The meeting with the prospective pastor of Glendive Baptist Church last fall brought back memories for Mike McKinney, director of missions for the Big Sky and Hi-Line Baptist Associations. Just as McKinney had done eight years earlier, Rick Perkins was answering a call of God to leave a comfortable pastorate in small-town Texas to serve as a pastor in Montana.
They talked about the realities of the decision: the inability of most Montana churches to support full-time pastors; the months of subzero temperatures; and even the reduced status in the community relative to their counterparts in the South. But then there was the call – confirmed by family and God – that outweighed all the obstacles. Perkins began his term as Glendive's pastor Jan. 1.
"I could identify with that," said McKinney, who came to Montana in 1991. "When I was a pastor in Texas, God laid that same call on my heart. Every time I would hear about the Northwest, I would say, 'Oh, I need to go.' Rick felt the same thing."
McKinney and his wife, Martha – both North American Mission Board missionaries – are featured during the Week of Prayer and Study for North American Missions, March 5-12.
McKinney said he actually felt the call to missions in the Northwest in seminary during the mid-1970s, after hearing Alaska missionary Troy Prince speak of the needs. The fulfillment of that call did not come immediately, but it was never forgotten.
"Every time a church called me, I always told them that some day I was going to missions work in the Northwest," McKinney said.
Then, in 1991, the opportunity came to serve in Western Montana as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Missoula. Three years later, he was asked to serve as director of missions for the two associations that make up most of the state's eastern half.
"I needed twenty-two 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," he said. The experience also has been helpful for securing volunteers and partnering churches to help with the work.
The delay also provided another asset: the ability to acquire and fly a 1951 Piper Super Cub that is his primary means of transportation.
The two associations he leads comprise about 64,000 square miles, the largest area under any single director of missions in the country. The entire state of Mississippi could easily fit within its borders. Yet there are just twenty-nine churches and missions combined, some nearly seventy miles from their nearest Southern Baptist church neighbors. One is 264 miles away from McKinney's home.
About 60-70 percent of his travel is by plane. At one church, he simply lands on the highway in front of the church – which is legal in Montana – and parks in the parking lot. Other visits find him landing anywhere there is flat grassland.
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 forty 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 twenty 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 evangelism particularly challenging.
"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. 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 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," he 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 Burney 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.
"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 forty miles north of his home in Forsyth.
First Baptist Church of Jordan – the nearest town to Cohagen – was actually started as a mission of First Baptist Church of Circle, about sixty-seven 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 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 has even written a fourteen-point list of things for prospective pastors to consider – published on the Montana Baptist Fellowship's Web 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."
A Woman on Mission: Annie Armstrong
When Annie Armstrong died in 1938, she left a legacy of what it means to be "on mission." Her life of sacrifice for the sake of telling others about Jesus is one that modern-day missionaries mirror. Annie's efforts to gather prayer and financial support for mission work and her unfailing commitment to be hands-on in mission service stand as a model for all Christians who seek to be on mission.
Annie was born in 1850 in Baltimore, Md. She became a Christian at the age of twenty and began a lifelong journey of mission service. She saw the need of those in her community – the immigrants, the poor, and the sick. She saw the needs of those far from her – the African-Americans and the Native Americans. She saw also the needs of the missionaries serving these and other groups. Her heartbeat was for their work, and she did all she could – from letter writing to personal visits – to gather support for their ministries.
The first home missions offering was given in 1895, following a Week of Self-Denial for Home Missions. The offering was named in Annie's honor in 1934. While today's missionaries live a life of self-denial, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering enables them to give hope to countless thousands who need to know Christ.
Week of Prayer and Missions Study for North American Missions
March 5-12, 2000
Annie Armstrong Easter Offering
National Goal: $47 Million
Challenge Goal: $50 Million