For many of the police officers, fire fighters, health care workers and other employees called to work on Christmas Eve in two small northwest Kansas towns, a silent night need no longer be a lonely night.
Thanks to a dedicated group of members from the First Presbyterian Churches of Colby and Hoxie ― a yoked parish in the Presbytery of Northern Kansas served by the Rev. Andy Sonneborn ― not only are the towns’ workers remembered and thanked for their service but they are also treated to home-baked cookies, hugs and some good old-fashioned Christmas cheer.
The community outreach initiative, which is now in its second year, grew out of Sonneborn’s own experience of having worked at a gas station one Christmas Eve while the 2009 McCormick Theological Seminary graduate was seeking a call to ministry.
“It was a long and lonely night for Andy,” said the Rev. Ed Thompson, general presbyter/stated clerk for the Presbytery of Northern Kansas. “He knew other people working on Christmas Eve must feel the same way.”
Thompson said that when the parish’s previous pastor retired, the two small congregations in Colby and Hoxie were concerned that they might have trouble convincing someone to come out to far western Kansas to be their pastor. “They eagerly signed up for the Small Church Residency Program, through which they were matched with Andy, who hit the ground running in August 2013 and has just kept going. He’s brought new energy and new ideas to the churches, which were doing well before he came but have been able to build on the solid foundation for ministry that was already there.”
Established in 2009, the Small Church Residency Program is focused on spiritual, vocational and congregational transformation. Although its name and application process have changed since it began, the program’s goal of pairing small, underserved congregations in rural, small-town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates remains the same.
Since the program’s inception, 33 recent seminary graduates will have served 39 congregations in 15 presbyteries.
Thompson said that since Colby ― one of the larger towns on Interstate 70 between Salina, Kansas, and Denver ― has a number of hotels and gas stations, there are always a lot of people working on Christmas Eve.
“One of the joys of having a new pastor is new ideas for mission,” said Judy Cressler, a ruling elder at the Hoxie church who helped deliver baked goods there last Christmas Eve. “When Pastor Andy suggested that we take cookies to people who work on Christmas Eve, we delivered cookies to our hospital, our long term care unit and our sheriff’s office. The young woman at the sheriff’s office was so delighted that someone remembered her on Christmas Eve.”
To work through some of the challenges common to first-call pastors but unique to serving two congregations on the edge of the Kansas prairie, Sonneborn ― like all of the pastoral residents in the churchwide program ― is supported by a cluster group of pastors, which meets monthly, and a mentor, the Rev. Chris Davis, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Phillipsburg.
“Andy and the churches that he pastors in Colby and Hoxie share a deep commitment to missions, which Andy has helped to nurture in new ways,” Davis said. “Not only has he been an inspiration to his congregations, but he has also helped me to think of how it is that I can find new ways to expand what it means to be the church in the 21st century.”
Sonneborn said that the churches he serves are among the most generous he has ever encountered. “They care deeply for their communities,” he said. “We like to say that ‘Even though we are small, we do mighty things for the Lord.’”
This year the churches are planning to deliver approximately 50 dozen cookies in Colby and up to 10 dozen in Hoxie. “Last year we got done with our deliveries about 10:15 p.m.,” Sonneborn said. “This year, we might not get done until the early hours of Christmas morning.”
The Rev. Cynthia Cushman, coordinator of the Small Church Residency Program, said that she loves to hear about the creative ways that the program’s pastoral residents and congregations are reaching out to their communities.
“The heart of the mission of the Small Church Residency Program is to help small churches begin to step outside of themselves and discover the many ways that they can be the face and hands of Christ in their community,” she said. “Providing first-call pastors with the opportunity to walk with a congregation through the exciting process of church transformation is one of the greatest joys of this program, which we would love to be able to do with even more congregations and presbyteries in the coming New Year.”