New Prairieland Parish shows strength of cooperation in rural ministry

August 10, 2023
Revs. Jon Marburger and Bridget Sheely hold seven sticks representing the seven churches of this new parish.

By Rev. Michelle Hargrave

I began my work as River Valley District superintendent (DS) right at the beginning of the appointment season, when the bishop and the appointive cabinet work to match available clergy with churches needing new pastors, taking into account the unique needs of a church and its community and the particular gifts of a clergy person.
One appointment I needed to fill, due to a retirement, was Brownsdale UMC and Zion UMC in Sargeant. These two quarter-time appointments are just east of Austin, Minnesota. I began to wonder what God might do there. We talked a bit at the cabinet table about what it would be like to unite them with other churches into a parish. Decades ago, three clergy with two churches each drew them together as the Prairieland Parish, extending from east of Austin to south of Rochester. The parish was dismantled years ago, but the parishioners of those six churches remembered the joy of that connection with one another.
I went to meet the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) of Brownsdale and Zion UMCs, and as we talked Wendy Rolfson, Brownsdale SPRC chair, said, “I wish the Prairieland Parish was still in existence.”
Shortly after that I received an email from two clergy serving the other churches of the former Prairieland Parish, asking if they could form a new parish and take on Brownsdale and Zion UMCs. It felt like God was up to something.
I met with the two clergy, Revs. Bridget Sheely and Jon Marburger. We identified that more help was needed, so I recruited Rev. Abigail Ozanne to lead organizational pieces as a part-time appointment. Then I met with the SPRCs of Brownsdale and Zion UMCs, introducing Bridget and Jon. I have never been to a more joyful SPRC meeting in my entire life.

A map showing the seven churches that make up the Prairieland Parish, between Rochester and the Iowa border.
A map showing the seven churches that make up the Prairieland Parish, between Rochester and the Iowa border.
After that, the pastors and I gathered with a total of seven churches to form this parish: Brownsdale UMC, Dexter UMC, United Church of Grand Meadow, Racine UMC, Sumner Center UMC, Wykoff UMC, and Zion UMC in Sargeant. During the meeting members shared their fond memories of being in the parish together, and warned me that the DS, and the pastors, needed to be dedicated to the concept for it to work. I asked one woman why she was crying, and she said, “I thought you were here to tell us to close or merge.”

Bridget shared our desire to keep the “light of Christ present and shining in the local communities,” highlighting the power of small rural churches to be the physical presence of Jesus’ love. Jon laid out ways the churches could cooperate, building on ways they already were, since Jon and Bridget have collaborated a lot in the last several years. Abigail explained how worship would work. The churches approved the creation of the parish unanimously.
It isn’t all easy. In order for two pastors to handle seven churches on a Sunday, Abigail created a rotating schedule using pulpit supply pastors for two or three of the churches each Sunday. I call her the dispatcher. She cares for organizing and communicating the plan to everyone. Bridget is planning worship to coordinate across the parish, and Jon is working on pastoral care coverage. The administrative work of developing one central payment system for multiple clergy has been challenging. Finding enough preachers for pulpit supply is a constant concern.
But I am struck by the power of keeping churches in their beloved buildings, scattered across the beautiful landscape of southeastern Minnesota. Along rivers and highways, these churches care for people of all generations and are, as Bridget said, a visible reminder of the presence of Christ.
The SPRC meeting—the joyful one—ended with Wendy Rolfson posing Jon and Bridget with a collection of long sticks. I asked her why she was doing this, and she said, “Seven sticks cannot easily be broken.”
I ask you to pray along with me for the clergy of this new Prairieland Parish, for the hard work of getting it going, and for these seven churches, not easily broken, the beacons of Jesus’ love along the southern Minnesota border.

Rev. Michelle Hargrave is the district superintendent for the River Valley District.

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