, the churches will continue on with the food pantry, thrift store, board meetings and lunches after service.

"The one thing about this church is that even if it goes down, we know we've done some great things for the people of this town and the people around us, and well, you've got to pat yourself on the back sometimes," Lyman said.

If and when the time comes for the churches to close, Will said, they die like people die.

"We don't want that to happen, but we move forward each week trusting in God's grace to care for us," he said.

Until then, he'll drive north every Sunday with a guitar, a Bible and a bag filled with folk instruments.

His congregation will reach in and grab something to shake, and when he starts strumming his guitar, they'll join him in song: "Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott. 

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