Halfway through breakfast at Murdocks Family Restaurant on Main St. the waitress comes to refill Rev. Joanne Beacon’s coffee mug. It is her third cup.
“It’s not that I’m crazy about drinking cups of coffee,” she says, responding to the observation that she seems to be a coffee lover. Here, she says, having a cup of coffee with others is a social imperative. It is “interaction, an excuse to congregate.”
When someone says, “we should have a cup of coffee sometime” it is, also “an invitation to do ministry,” she explains. “If people say, ‘I had coffee with the minister the other day, it’s okay. But if you say, ‘I went to the minister for counseling, that’s not.”
It is also an important facet of rural Saskatchewan’s famed hospitality. “To say ‘I don’t drink coffee’ is tantamount to saying, ‘I don’t want to have that conversation with you,'” Ms. Beacon adds. “You can really damage your relationship in the community by refusing an invitation to have a cup of coffee.”
The value of a cup of coffee is just one of the facets of life in rural Saskatchewan that Ms. Beacon, now on her eighth year as a rural priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican church, has learned and taken to heart.
Armed with a theology degree from Thornloe University’s correspondence program, Ms. Beacon arrived for her first posting as a priest in the middle of Saskatchewan’s farm crisis in 1998. “I was, ‘what is this?’ I’d never seen anything like this before,” she recalls. “I was struggling to just respond to needs as they came.”
It was just one of a series of “testing” she has had to undergo, she says. Right after her ordination – where she had preached about fire in the water – a fire broke out in the church sacristy. A tea kettle had been left unattended. It was “metaphoric,” she says of the fire that divided the community and challenged her leadership. “It was a tea kettle that wasn’t functioning properly. And so it uncovered in a way a metaphor of all the other things – the slapdash work that had been done by a generation of people with good intentions. The panel didn’t blow properly because it hadn’t been tested…the outlet was outdated.” She adds: “This is a real allegory for the churches because we bring to God that which is not the best and Scripture tells us that we will pay for that. Across the board, this is a temptation for churchgoers – to bring God second best; buy a new kettle, give the old one to the church, where we should be bringing the best before God.”
Having literally gone through a baptism of fire, “bringing the best before God” became Ms. Beacon’s guiding principle for doing rural ministry.
Being a rural priest, Ms. Beacon realized early on, requires a strong spirituality. “You have to know who you are before God because you spend a lot of time by yourself. There’s a community looking to you to be a spiritual leader and guide. So if you don’t have a strong sense of your spirituality and practise it, you can’t be a guide.” The long, harsh winter months in the vast, open spaces of rural Saskatchewan also forces one to spend time in contemplation. “We have months where there’s hardly any (daylight). We had three weeks when we couldn’t go out and do church last year because the highways were closed.”
Self-motivation, she adds, is essential. “You can’t wait for somebody else to tell you how to do it. There’s no church structure that’s going to be there; there’s no beaten path for what goes on in rural ministry. You have to think on your feet.”
Home visits are a big part of her job. The Anglican Journal accompanied Ms. Beacon to visit 102-year-old Evelyn Scott, the oldest Anglican in the parish, in her assisted home. Mrs. Scott instantly recognized her parish priest’s voice.
There are many more like Mrs. Scott in the aging landscape of rural Saskatchewan. “When I visit them I give them the sacrament and I read the Bible and listen to them. I don’t have to tell them anything because my presence is a sign that the church cares about them, that God cares about them,” she says. “To be able to drive the distance from one here and two there is very important because these people are our grandmothers and grandfathers.”
But her visits are not confined to the sick and the elderly. Often, people disappear from the radar because of family problems or even past hurts or injustices that may have involved the church; so, she checks in on them. “When people walk away they walk away forever and their family grows up without a church … It’s just important that I be there for people.” She adds that when a crisis hits a community, people still look to the church for support.
There are constant struggles to keep the church going. Like many parts of the country, and like many denominations, the rural Anglican church is changing. It continues to be hit hard by continuing depopulation and secularization.
The Anglican, United and Roman Catholic churches were the three founding congregations in this town 100 years ago. Today, “it’s a competitive church environment, not by intention but by constitution,” says. Ms. Beacon. “It’s what I call the empty fridge symptom. When I was very poor we had to meter everything out so that the kids would have enough and after a while the kids would be looking at each other to see if the portions were fair all the time. I think that everybody is looking at each other in the church to see who’s in it and so it becomes a very difficult environment to keep ecumenical relations running smoothly.” Church-shopping isn’t just an urban reality, she adds. “People do nowadays move from church to church much more fluidly than they ever did. But it’s much more obvious in the rural community than in the urban community because there nobody knows and nobody cares,” she says. “But in a rural community, they go, ‘wait a minute, who’s that?’ and so there’s a lot of high level diplomacy needed in doing church because we’re small.”
