There are a total of five Free Methodist churches within a one hour drive of my house. So a couple of Sundays ago I decided to hop in my car and drive forty minutes from Sarnia to Wallaceberg to worship with the folks at Charlemont Free Methodist Church.
My only previous rural church experience was a service at my Nanny’s United Church in Hartney, Manitoba – population 415. That visit didn’t leave a lasting impression but my visit to Charlemont certainly did. I took a few photos of the church and surrounding farmland before going in to introduce myself to pastor Ron Bartolo.
I LOVED the service. The highlights: the family of musicians who beautifully led worship, Ron breaking into song part way through his sermon, Ron praying in the aisle with the congregation part way through his sermon and the warm, genuine vibe of the whole morning.
The back story: Ron was working in group homes when he started attending an early morning bible study at Polson Park FMC in Kingston, ON. It was there he met his wife Anna Maria and later felt the call to ministry. He graduated from Tyndale in 2005, became assistant pastor at Polson Park in 2006 and was ordained in 2010.
Ron and Anna Maria were interviewing with a church close to Kingston when they learned about a part time pastor position with Charlemont FMC, “I’ve always been a two-job pastor so I had already said to myself, “I’m not doing that – I want a full time job.” But the church profile was honest about who they were and where they wanted to go. The congregation enjoyed ministering to people from community living and they wanted to grow that ministry. That really intrigued me because I’m a Developmental Service Worker (DSW).”
After the second interview Ron and Anna Maria agreed that if they were offered the position at Charlemont they would take it. Their first year was one of transition as they adjusted from urban to rural. Ron worked a second job initially teaching at Lambton College and now as a DSW with an organization in Chatham, ON. Ron was just off a night shift the Sunday morning I was there – meaning he led and preached with no sleep. And I would never have known had he not told me.
Two other Free Methodist churches, Zion FMC and Trinity Christian Centre, are also rural churches within 50kms of Charlemont, “We have an awesome relationship. We work together on a number of things. Terry Klein from Zion has been a wonderful support. John Lang at Trinity is my closest friend in ministry and my accountability partner. The communication and cooperation between the three churches is great. We also get together on Wednesdays with a group of local pastors and pray for each other and our churches.”
I asked Ron about some of the unique challenges facing a rural church, “We must conceptualize ministry differently. We think about outreach in a completely different way. Distance is a challenge. The rhythm of life is different so we needed to learn about farming life.”
Anna Maria added, “You don’t have a “natural” neighborhood to draw from – like in a city neighborhood. It looks different because the neighborhood is so large and spread out.”
There is a lot of cool stuff happening at Charlemont. Too much to share in just 500 words! They have a kids club Monday nights which includes a devotional, games and sports – “gaga ball” being the current favorite. They have family nights four times a year. They open their facility up for others to use including another congregation that meets there on Sunday evenings. The service on the last Sunday of the month has a shortened message followed by a thirty minute prayer meeting, “This has been awesome. If a smaller church needs to feel connected and discern its purpose then pray. When you are praying you always have a chance.”
I asked Ron if he had any advice for smaller congregations, “Recognize what you are good at and where you need support. We send our youth to another church for youth group because we can’t do it all. There are a lot of churches in our area and through necessity we have to work together and share resources. That is our greatest gift. We work together on community and church events and we pray for each other.”
I loved my Sunday at Charlemont. Ron and Anna Maria are the real deal. And it is pretty clear they love their community and their church, “This is where God wants us. This is where we are supposed to be.”