A Minister's Tale

This pastor is devoted to two vocations: full-time farming and tending two rural church flocks.

Pastor Steve Struecker sees to the needs of his congregants when he’s not seeing to the needs of his own crops, Image by Jim Patrico

It’s corn harvest, and Steve Struecker is multitasking as so many farmers do in the cab of an autosteer combine. During the straightaways in the fields, some farmers study the markets; others catch up on phone calls. Struecker writes his Sunday sermon.

He has to multitask. Otherwise, he might not find the time to do the work of his other profession. Pastor Steve, as he is called, tends two Lutheran congregations totaling about 200 souls. That’s in addition to helping run a large corn and soybean operation near West Bend, Iowa, with his son Andy, 30, and business partner, Bill Lindgren.

A typical Sunday for Pastor Steve goes something like this: He and his wife, Kathy, leave the house about 7:30 in the morning to prepare for the 8:30 service in Livermore, Iowa, a half-hour from home. He finishes the service, enjoys social time with congregants then drives 10 miles to Lu Verne, Iowa, for a 10 a.m. service. The couple runs home for a few hours of rest and an abbreviated Sunday dinner, then hustles back to Lu Verne for evening bible classes.

Sunday is no day of rest for the Strueckers. Nor are most other days. They both teach children’s classes on Wednesday evenings, and the vacation bible school Pastor Steve and Kathy instituted has become a focal point for the communities--both for those who regularly attend church and those who are “unchurched.” Add to the chore list emergencies, funerals and visits to shut-ins.

All of this and farming, too. Fortunately, Pastor Steve, at 56, is physically and emotionally equipped for both jobs. Tall, thin and continuously smiling, he is energy and spirituality clothed in farmer’s cap and jeans one day, clerical alb and seasonal stole the next.

CAREER PATHS

Being a farmer was always Pastor Steve’s goal. (His grandfather and father farmed some of this same land.) Being a pastor was something that evolved.

Always wanting to help the community, he spent 20 years in the sheriff’s reserve, which he says, “helped me understand there are two sides to every story. It helped me become more patient and not jump to conclusions about people.”

His deep religious conviction meant he also was always active in the church, which led him in midlife to become a lay deacon. As then-Deacon Steve approached 50, there came a turning point.

The Lutheran pastor who served the neighboring communities of Livermore (population 380) and Lu Verne (population 300) became ill, and Deacon Steve started helping two temporary replacement pastors serve the two congregations. Eventually, the two pastors had to move on, and it seemed for a while that the churches would close. Something in Pastor Steve’s soul responded: “I could not let the doors close on those two churches.”

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So, he heeded the encouragement of a pastor friend and took the extraordinary step of studying for ordination. That required distance learning courses and two annual trips to a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis. It was “the hardest four years of my life,” Pastor Steve says. But, he was ordained in 2015, and now Livermore and Lu Verne are his congregations. “And, here I am serving their needs. I believe God was calling me to help.”

The decision to get more involved in the church came “at a good time for us as a family,” Kathy says. Son Andy was finishing up at Iowa State University, where he earned an agronomy degree and wanted to return to the farm.

Not that Kathy ever had envisioned life as a pastor’s wife. Raised Catholic, she married a farmer and thought that her roles as a farmer’s wife and the full-time employee of an insurance company were hectic enough. Now, her third job would be as a pastor’s wife. Still, she calls it “a great adventure” and seems to have accepted it enthusiastically.

Pastor Steve, meanwhile, considers himself lucky. “Without her [Kathy], this would not have been possible. There are times when I’ve said, ‘I give up. I can’t do this anymore.’ And she has helped me through it.”

OLD IDEA

The notion of a farmer/pastor probably goes back to the founding of the Lutheran faith, when followers of Martin Luther became clergy in addition to holding day jobs such as farming, blacksmithing or shopkeeping. But Pastor Steve is something of an experiment for the modern Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod, which not that many years ago frowned on the idea that pastors could have two careers. A shortage of clerics has loosened the modern rules, explains Steve Turner, a pastor and the Synod’s District president for the West District of Iowa. He is the friend who encouraged Pastor Steve to consider ordination.

“I joke with Steve that he gets to do exactly as I wanted to do,” says Turner, who grew up on a North Dakota sunflower and wheat farm. “I would have loved to have been able to farm and be a pastor. But, that option wasn’t available when I was a young man.”

The shortage of pastors changed that.

It’s an issue for many denominations in much of rural America. It seems especially obvious in parts of the Midwest, where 150-year-old towns of 400 people have three or four church buildings, many of them now vacant. Turner’s district has lost three congregations in the last three years.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges I face as a district president,” Turner says. “The hand we’ve been dealt is that as our communities have been growing smaller, our congregations are growing older.”

It is crucial to serve families who have attended rural churches for generations, but that takes some innovation, Turner says. “People in small towns say, ‘We want it to be like it was when we were growing up or our kids were growing up.’ But, it’s a different world now.”

Turner points to rural school consolidation as a parallel to what is happening with small-town churches.

Many rural communities went on school-building binges in the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate the baby boomer kids. When that generation graduated and moved away, neighboring towns had to consolidate school districts, and Iowa’s small towns today are littered with empty schoolhouses.

“Churches are 20 to 30 years behind the schools,” Turner says.

Congregations have grown older and become smaller in number. Now, the critical mass--and financial means--to keep churches open is disappearing. More and more steepled buildings are abandoned.

One of Turner’s hopes for the future of rural congregations is to find more pastors like Pastor Steve, who serve multiple “partner” congregations. They split the meager salary of a pastor and share some--but not all--services. Meanwhile, they retain their own identities.

“I wish we had more guys like Steve who could be bivocational,” Turner says. “He has a heart of gold and wants to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ.”

PART OF A TREND

Pastor Steve is well aware of the demographics: “Back in the day, you had four or five families living on every section. We don’t have that anymore.” He acknowledges that his own farm today occupies the land that used to support several families, but he is proud that the business supports three families plus extra labor at harvest.

It is somehow appropriate to him that he, as a farmer, has become involved in caring for his rural community’s spiritual health. “It’s so easy to relate farming to religion,” Pastor Steve says. “The land needs to be cared for … The gospel message we receive is [likewise] so important. They [churchgoers] need to hear it on a weekly basis to nurture their souls.”

Pastor Steve finds the work fulfilling, even when dealing with death: “Being with people at the end of life. Being there for them as they are dying. It may sound morbid, but I enjoy doing funerals. It is an opportunity to connect with a person and the life that they lived.” Giving the funeral sermon for a farmer is especially satisfying.

Even more than his ministering to those at the end of life, Pastor Steve appreciates ministering to
the young.

On one recent Sunday morning, the turnout at Zion Lutheran Church, in Lu Verne, was especially good. Of almost 30 people there, the majority was young families. As he does most Sundays, Pastor Steve called the youth to the altar for a brief sermon. Sitting on the steps, he joked with them, talked to them individually and prayed with them. On this occasion, he held his grandson Jackson in his lap.

“They [children] are the future of the church,” he says

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