A Rural Encourager
Missionary Albert Lautenschlager knows the struggles farmers and oil field workers face firsthand.Albert L. Lautenschlager was a 13-year-old Nebraska farm boy when his father suffered a stroke, leaving him and his 16-year-old brother to manage the family farm. Although their mother wanted her sons to be able to continue the family business, landlords from whom they leased extra land were not supportive. The Lautenschlagers eventually had to leave the farm.
Lautenschlager, 42, says the experience nearly three decades ago helped him understand what farm families are facing now. “I know the struggles,” he says.
As a young adult, Lautenschlager felt called to ministry and obtained credentials through the Nebraska School of Ministry. In 2009, he entered pastoral ministry at Bethel Assembly in Glen Ullin, North Dakota, for five years, then felt led toward ministry to farmers and ranchers. He and his wife, April, now live in Keene, North Dakota, with their children: Sadie, 10; Zaiden, 7; Emery, 5; and Gunnar, born in December.
Lautenschlager ministers among the area’s farm and ranch families. There are also intercultural ministry opportunities, as the area is home to oil field workers with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as well as at the Fort Berthold Native American Reservation for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations, known as the Affiliated Tribes. He is a AG U.S. missionary associate in Church Mobilization with Rural America Ministries (RAM) Network.
RAM, started by Wes Bartel in 2017, provides connection and support for ministers in rural areas. Along with a ministry platform through U.S. Missions Church Mobilization, RAM Network partners with Acts 2 Journey, Paul to Timothy Institute, Church Multiplication Network, Lonesome Dove Ranch, Rural Compassion, and Bless Every Home for training and resources. Another frequent partner is Farm Rescue, a nonprofit that assists families experiencing injury, illness, or natural disaster by connecting them with volunteers and sponsors to make sure crops are harvested and livestock minded.
According to U.S. missionary Rich S. Greenwald, executive director of RAM Network, farmers and ranchers tend to be independent, with many figuring the only way to succeed is by working hard and not relying on anyone else, God included.
“Their concept of God is often a distant one,” says Greenwald, 57. Similarly, Farm Rescue’s field operations director, Luke Benedict, describes farmers as hesitant or even feeling guilty asking for help.
Rural culture also has been impacted by the oil industry.
“It’s a roller coaster,” says Lautenschlager. “People relocate to North Dakota for oil field work, but price fluctuations and layoffs have turned what was once a great-paying job into an unreliable one.” The situation has brought increased crime and isolation, and local businesses are impacted when people spend less.
Lautenschlager, who also is the Keene Fire Department chaplain, serves on a team conducting weekly men’s ministry to oil field workers through his home church, Watford City Assembly of God.
“Oil field work is usually 21 days on, 7 days off, 21 days on,” says John A. Brady, 66, executive pastor at Watford City. “Sunday is just another workday, so we take ministry to them, where they are.”
Farmers have encountered labor shortages, as some families have left the area and workers who remain are accustomed to oil field wages higher than farmers can afford. That creates a ministry opportunity for Lautenschlager, who uses his farming skills to help area farmers and ranchers with their crops and cattle, working alongside them for less than normal oil drilling wages as a means of encouragement.
“Albert is doing some great work,” says local rancher Ken Schmeits. “He’s not only helped with fencing and projects on my land, but he also helped my son through a tough personal time.”
Brady says the compassionate Lautenschlager is perfect for such ministry.
“Albert is gifted in practical skills,” Brady says. “He can fix just about anything.”
Benedict says Lautenschlager brings a spiritual dynamic to Farm Rescue work.
“He’s my go-to guy when I see people of faith struggling to reconcile that faith with what they’re going through,” Benedict says.
Ups and downs of the rural economy are reflected at local churches. Watford City is an oil industry hub, but congregations in smaller communities sometimes hang on with just a few adherents, not equipped for new methods of outreach. Pastors can get discouraged; many are bivocational, and economic realities force them to look for opportunities elsewhere. Churches may recruit pastors who are just starting in ministry or who can contribute to their own support, without considering the cultural adjustment for those new to rural life. Pastors may be frustrated at the lack of interest in church, even as farmers assume church doesn’t offer much for them.
“An important part of Albert’s ministry is to bridge that gap, helping pastors learn to communicate effectively and helping farmers see their need for a personal relationship with the Lord,” says Greenwald.
Training through the Acts 2 Journey and mentorship through Paul to Timothy Institute can help rural churches establish vision. Pastors and congregants are encouraged to become familiar with needs in their communities and take advantage of networking to help meet them.
Another important ministry component for RAM Network is to provide opportunities for connection. COVID-19 brought changes in how that happens, even as isolation increased the need. Lautenschlager now conducts phone support with pastors in North Dakota, South Dakota, and western Nebraska. An annual pastors’ retreat at Glacier Bible Camp in Hungry Horse, Montana, began in 2019. Except for transportation, the retreat is funded by network donors, providing pastors and spouses an affordable opportunity to relax and develop camaraderie outside their immediate area.