Real Life and Community Covenant collaborate in rural ministry

While the Northwest Conference is home to approximately 140 churches, about half of them are outside of metro areas. Whether in a town of 10,000, or 100, or located in the country, these churches have a great mission field.

The majority of people in rural communities do not attend church. This positions rural churches with the opportunity to come into people’s lives and introduce them to Jesus. One of the ways churches do this is by coming alongside each other—collaborating and serving their communities together. It’s a beautiful representation of spurring one another on toward love and good deeds as admonished in Hebrews 10:24-25.

Community Covenant Church is located in Huntley, MN. Population 154. The church was established in 1986 and drew members from many surrounding communities over the next 30 years, according to the church’s chairwoman Kay Sauck.

“While the membership numbers have always been very good for a church located in a small community, our numbers started dropping over the past four or five years,” Sauck said.

As of 2019, the church was without a pastor, and by 2021 it was home to a core group of about 15 people. Sauck contacted the Northwest Conference while the church was in a climate of change and again when they were wanting to move forward.

“Kara Stromberg (NWC Associate Superintendent) was available to take my call, and I am forever grateful. She listened as I shared what we had been through and that we needed to move forward. Before the call ended Kara assured me she would be working on our behalf,” Sauck said.

Waiting and praying

Those at Community Covenant waited and prayed.

Sixty miles northeast of Huntley, Michael Behm is the pastor of Real Life Church in Waseca, MN. Although he grew up in the suburbs, during seminary Behm felt God’s call to give his best to rural areas and small towns. Stromberg reached out to Behm about potentially providing sermons for Community Covenant. The leadership at Real Life connected with the remaining members in Huntley, and a collaboration began.

At first, Community Covenant watched Behm’s services online, along with pre-recorded messages specifically directed toward its congregation on special occasions. But God had more in store for the two churches.

“I thought, ‘What if we could establish a relationship and have something more ongoing?’” Behm explained.

Without hesitation

Enter John and Deb Westphal. The Westphals have been active members of Real Life since the very first service of the NWC church plant on their screened-in porch. God had been moving in their marriage, laying a desire on both of their hearts to pursue rural ministry together. When Behm asked the couple if they’d like to join him in meeting with Community Covenant, they agreed without hesitation.

“The core group who are left in Huntley are great people, they have a real heart for serving others. When I recognized that about them, I said, ‘I’m all in,’” John Westphal said.

From that point forward, the Westphals committed to coming alongside the people in Huntley—with John providing two messages each month in person and Deb taking on the role of shepherding. They also, along with their two children, enjoy taking part in ministry opportunities in Huntley including the monthly dinner the church provides for its community.

Deb will be going back to school for a rural leadership and ministry program at Oak Hills Christian College in the fall. She is excited to see how God will use this program to further what she and John are doing at Community Covenant. Deb also hopes to be an encouragement to the congregation.

“I want to be that person to talk to if someone is going through a difficult time or needs prayer. The people here give so much of themselves to the church and to others, and I want to make sure they are being fed as well,” Deb Westphal said. “So, I will be starting a Bible study in the fall with the goal of feeding God’s servants through His word.”

“I have been reminded that all churches go through changes, and for those of us still at Community Covenant Church, it feels as if we are starting new,” Sauck said. “We not only feel unified, but it feels like family, and we pray that God’s will continues to be done here.”

God is present and at work

Although the changes have not been easy, the congregation is thankful for the help they’ve received and hopeful for what God has planned for the future.

When the Westphals walk through the doors of Community Covenant, they sense God’s presence.

“What I see in them now is a sense of happiness and joy—they are reinvigorated,” John Westphal said. “Deb nor I take credit for it. God is present and at work. A sense of togetherness has really taken hold there.”

While the collaboration between Real Life and Community Covenant is still in its infancy, the overall goal is to come alongside one another long-term.

“It turned into something even more than I imagined. We want to see Community Covenant grow in number and bring more people on board, so they’ll be able to afford to hire a pastor. It could be John and Deb, or it might not be. We’re leaving it open,” Behm said.

Behm’s passion for rural churches has been a blessing to the congregation of Community Covenant.

“That’s really my heart—specifically small-town churches, but any church that wants to connect Jesus with their community. I’m all about it. Let’s connect and see how we can help one another,” Behm said. “There are incredible people, some great leadership and a lot of talent in these small towns—and they’re consistent, which is huge.”

Behm encourages others to not overlook the rural church. Regardless of location, there are countless people still needing the hope of Jesus.

Story By Katie Honnette, freelance writer and member of Trimont Covenant Church.