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Pilot’s license proves valuable asset for director of missions in Montana

FORSYTH, Mont. (BP)–It’s not every church where a bright yellow Piper Super Cub airplane could pull up in the parking lot on a Sunday morning, but at Alzada Baptist church in the southeast corner of Montana they’re getting used to it. That just means that their associational missionary, Mike McKinney, is visiting that morning. He lands the plane on the highway in front of the church.

Welcome to eastern Montana, where wheat and cows are plentiful but people — clustered in small communities like Alzada — are relatively scarce. The 29 churches and missions McKinney assists in the Big Sky and Hi-Line Baptist Associations cover a 64,000-square-mile area, larger than the entire state of Mississippi. And the single-engine aircraft he pilots is about the only thing that allows him to cover it effectively.

McKinney said it was during seminary in the mid-1970s that he first felt the call to missions in the Northwest, after hearing Troy Prince — then executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention — speak of the needs.

Circumstances did not allow that call to be fulfilled immediately, but throughout years of ministry in Texas it was never forgotten. McKinney knew piloting skills would be valuable in the Northwest, for instance, so in one of his pastorates a friend taught him to fly and helped him get his license. And in a move to a church’s church-owned parsonage, he used the equity from a former home to buy his first airplane.

His calling was never a secret in the churches where he served.

“Every time a church called me I always told them that some day I am going to missions work in the Northwest,” McKinney said.

Then in 1991 the opportunity came to serve as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Missoula in western Montana. Three years later he was asked to serve as associational missionary for the two associations that make up most of the state’s eastern half.

“I needed 22 years of experience as a pastor to know how to work with pastors and to help them with the difficulties and situations in their churches,” said McKinney who, with his wife, Martha, are North American Mission Board missionaries. The pastoral experience also has been helpful in securing volunteers and partnering churches to help with the work.

Unlike further west, eastern Montana is a desolate land of large ranches dedicated to producing cattle, sheep or wheat. The scale is one in which 40 acres of land is set aside for each head of cattle, and ranches often cover tens of thousands of acres.

The isolation can be stressful for pastors, so fellowship is important. Regular meetings are well-attended, and McKinney also makes an effort to visit pastors regularly.

“One of the things I try to do is get around as much as I can to the pastors, and when I go I take the pastor and his family out to eat,” he said. “They don’t get to do that often. They’re living on a bivocational salary, and every dollar is precious to them.”

Much of the time, whether by car or by plane, Martha McKinney likes to go with her husband to provide the same sort of encouragement for the wives. Some have a more difficult time adjusting to the new culture.

“I just have a real feeling for the pastors’ wives, because I spent 20 years as a pastor’s wife and I know some of the things they are going to encounter,” she said.

The challenges are particularly difficult because pastors’ families in most cases must adjust to a bivocational lifestyle. Pastors can be found driving trucks, working on ranches, doing construction or anything else that gets the bills paid.

“Wherever they are they just look for whatever is available to supplement their income,” McKinney said.

The churches in Montana are small primarily because there are not many people, McKinney said. But even so, the independent spirit that goes along with such wide-open spaces also makes it hard for many to accept the need for a relationship with God.

“They work hard, have good morals, good families, but it’s hard for them to see the need of a relationship with Christ,” he said.

Evangelism, therefore, is almost exclusively a matter of building relationships over time. “It requires them seeing the genuineness of your faith. You’ve got to come alongside them and work beside them. … You build a relationship with them, and as you do so, you win the right to share with them about the Lord.”

McKinney can often be found doing just that himself as well. On the cattle ranches, for instance, it is not unusual for one or two men in a family to operate an entire ranch of tens of thousands of acres. Then when it comes time for the fall roundup or spring branding, all of the ranchers pitch in to help each other. McKinney often finds himself herding cattle right alongside them.

Because of the value placed on relationships, McKinney has found special fellowship events particularly successful for drawing people. Last year, for instance, he received a tremendous response from his efforts to bring the traditional Texas barbecue to Montana. The men of his last Texas pastorate, First Baptist Church of Brady, gave him a portable barbecue cooker that he pulled behind his truck for special events almost every weekend during the summer.

Another group McKinney has targeted — those living on Indian reservations — also can be reached only after carefully cultivating relationships. But the dynamics, of course, are completely different.

“They have to really get to know you, they observe you, they look at your life. And when an American Indian is converted to Christ, he has to give up all his worship of things,” McKinney said, noting that it often means being shunned by one’s family. They are viewed as having abandoned their race for the “white man’s religion.”

Because of the poverty and alcoholism on the reservations, ministry efforts such as feeding programs and children’s ministry also are important. At Indian Birney Baptist Mission on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, the tribe actually provided the food for a summer feeding program last year. The church, in turn, was permitted to do a short Bible study with the children each day.

Although most of his efforts are geared toward strengthening existing congregations, McKinney regularly acts as a catalyst for churches to reproduce themselves in nearby communities that often do not have any evangelical church presence.

“I say to the pastors, ‘You and I are going to develop a plan to start a Bible study, even if it’s just once a month,'” he said. The pastor will then lead the study, which eventually may grow to a weekly study, and if the people see the need, a church eventually will take shape. McKinney himself is currently leading a Bible study near Cohagen, a small ranch community about 40 miles north of his home in Forsyth.

First Baptist Church of Jordan — the nearest town to Cohagen — actually began as a mission of First Baptist Church of Circle, some 67 miles away.

James “Budg” Riekeman, the pastor in Circle, “had already seen that need and was starting a Bible study, and then I came along and helped him,” McKinney said. “We eventually helped them constitute into a church and get a building.”

Despite the hardships of working in Montana, McKinney said the list of applicants for pastorates is surprisingly long. The problem, he said, is that some pastors want to come for the wrong reasons: They need a change in their ministry, or the potential for adventure seems appealing. Then when the winters hit, and the excitement fades, they find themselves wanting to go home. Finding the ones who are truly called is the challenge. He even has written a 14-point list of things for prospective pastors to consider — published on the Montana Baptist Fellowship’s Internet site.

In the end, however, those who are truly called stay and thrive. For Martha McKinney as well, that is what makes the difference.

“Just knowing that we’re doing what God has called us to do is of course rewarding,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t go how you hoped they would go … but overall it is a joy to see churches ministering to communities, and knowing that we have had a part in helping them.”

The McKinneys were featured during the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 5-12.

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  • James Dotson