Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]

Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   

Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Greatest Hit: Prayer by Text Message?

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on worship as pastoral care is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

text message

photo credit: IntelFreePress via photopin cc

There was hesitation before hitting the “send” key. Was I really about to become “that kind of pastor?” The kind of pastor who would send a prayer by text?

It’s not like I woke up one day and it happened. The move to that place was a slippery slope. It happened bit by bit.

In 1997 I was called to my first church. A little church in rural West Virginia. I could count on one hand those who had cell phones, and I wasn’t among them. The church didn’t even have a functioning answering machine or email address. Pastoral Care meant on-the-ground, in-the-home, sitting-in-the-hospital-room visit.

Seventeen years later, there I was, getting ready to text a prayer to a parishioner in the hospital.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

In 2014, it’s not so clear. I’ve had more than one person tell me that my invitation to meet with them in their home caused them concern—what had they done wrong?

Hospital stays aren’t the same, either. You can argue whether shorter hospital stays increase or decrease the efficacy of that stay, but you can’t argue that hospital stays are shorter than they used to be. And in my experience, they’re busier, too. I can’t remember the last time I visited someone in the hospital and just sat for an extended visit.

I also find that people are hungry for their pastoral care to have a longer spiritual half-life. How will something that is said in prayer, or a scripture that is read, be recalled when they are awake at 2:00 A.M. in the morning?

Visits are always accompanied with a piece of card stock, now. I have stacks of prayer cards and psalm cards that not only contain helpful/comforting/challenging words (I have enough that I can choose one that speaks to the situation in which I am visiting), they also include my name and the church’s information.  Good for that 2:00 A.M. blood pressure check that leaves them wondering (aka: not sleeping).

And while it was a huge advance in technology to buy my first church a modern answering machine and get them an email address, I hardly use voice messaging anymore. It’s mainly a way to make sure people have my cell phone number, so they can call, or text me, with updates or questions or concerns. Logistics, that’s what texts have mainly been about.

Or at least they were until I texted that prayer. A parishioner was in the hospital, being prepped for surgery. It was unlikely I would get there before he went in, and even if I did, he was already surrounded by family. Maybe too much family. There was enough commotion and busy-ness around him. What he needed was a connection to something bigger, deeper, and quieter that transcended the moment. I could have called, but would he have heard me? Would he have been able to talk?

I typed the prayer, heartfelt words for this beloved child of God, and after pausing for a moment’s hesitation, hit “send.”

He told me later that he read the prayer then, had his wife read it after surgery, and then read it again in the middle of the night, when he awoke, afraid.

The prayer wasn’t a work of art or genius, it was a doorway to the Holy Spirit that, once open, allowed for grace to arrive and then to arrive again.

Is texting the same as face-to-face visiting? No. But it does leave a trail. And sometimes it’s not only an acceptable choice, it’s the better, more faithful, choice.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

The 21st century is more fluid. It requires more energy to connect and more attention to discern what is a hunger and what is a desire. But if what is expected is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” then the door is open. I feel a little bit (a lot) like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but hold fast to Romans 12:15 and the belief that it’s the water that matters, not the cup that serves it.


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Looking for more? Here are more resources from NEXT:

Pro-Active Pastoral Care

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

In my current call, we are asked to write an annual self-evaluation in preparation for our annual review.

I’ve written eight of these, and there is one thing every single one has had in common.  “I’d like to work on non-crisis pastoral care.”



When I moved here, wise colleagues cautioned me.  “In a larger church, you can’t go find the pastoral care needs, you need to devote your energy to the needs that come to you.”

It was good advice.   And true.

And yet, it is a truth I can’t accept, for it’s an incomplete equation.  It leaves out those who can’t find their way to the phone or to my door. It leaves out those who have questions they don’t know how to ask — questions that can’t be found directly, but are revealed in the course of a conversation, in the course of a faithful relationship — the kind of relationship brothers and sisters in Christ can cultivate.

I’ve tried six ways to Sunday to get at this issue.

  • I bought index cards and tried to keep track of each encounter with a church member, hoping to be able to identify those with whom I hadn’t met or seen in a while.
  • A lay-visitation course was developed.
  • Deacons call their neighborhoods, with special emphasis on the aging-in-place members.

All of these things have helped, but none of them, in my opinion, have addressed the deeper issues, the real issues.

I know that there are those who are being missed.  Who are hungry for deeper engagement in the life of faith.

In one of my favorite blog posts of all time, Gordon Atkinson shared these words about pastoral care (it’s no longer online, but you can find other of his writings here:

Now you understand. You’re not Jesus after all. You’re a man who is good with words and who feels things very deeply. You’re a dreamer and a silly person, like all the other silly people at church. You cannot love everyone, and you cannot be all things to all people.

Welcome to the human race, preacher. Now you are ready to begin.

You will love some people deeply. Others will receive lesser kinds of love. Some will get a handshake and a kind word. Their journeys are their own, and they may have to get what they need from someone else.

Love the ones you can. Touch the ones you can reach. Let the others go. If you run out of gas, sit down in the pew and point to God. That might be the greatest sermon you ever preach.

You cannot love anyone until you learn you cannot love everyone. You cannot be a real live preacher until you learn to be a real live person. 

I’ve begun to think that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Instead of trying six ways to Sunday to find ways to track and connect with all of the members of the congregation, should I be asking, instead, how have pro-active pastoral care needs shifted in the 21st century?

Have they shifted away from the pastor’s office and found a new home in the pews, in the communities that form among people who worship and pray together, week after week?

In the gatherings that happen among parents, waiting together while their children are in choir practice?

The evening supper tables at retirement communities?

Is living in your community becoming the new proactive pastoral care?

For clergy, is pastoral care leaving the office, leaving the parlor?  Is it now found catching up in the grocery store, while getting coffee, while out to supper?

Jesus went, Jesus waited, Jesus listened, Jesus prayed, Jesus wept.

What’s NEXT for the church in the world of pastoral care?


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.