As with many rural areas throughout the country, pastors in the Johnston Marshall Baptist Association know some things are going to happen like clockwork this time of year.
Leaves begin to change. Mentioning your football allegiance from the pulpit comes with a calculated risk. Attendance takes a hit on the first weekend of deer season.
Other things continue in the same manner. Churches averaging about 50 in attendance work to meet the needs in their community. Pastors will gather weekly for lunch at the associational office in Madill to eat whatever has been pulled off the smoker and talk about the news of the day.
At the associational annual meeting Oct. 17, they also celebrated how 31 churches in sparsely-populated south central Oklahoma gave almost $250,000 through the Cooperative Program (CP) for Southern Baptist missions. Gary Dempsey, director of missions, expects that number to grow as the giving by several churches had yet to be tabulated.
He estimated that most of the association’s churches give 7-10% of their annual budget through CP with one, Grantham Baptist in Madill, giving 24.3%.
The unassuming nature of pastors in the association is a part of their strength, said Dempsey, who contributes his skills on the smoker to those weekly meetings. Their humility and a devotion to service the in Lord, he said, helps “to keep the main thing the main thing.”
“These churches work well together and our pastors are a good group who are genuinely invested in each other,” he said.
Those weekly gatherings are for general fellowship, sure. But sometimes a formal program helps pastors for training in an area of ministry. “Most of the time it’s about encouragement,” Dempsey said. “We have good discussions, and it’s come to be a time that guys who show up appreciate.”
Little City Baptist Church in Madill hosted the annual gathering. One of its former pastors testified to the people’s devotion to fulfilling the Great Commission.
“They were great people who were patient with me as I learned to preach and shepherd the flock,” said Hance Dilbeck, who, after a stint as executive director-treasurer for Oklahoma Baptists, is now president-elect of GuideStone Financial Resources.
“First funeral. First wedding. First budget. First baptism. First business meeting,” said Dilbeck, who was pastor of Little City Baptist in the late 1980s while a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The associational missionary, Lawrence Cox, was an encourager who gave a lot of practical advice.
“This is a fellowship of small churches working together to encourage one another to advance the gospel. They are committed to doing their part in the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists.”
Ministry in small communities brings its own set of challenges, said Luke Holmes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Tishomingo. People tend to move out of small towns, not to them. At the same time, you’re also dealing with societal ills such as poverty and addiction.
That makes a missional mindset all the more important, he said.
“I’ve always thought of communities like ours as being ‘sending’ churches,” Holmes said. He added that as students grow up, for instance, they need a solid groundwork for when they go to college or live in a large city.
That joins a mandate to minister nearby and in the region. A chainsaw disaster relief team from the association recently helped clear out hurricane damage in Morgan City, La. Block parties encourage children to take part in vacation Bible school or, in one church’s case, be part of a car show outreach. Church members have been involved in various campground ministries around Lake Texoma and the Red River to the south.
Churches in the association have also banded together to support a new work in the community of Butcher Pen, Holmes said, adding, “It’s the only church in that area, a rough place. But many families live there.”
Although pastors enjoy being together, many can’t because they are working another full-time job. Many work for ranchers. Others are teachers or work in a refinery. One is in software engineering. Another is a reserve deputy.
Most churches struggle to pay pastors enough if they have children still in the home. A lot of pulpits are filled by pastors who – as Dempsey described it – “are retired but not ready to quit.” Their experience and ability to lead, he added, often generates new life into those congregations.
A pastor’s role in a small town or unincorporated community extends beyond the church walls, Dempsey said. And those opportunities for ministry occur as consistently as the seasons.
“Most of these guys are not only the pastor of the church, but the pastor of the community,” he said. “They’re at football games, basketball games – whatever is going on. It’s simple and laid back. We’d say ‘it’s country,’ and a very rural type of life.
“But it’s a good life.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – October is Cooperative Program Emphasis Month and Oct. 17-24 is the Week of Prayer for Baptist associations in the SBC. Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)