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Surviving, and perhaps thriving, in rural Ohio

by Linda Bloom
February 10, 2011

At the turn of the 20th century, northwest Ohio was booming.

Lima was the locomotive capital of the world, building four 200-ton steam locomotives every week. A cigar factory produced a million cigars a month. Standard Oil had a refinery in the area. Agriculture was a mainstay of the region, with farmers cultivating land that their families would hold for generations.

Leipsic Methodist Church, built in 1894, immediately became a denominational flagship, growing with its namesake town.

In a way, it still is, although much has changed.

The farms are still there, but the economic decline in Putnam and nearby counties began in 1950, when diesels put steam locomotives out of business. Some new business has come in, but the boom times are long gone.

The story is familiar to those of us who grew up in the industrial north. What’s new is how the church is trying to save and, hopefully, grow its small churches in these areas.

Last September, UMNS photographer Mike DuBose and I spent a weekend visiting the folks at the Greater Leipsic Multi-Site Parish to get a sense of how this model for rural ministry is working. You can read the rural church series at http://bit.ly/hYRwo5.

The parish’s four pastors and five congregations welcomed us with a spirit of hospitality and connectionalism. The Rev. Tom Graves, our main contact in the parish, went out of his way to make sure we met with people from each congregation, had a chance to chat with the pastors, and were able to catch a sampling of community life through the parade and fair for the “Leipsic Days” celebration on that Saturday.

The Rev. Bill Patterson – who had just started a few months earlier as the new senior pastor but grew up 20 miles away, in North Baltimore – was generous with his time. He opened his home so we could have a sit-down discussion with him, Graves and the Rev. Amy Haines, who brought another perspective as a younger clergy member with two children and a spouse active in the parish.

We didn’t meet the Rev. Janet Lewis-Cattell until Sunday morning, when we arrived at Oakdale United Methodist Church for worship. But we had heard the concerns and prayers of the parish regarding her battle against cancer. Thankfully, her prognosis has steadily improved since then.

In true Methodist fashion, the congregations kept us well fed – we were included in a carry-in dinner, breakfast and lunch.

We couldn’t absorb everything or get to know everyone over a weekend. But driving along the roads of a region that was once part of the Great Black Swamp, we caught glimpses of the past, present and future and how the church is changing, whether it wants to or not.

As the Rev. Roger Grace, an Ohio native and president of the United Methodist Rural Fellowship, told me, this area had been a stronghold for the predecessor groups of our denomination – Methodist, Evangelical and United Brethren.

After the mergers, some places ended up with two United Methodists churches in very close proximity. In the village of Deshler, two congregations were literally across the street from each other – until it just didn’t make sense to maintain two separate buildings anymore.

As I sat in the basement fellowship hall with a few members of what is now the “New Beginnings” church, they admitted it’s been hard to let go of their separate identities.

Sandy Powell remembered the revival meetings typical of the Evangelical United Brethren tradition that St. Paul’s Church, now shuttered, held as she was growing up and said she misses the “sing-sperations” conducted several times a year.

“We’re still working out some things,” added Phyllis LaRue, who joined the Deshler Methodist Church in 1940, when she was 14 years old.

The truth is, they really have no choice but to make the best of it. But from what I experienced in northwest Ohio, that’s not a bad choice at all.