Young seminary graduates typically seek pastoral positions in large suburban or urban congregations, but Brett Klingenberg craved something else. He grew up on a farm, loved farming and wanted to return to a rural congregation and farming as part of his ministry. At Eastern Mennonite Seminary, he felt restless until he found some farm work to do on the side.
“Farming and ranching are in my blood,” he says. “I must continue to be involved in farming for me to experience wholeness.”
Klingenberg is the pastor of First Mennonite Church in Beatrice, Neb. He, his wife Cassie and their two children live on a 37-acre farmstead with sheep, chickens, 18-22 head of cattle, and a large garden. This farmstead helps connect Klingenberg to the bulk of his congregants, either farming now or raised on farms.
“People are curious about what’s happening on our farm. They ask questions about when I’m getting my next load of cattle, what kind they are, what I feed, if I’m baling hay this year, how many eggs are the chickens laying, and why on earth would you want to have sheep,” he says.
“I think pastors can sometimes be hard to relate to because the job is so unique, but as an active agricultural participant, connections with my congregation and my community have been more natural.”
Klingenberg says the composition of rural churches is changing: “Kids head off to college and don’t return; some parents retire and move to where their kids are now living.” This accounts for the drop in born-and-raised Mennonites in his congregation. Their places in the pews are gradually being filled by “neighbors” who “have diverse denominational backgrounds or have never been a part of the church.”
“We’ve experienced an influx of [people who are] traditionally non-Mennonites. It’s been a challenge to teach Mennonite history and theology, when many aren’t regular on Sundays,” says Klingenberg. “Our peace beliefs aren’t necessarily the reason people are attracted to our congregation. They come because we do community well.”
In his final “capstone” presentation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary on the needs of rural communities, Klingenberg suggested that pastors in rural congregations might improve their congregational relationships by doing farming themselves – a concept reminiscent of lay farmer-pastors in Mennonite churches of earlier eras. Besides, he thinks it’s a healthy way to live.
“Agriculture gives me the opportunity to do what I love, which allows me to feel less anxious about my life as a pastor,” he says. “I look forward to going home and feeding my cattle every evening; it’s therapeutic”