Church Community in Resort Towns

Hospitality is at the heart of ministry

Large cabin next to reflective lake

Back in the day, when I was a seminarian, I was pretty sure God wanted me to do ministry in a multicultural, urban church. I had recently moved back home to Minnesota after time working in an outdoor ministry setting (Koinonia Community) in New York. I was jazzed by my experiences of worshiping and working with a rich diversity of individuals. So, to help God facilitate my perceived calling I took a variety of classes that pointed in that direction. I spent a semester in Washington, DC, living at a Catholic Seminary (St. Paul’s College, a seminary for the Order of St. Paul). I took a class at Howard University School of Divinity, a predominantly Black Baptist seminary. And I even took a class titled, “The Urban Church,” at Luther Place Memorial Church. And then to seal the deal, I joined three other seminarians living in the parsonage of Prince of Glory Lutheran in North Minneapolis. We were the white folk in the neighborhood. Midway through my senior year I had an epiphany moment. I realized that as a single, white, straight, male, I was a primary candidate to serve in anyplace other than an urban church. There was nothing to restrict me from being assigned to any number of places I could not imagine God calling me. I saw my Nineveh in front of me and not an ocean in sight. As the Rolling Stones made clear, “We can’t always get what we want, but we get what we need.” Apparently, God was calling me to go to small towns up north.

For the past 35 years I have served churches in the Northeastern Minnesota Synod in communities under 3,000 population. The extent of my inner-city ministry has been limited to churches located a block from the one stoplight in town.

I have no idea what my life and ministry might have looked like had God honored my perceived call to metro life. What I do know is being called to serve places I did not think I wanted to be has been a blessing. The people I have had the honor to serve have been a blessing. I also discovered that diversity comes in many shades, many of which are subtle. I learned that small town life provides a diverse mix of economics, political perspectives, and educational backgrounds.

I live where you want to vacation

I am currently serving at Our Savior’s Lutheran, a 125-year-old congregation located in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, a resort community where the central water tower is painted to look like a bobber. I often tell folks: I live where you want to vacation. And it is true. This is a place surrounded by lakes, forests, resorts, golf courses, bike trails and cabins. Our population doubles during the summer. The highway that now skirts downtown is steady and often clogged on Friday and Sunday as tourists are coming and going to “the lake.” During the summer months I have come to realize that on any given Sunday I never know who is going to walk into worship. I have had one of my seminary professors show up as well as clergy colleagues on vacation. Old friends and high school classmates have been known to show up from time to time. In other words, this is a destination community.

Years ago, while interviewing with a church I was asked the question, “What is the most important theological issue facing the church in this day and age?” I am not sure what they were anticipating, but I suspect they were not anticipating my response which suggested that the church needs to pay more attention to the Old and New Testament themes of hospitality to the stranger. We can no longer rest on our laurels and assume people are just going to visit us on Sunday mornings. We need to be more intentional about welcoming the stranger.

Assessing community need

In my time here at Our Savior’s this theme of hospitality has been a concerted effort. At the heart of this effort, we have been intentional in getting out of our building as often as possible and into the community. We have also looked around and assessed the needs of the community.

At first glance life in “vacationland” looks pretty sweet. A closer look reveals that not everybody lives on the lake. Not everybody lives in the McMansion cabins that surround so many of the area’s lakes. One does not have to scratch the surface too deep to discover that poverty is alive and well. With that thought in mind we have been very intentional about addressing needs relating to hunger. 

A couple of years ago we teamed up with the local Methodist church and had a Lenten Food Shelf Challenge. This past Lent we added a half dozen additional churches and we raised close to $70,000 for the local food shelf. We started a food pantry in the elementary and middle school stocked with simple food items to hold the kids over weekends when food is scarce at home. We teamed up with other churches in the area in the Operation Sandwich program. And we help serve a weekly free community meal in a neighboring community.

Like many churches during COVID we had to pivot, and we went online. It was a godsend. We continue to stream and on any given Sunday we will have roughly 100 worshippers, a third will be online, some of viewers are outside our five-state area. Those closer to home have shown up in person and some have joined our congregation.

Learning from the hospitality industry

Four years ago, we introduced our All Are Welcome Community Picnic and Concerts during the summer months. We fire up the grill and load it with brats and hotdogs, provide an array of salads and desserts. And then we sit back and enjoy the music. The goal is to invite members, community members, tourists and anyone who desires some good food and fun music. It has been a hit. And it is free.

It should come as no surprise that when you live in a community that is grounded in the hospitality industry (resorts and such), there is much we can learn. Making one’s presence known is vital. We put up posters and distribute flyers at resorts and the Chamber of Commerce. We make sure to use social media. We show up at community events. We look for ways to make our presence known, being the hands and feet of Christ serving others, offering cups of cold water (or lefse) during the summer festivities.

One of the things that motivated me to write this reflection was my desire to invite not only seminarians but all pastors to give prayerful consideration to the idea of serving outside the metro areas of wherever you are.  Life in rural areas is rich with wonderful people and opportunities to serve in Jesus’ name. Many of the needs and challenges you would expect to find in the metro can also be found outside the beltways.  I feel very fortunate for my calling to this congregation and community. It is truly beautiful in our neck of the woods, and I am grateful God had better plans for me. 

  • Stephen Blenkush

    Pastor Stephen Blenkush is pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Pequot Lakes where he is living the dream as he bikes the Paul Bunyan Bike Trail, paddles around in his kayak on the multitude of lakes and visiting the many local breweries, all the while spouting off about how he lives where you want to vacation!

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