ALTA, Iowa | For some time, the Almighty was calling Kim Dewey to the ministry. She resisted the divine calls at first, but after a while she surrendered to the request.
Perhaps it's a sort of "divine comedy," then, that Dewey, a Missouri native who now lives in Alta, would go on to become the lead pastor of a parish of four churches -- only seven years into the job she wasn't sure she'd take.
Dewey is the lead pastor of the Schaller United Methodist Church, Alta United Methodist Church, Silver Creek United Methodist Church and Peterson United Methodist Church -- also known as the PASS (Peterson, Alta, Schaller, Silver Creek) Parish. She was appointed to this position on July 1, the day the newly linked churches became a parish.
Before that, the Silver Creek and Peterson churches were independent (albeit with part-time pastors), while Alta and Schaller were united with Dewey at the helm.
Her job as the leader of the new parish is all the more surprising given all the other jobs she's held down over the years -- she referred to the ministry as her "32nd career."
"I have been a waitress, I've been a childcare provider, I've worked in nursing homes, I've worked with children with disabilities," she said. "I have been in insurance, I have been in jewelry sales. I worked at Walmart as a customer service person for five years."
And now, she oversees worship services for four churches, with a collective 130 or so regular attendees.
'All congregations are aging'
Is it hard to be a pastor for four different churches?
"On a good day," Dewey said.
Rural churches throughout the land are faced with the problems Dewey sees in her flocks -- fewer and fewer people in the pews.
"Everything else about northwest Iowa has changed -- we have less farms, we have less schools, we have less central hubs of business and our demographics have changed completely," she said. "So the church is having to change, and although the basic tenets are the same, the way we do church might have to change, in that there's less folks to go around."
That means there is less of a need for full-time pastors to serve each and every church, which is why congregations share pastors, like Dewey and her co-pastor, Kristin Boysen.
Every Sunday, Dewey takes the pulpit at two of the four churches, while Boysen takes the other two.
The sermons and other worship materials they use are essentially the same from one congregation to the next.
Now that the four churches -- still more or less independent, but sharing a pastor -- are united in a parish, Dewey and Boysen have been working to get the churches to socialize with one another.
"Our goal is to create community between the four churches," Boysen said.
While the Peterson and Silver Creek churches have retained a fair contingent of younger congregants -- as much as 25 percent under 40 -- older folks are the rule, while younger parishioners are the exception.
"In northwest Iowa, all congregations are aging," Dewey said.
There are congregants less than 50 years old, Dewey said, but they seek out a different kind of religious experience than their elder peers.
"The folks under 50 are more interested in outreach and mission, and feeding folks -- physically feeding folks, as well as spiritually -- building a house, cleaning up a ditch, or going on a mission trip to Haiti," she said. "Versus sitting in worship on Sunday morning."
So the people Dewey and Boysen see in worship on Sunday mornings are a bit more advanced in years.
"We see the older folks are dying, so we're losing them, and the younger folks get confirmed and don't come back, so we lose on both ends," Boysen said.
Nowhere in the parish is this more stark than in Schaller, where a typical Sunday sees about 12 congregants. At one time, the church saw 35 or 40 per week.
In any church, a decline like that means some tough questions will be on the table.
"Once you probably hit about 20, you're always thinking, 'What do we do to prolong this -- and when have we prolonged it too long?'" Dewey said. "When is God saying there's some place else for you to do ministry besides right here? You can sustain a church with 10 to 20 in worship on Sunday, but how well are you doing ministry outside the walls? Because church is about what we're doing for all God's kids, not just the ones that are right inside our church."
It's a thorny situation -- and the Schaller church building itself (designed to hold closer to 100 congregants) is growing old, so what offering and donations come from the 12 or so attendees is earmarked for maintenance and upkeep.
But to move the flock to a new home could be crushing for some, so they have to explore all options.
"You've grown up in this church, your parents were married in the church, you were baptized in the church, you were confirmed in the church, your children were baptized and confirmed in the church, they're getting married in the church," Dewey said.
"The church isn't the building, but that's hard to realize," Boysen said.
One of the ironic things about small churches with poor attendance is how many people are technically registered as members of the church. Between the four churches, there are probably 400 people registered as members.
"Membership (at Schaller) is about 110," she said. "Some of those people, of course, are in nursing homes, some have maybe moved to be closer to family, or some have moved for job opportunities and they're still just on the rolls, and some might even be going to other churches."
But trying to do outreach, essential though it may be, is no small task for a pastor of four churches.
"Ministry is a full-time job, as in 24/7, 365," Dewey said. That means her time has to be used wisely.
"Most of the folks that I serve, they would rather me spend two hours with them at a potluck dinner, and really get to know them and hear the story of what their grandbaby did at the concert this week, than they would like to see me in a meeting somewhere," she said.