Bluebonnet Conference

Christ in the Country:
Three Churches Better than One
Pastor Kara Hairell-Speed had just helped a stuck chick out of its shell, using patience and a wet paper towel. Perhaps from overseeing ducks, chickens, horses, and three congregations, Kara exudes the care and know-how of a preacher comfortable in her boots. 

Christ in the Country Shared Ministry is a multi-point parish, essentially a cooperative of three congregations with a pastoral team of Pastor Kara and three Synodically Authorized Ministers (SAMs). The SAMs, Ronny Dentler, Steve Gengenbacher, and Gina Zavesky, are authorized by the Bishop to preside over communion on the Sundays when they preach. 
Pastor Kara preaching at Martin Luther in Coletoville on Pentecost Sunday, 2021. 
Each congregation is less than 20 miles from the next (a horse and buggy ride away when built), but they’re in three different counties: Zion Lutheran Church Arneckeville in Cuero, TX; Martin Luther Coletoville in Victoria; and St Luke’s Schroeder in Goliad.

St. Luke’s is a mile from Schroeder Hall, the second oldest dance hall in Texas, where Kara grew up two stepping from her nearby hometown in Yoakum.  

Most of Kara’s congregants are farmers and ranchers, many for the fifth or sixth generation.

“We have so much in common, because I can work the fence line, I can work cattle with ‘em, I can drive the tractors,” Kara said. “And for them to have a female pastor, though not the first female pastor for any of them, who can match step for step, hay bale for hay bale is a great thing.”

Every month with a fifth Sunday, all three congregations worship and share a meal at one church in a rotation. “Each of these churches can get disillusioned when they feel that their congregations are dwindling,” Kara said. “The beauty is that they get to join all their voices in song and prayer, and they can look around and see their own sanctuaries full, and see what that potential is.”

As recently as 2017, 28% of ELCA congregations were in rural settings. Multi-point parishes are becoming more common in rural communities for numerous reasons, from financial realities to a decline in available pastors. But Kara’s churches seem happier with the arrangement. 

“The advantage of a three point parish is you’re not alone in ministry,” Kara said. “You have this sense of community that you are bigger and there is more to you than just your congregation. Christ calls us to be in community.” 
St. Luke’s in Goliad, TX.
Pastor Kara explained that congregants are often asking what their partner churches may need, sharing their gifts with one another. “It’s more fun, there’s never an opportunity to get stagnant.” When an organist’s husband passed away recently, the other two congregations jumped in to help out. They even include a fourth sister congregation in the three point parish. Nearby St. Peter’s Lutheran in Ander joins in hosting mid-week services in the church rotation during Lent and Advent. Kara said the congregations love gathering for the holidays, and she loves the camaraderie shared with St Peter’s Pastor Anne Kohlmeier.

It’s clear Kara loves being in the country, both for the nature and the neighbors. In Arneckeville, visitors have to drive over three cattle guards to get to the church. “There is this sense of peace when you get there, because every cattle guard you feel like you’ve left some of your worries and cares and frustrations behind,” Kara said.  

“You sometimes drive through herds of cattle to get up to the church,” she added. “ When you’re standing outside, there is always a beautiful breeze blowing, so you feel the Holy Spirit touching your skin. And if you’re quiet you can hear the cattle talking to each other. For a moment, you can stop and think, I wonder if this is what Jesus heard when he was born?” 
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Southwestern Texas Synod