Taking On Big Challenges In A Small Church
By Fred Koenig
Gaye Lynn Blankenship knows that much of rural Missouri is plagued with substance abuse. Alcoholism, opioid addiction and methamphetamine use top the list of social problems. She knows her Dent County community was faced with those problems just like any other rural community in Missouri. A member at one church has a granddaughter who died from an overdose at a party. She would see that grandmother crying at her granddaughter’s grave every week. Blankenship herself has lost a close family member to a cause related to alcoholism.
But there is something else the Blankenship knows just as well: Faith can see people through the hard times.
“God reveals again and again that he is control,” Blankenship said.
With the problems of addiction heavy on her heart, Blankenship brought up the idea of starting a support group at Anutt United Methodist Church. One of her members said she would help, so that was all she needed to get started.
The church at Anutt was hit by lightning and burned down in 2013. The congregation, which was averaging 10 in attendance, was disappointed when they were advised not to build back. That was when Blankenship first arrived on the scene. The church found they could have worship in the community building, a stone building that was a former one-room school house. Rather than constructing a new building, they paid the community center $10 per week for use of the existing building. They’ve now been doing this for six years.
“People have realized the building is not the church. You can do ministry without a building,” Blankenship said.
When Anutt UMC started using the community center they made some improvements, fixing up the bathroom, adding a kitchen sink and replacing the windows, spending about $16,000. People sit in chairs around folding tables as they have worship. Both the community center and the church entered the relationship with a degree a caution and nervousness, but through prayer and time a healthy relationship has formed.
“It’s a good example of partnership between the secular and the sacred,” Blankenship said. “Different groups can work together.”
When Blankenship initiated the recovery ministry, at first they met in the evening in the same community center in Anutt where they worship. A couple of people turned out, but the group felt they weren’t reaching as many people as they needed to. They tried shifting time and locations once, to make it a lunch hour meeting at a restaurant in Salem, about 15 miles away. They tried several different restaurants until they found one that worked for their purpose. With the move to Salem the recovery ministry became a bridge between Anutt UMC and Mt. Hermon, the other church Blankenship serves. Attendance at the lunch meeting ranges from four to about a dozen.
“There were several steps involved in getting this going – including failure,” Blankenship said. “We decided if we were going to reach new people, we needed to make adjustments. It’s like I would say when I was teaching: You try 99 things that fail, and that’s OK if that’s what it takes to find one thing that works. God’s love, mercy and justice will come through. You just have to stay humble.”
Initially the group primarily used Nar-Anon material to run the meeting. Nar-Anon is a 12-step program for friends and family members of those who are affected by someone else’s addiction. After a while they decided to go with their own devotional to better meet the needs of the group. The lunch group starts by taking prayer requests. The list is long. They pray the serenity prayer in unison and have a motivational devotional. People don’t just talk about addiction. They share struggles of aging and family relationships.
“There’s not a lot of drug talk,” Blankenship said. “It’s more about how people are going to get through the week or the day.”
Blankenship works to bring conversation back around to God or scripture, but she isn’t heavy-handed about it. She doesn’t want to scare off anyone who isn’t religious yet. Several people in the group are senior citizens and in a recent meeting shared that they feel their family doesn’t view them as being relevant or important anymore or don’t value the life experience they have to share.
“Pray about it before you talk to your family, and be grateful you have a family to talk to,” Blankenship said. “Pray for the words to bring people together. Our time in this world is short. We need to make the best of it.”
The lunch meeting spills over from the largest table. Only two people present were already at the church when Blankenship first came. One of the new people is a Mt. Hermon member, who moved to Dent County from a city.
“When my husband said he wanted to go to that little church out in the woods I thought he was crazy,” she said. But she did it, and she found community there and looks forward to hearing sermons she can relate to.
“It’s been a blessing. She explains things in a way that we can understand it,” she said.
