Cordray Serves a Four-point Parish SpanningThree Counties and Six School Districts

Sarah CordrayA 2005 WTS graduate, Sarah Cordray serves a four-point parish spanning three counties and six school districts (five in Nebraska, one in Colorado). Her “Tri-County Lutheran Parish” serves 250 baptized members, one-fifth of whom are young people and children. It’s a 75-mile circuit to travel to all the ministry points.

In this remote locale in the panhandle of
western Nebraska, there’s a temptation to go it alone, mind your own business and function as a rugged individualist. Not in Cordray’s parish. The realities of declining population and the marginalization of congregations has created a rather different spirit.

Says Cordray, “I think these rural congregations have had to make quite a few adaptive changes. They’re learning to be missional, to look outward instead of inward, and are trying to discern what God is up to — and how we can participate in that.”

Of the members of her four congregations, one of which has an average Sunday worship attendance of nine, she says, “They find it great to discover they’re not in this alone.”

The four-congregation parish, created in the year 2000, is divided into two ministry units. “I preach at two points each Sunday,” Cordray says. “Another staff person serves the other two; then we switch.” She gets help from a pair of trained lay ministry assistants, synodically authorized to preach and distribute the sacraments.

There are a couple more (part-time) ministry staff people, one of which is Cordray’s husband, who serves as youth ministry leader (an associate in ministry, he’s a 2006 WTS grad). There’s also a part-time secretary.

With such a diverse staff, and so many miles across the parish, how does Cordray make it work? “We have staff meetings twice a month. They run to two-and-a-half hours. We meet at the church building that’s most central geographically. It’s very challenging holding everything together, but we’re doing it.”

Once a year all four church councils, plus members of an umbrella all-parish governing body, meet for a retreat. Members of all four congregations make financial contributions to a unified parish budget. Each contributes based on the size of their membership.

If you’d have asked Sarah Cordray, when she was growing up in Onawa, Iowa, or when she was a student at Luther College, whether she expected to end up serving a four-point congregation in western Nebraska, she might have laughed out loud.

“I was an elementary education major,” she admits. “I taught for two and a half years in Illinois, east of the Quad Cities. Then I went to Fresno, California to serve as a youth director in an ELCA congregation. I had previously served on a church camp staff in California. During that time I began to discern my future — and God’s call.”

That led her to Wartburg Seminary. “I suppose my internship was a sort of preparation for what I’m doing now,” she suggests. “I served in a four-point parish west of Dubuque — we had congregations in Ryan, Dundee, Earlville and Lamont.” Two of the four points have since closed.