Ms. Beacon’s diocese, Saskatoon, is almost an equal balance of city and rural churches, according to Rodney Andrews, the diocesan bishop. But he says that while the population shift in Saskatchewan has been ongoing since the 1930s, it has shown no signs of stopping. “If you look at the map of southern Saskat-chewan you will see towns, villages, hamlets and so on. Some of them have very few people living there now. People have moved into the city,” he said. But in the eastern part of Saskatoon where he lives, he says, “they’ve had to add more lines to the transit system; a completely new area has risen and houses are being built.”
[pullquote]Indeed, as the 2001 Statistics Canada data shows, 64 per cent of people in Saskatchewan now live in the urban areas and 36 per cent, in the rural areas. A hundred years ago it was the opposite: 84 per cent settled in the rural areas and 16 per cent, urban. Nationwide, the ratio was 80 per cent urban, 20 per cent rural.
“One of the challenges for us would be meeting the need of that shift,” says Bishop Andrews. “We haven’t built a new church in Saskatoon in 50 years. We’ve been upgrading churches and that sort of thing. I’ve talked to the (diocesan) synod about this and I know that if I’d said we have too many parishes but they’re just in the wrong places, that that’s a downer.” Opinions vary on the solutions, he said. “How can we build another church when the ones we have are not even filled up?”
Ms. Beacon frets that the time will come when once-thriving but now-struggling rural churches will no longer be seen as important, particularly when the issue boils down to money. “I worry about our existence. I wonder if the rest of the world understands how important it is for the rural church environment to exist, how we would have to cut off something important when we disregard what looks to be insignificant.”
Bishop Andrews, who was a rural priest in southern Alberta for 22 years, shares Ms. Beacon’s view about the value of rural churches. “It’s never occurred to me to say that a church is not viable unless it has a certain number of people on Sunday mornings. I’ve never thought in those terms and I still don’t,” he says.
The answer is, he says, “we need to rethink how we do ministry, without necessarily having a full-time priest.” Many rural churches can’t afford a full-time priest or have difficulty attracting a full-time priest because salaries offered aren’t competitive, he says.
Fortunately for the church, there are parishioners who are willing to step up to the plate in the absence of a priest, says Bishop Andrews, citing the parishes in Bjorkdale and Porcupine Plain, where lay people conduct services and gather people for Bible study.
What is lacking, he says, is training for this new breed of lay ministers. “You can’t just ask them to assume (leadership) without giving them any kind of education,” said the bishop. “Yes, we have a theological college but their orientation is to train people for priesthood. But what about lay leaders?”
The church also needs to change the way it does ministry. Even in the rural areas, “the church is not so integral in society as it used to,” says Bishop Andrews. “But we’re still thinking very much in terms of the chaplaincy mode, where the priest is there to look after the needs of the people. It’s a very hard shift both for clergy and the people to begin to think that we have to reach out and interest people in the Anglican church. Membership development is still possible particularly among young people.”
This is what is happening in Ms. Beacon’s parish, which recently hired a young musical director whose music has drawn many members of the community; she also doubles as a summer arts camp director. Parishioners are very much a part of the community – from helping to run the Good Neighbour Store that raises money for local charities to supporting the parish rural network for victims of domestic violence. “Right now we’re kind of surviving because we had a large bequest. But that money is almost gone and so we’ve entered into a conversation that suggested that what we really need to do is invest in ministry,” says Ms. Beacon. “At last the church has figured out that it’s people we should be investing in.”
Hardships and all, Bishop Andrews and Ms. Beacon both say that being a rural priest is “one of the most rewarding and satisfying” ministries. “You can be very close to people and you have time to be close to people,” says Bishop Andrews. “When people have family celebrations, it’s very common that they invite the priest and so you’re there for anniversaries and baptisms.” There is a truism, he says that the former primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, who spent many years as bishop of Qu’Appelle, often repeated, “nothing is real unless it’s local; nothing really matters until it comes down to the community.”
For Ms. Beacon, rural ministry is her life’s calling. “The amount of trust that the bishop places on rural ministry is huge because I can’t check with him all the time. He can’t check in with me all the time, he just puts me to the job and that’s good, that’s great. I like who I am and it has made me a hugely strong and well-developed person,” she says.
The faith she has seen here is “awesome,” she adds. “They’re people who live close to the ground. They live in this huge sky, they live in isolation.” And the people who are driving their tractors back and forth for hours, in seemingly endless fields, she says, are either listening to their CDs or “they’re talking to Jesus.”