Being out in public for the lunch meeting has been beneficial. They have prayed with their waiter, who was struggling with alcoholism. Going to a public place is what necessitated moving to neighboring Salem for the meeting. There are no restaurants, stores or businesses in Anutt. Four churches remain there as the last institutions standing for the community. The average age of the congregation at Anutt is 72.
“These little churches are the nursery of Christianity,” Blankenship said. “You raise up leaders, because everyone has to be a leader.”
Blankenship’s other church, Mt. Hermon, is an open country church that has 22 members and averages about 26 in attendance. Three years ago, Blankenship felt God was calling her to erect a cross at Mt. Hermon. She put the word out that it needed to be done, without having any idea as to what kind of cross, how big or where. It ended up being built by people who were needing to log community service hours because of arrests. When she went by the church to check on the progress, she saw the five people who were working on the cross were all people whom she had been praying for.
“God and the Holy Spirit works these things out,” Blankenship said. “The people I had been praying for had come together at the church to do something beautiful.”
One of those people was a young man who had overcome his substance abuse addiction and was attending college. When she sees lives changes, it drives Blankenship forward in her passion to make sure the church is getting out into the community.
“They just need to know that Christian people care about them,” she said. “Nobody is trash. God loves each of us, even when we are in a state where we are furthest from God.”
Blankenship has support in her ministry from faithful members like Roy Headrick, the lay leader at Anutt. He lived in Kansas and would go to Anutt UMC when he was on vacation visiting his mother. He moved to the community to be closer to her.
Headrick lives down a long, two-rut county road, in the corner of the county. It’s a public road that is so narrow that if you meet another car, someone is going to be backing up. When he sees someone on the road, he knows the person must be coming to see him because you wouldn’t get that far if you were lost, he said.
Headrick and his wife were in a very serious accident in which they were hit by another car. She nearly died, and was in the hospital for months. When she woke up, Blankenship was there. Blankenship told her she had just had a long time to talk with God. She wasn’t a church-goer before, but she is now. “She’s training me,” she said of Blankenship.
Last month Blankenship officiated the funeral for Ray’s 91-year-old mother, a long-standing member at Anutt. But she’s also recently done a wedding at the community center, sticking to the couple’s request to “keep it short.” Blankenship started out serving Mt. Hermon and Anutt as a lay speaker when she was still teaching school. She did this for five years.
Blankenship was on a field trip with her students in Rolla when she had a heart attack in the swimming pool, in eight feet of water. She was halfway across the pool, but rather than swimming back to the entry and walking out, in her distress she swam on through the deep end and pulled herself up over the side of the pool.
“That moment was kind of like the rest of my life, always doing things the hard way,” Blankenship said. “But it also demonstrated how God can help us through our most difficult times. We have an awesome God. What is impossible to us is possible to God.”
She retired from teaching and is now a licensed local pastor. The two-point charge is considered quarter-time, or 10 hours per week.
“The Lord uses our own experiences to help us be more aware of what is going on around us,” she said.
Both of Blankenship’s churches have been doing outreach to connect with their communities. On October 27 the church at Anutt had its fall dinner.
The event was promoted through fliers at the local school. In 2017 they served 48 people. This year they served 70, including two immigrant families who were new to the area. The following day Mt. Hermon had a hot dog roast and hayride.
Both churches also engage in mission. Last year after the hurricanes Anutt gave $2,500 to Texas and $2,500 to Florida, as well as $2,500 to the local fire department. Both churches adopt a family at Christmas and participate in Operation Christmas Child. A farmer from the church donates beef and pork from his farm to the food bank.
“You don’t help people to get them to go to church. You help them because they need help,” Blankenship said. “Jesus never helped a Christian. He helped more of ‘the others’ on the outside of society than those in society.”
The recovery ministry is something new for the church, but they recognize the need for it and continue to consider how they can be of help to each other and the community at large.
“I’m trying to keep our church members understanding that they can do ministry,” Blankenship said. “It’s not about money or how many people you have. It’s about your willingness to follow the voice of God when you are led in a new direction.”