“A lot of ministry happens in the back of an ambulance,” says Rev. Kathy Chesney. She serves as a paramedic and is the pastor at United Church of Phillip in South Dakota.
Chesney grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. In 1988, after graduating with a degree in Music Education from Olivet College, she found herself teaching in White River, South Dakota.
“I loved it. Some people would ask how you can live where there isn’t even a Wal-Mart,” said Pastor Kathy. “I am OK with that. I find joy in the rural communities and the simple things.”
Journey to ministry
While teaching music at White River, and at Jones County School District in Murdo Chesney pursued a degree in school counseling. She became the counselor for the Jones County School District. But God had different plans for her.
Through a rural health grant, she was trained and became a certified paramedic. Chesney found herself on the ambulance crew. “I found myself with people when they needed God the most,” said Chesney. “I felt a nudge to get closer to God and somehow connect people to God.”
Occasionally she would lead worship, and before long, she knew that being a minister in a rural church was what God was calling her to do. So she began taking courses at Sioux Falls Seminary and to become a licensed local pastor. And then found herself serving a local church.
“After 20 years in education, I was called into ministry. So I headed to seminary in Sioux Falls to get my Masters of Divinity.”
It was a 300-mile drive one-way to seminary. She made that journey at least two times a month while actively serving Philip United Church.
“Today, much of the coursework is online. When I attended, online learning had just started. So I put on a lot of miles and lost some sleep,” said Chesney.
Rev. Chesney completed her degree and was commissioned as a provisional member of the Dakotas Conference the same year. In 2016, she was ordained an elder and became a full member of the Dakotas Conference. She has served United Church of Philip United Church, which has congregations in Philip and Interior, South Dakota, since 2008.
Rural ministry can be daunting. Clergy can find themselves trying to lead congregations that are declining in resources, people, and vitality. Chesney sees herself in a rural church and community that are flourishing. She is fulfilling two leadership roles. One as a leader of a church. Another as a leader in the community.
“Sometimes people say that we are the community church,” says Pastor Kathy. “We have people in the congregation who love everyone. They see the value of being rural and being connected. We have people in the congregation that make a lot of connections and build relationships.”
Chesney uses all her skill sets and roles to connect people to God. “I use everything I have learned and all of my job roles in ministry,” said Chesney.
As an paramedic, she finds herself asking questions as part of the response to a medical emergency. “Knowing the right questions to ask is an important part of ministry,” said Chesney. “My experience helping people walk through medical issues helps me know what questions to ask.”
Music is also another way that Pastor Kathy feeds people’s souls. “I love to use music to reach out to people, especially the youth,” said Chesney.
The congregations she currently serves are dedicated to children’s and youth ministry. Each summer, Vacation Bible School is a community-wide event held at a barn just outside of Phillip. Every Wednesday, the church in Philip is full of families and kids for Early Release Time, youth-led worship, and confirmation. On Thursday, the church building in Interior, South Dakota, hosts learning time for the kids. Read more about children's and youth ministry at Philip United Church.
“I tell the people in the congregation, never grumble about noise in church. Youth are the church,” said Pastor Kathy. “My people know that kids are an important part of everything.”
Her degree in counseling is a blessing in disguise. Rev. Chesney has been called upon by the school district, community members, and organizations when needed. She sees the invitation to serve the rural community as a spin-off from her counseling experience and open and inviting churches.
Pastor Kathy sums it up this way, “I feel fortunate that the congregations that I serve have created a community and culture of invitation. We support each other to reach out and fulfill the mission that God has put in front of us. God is at work here in so many ways.”
Are you wondering about rural ministry? Attend one of the Fall Rural Ministry Gatherings. Register and get more information. The Dakotas Annual Conference is hosting fall gatherings for rural ministry churches in each of our four districts in the upcoming weeks. These gatherings are part of our million-dollar Dakotas Connection Initiative, a rural ministry grant from the Lilly Endowment. These gatherings are designed to connect laity and clergy from our rural churches so that we might encourage one another, be reminded of the importance of our mission in these communities, and think creatively about how to maximize our resources and our impact.