Born and raised in rural South Australia, Pastor Lionel Rohrlach feels most at home when his home is in the country. For the last decade that home has been the Pittsworth Parish, 42 kilometres Southwest of Toowoomba on the Gore Highway.
Until recently the parish was made up of four congregations, consisting of Pittsworth, Nobby, Yandilla and Millmerran. However, due to the unprecedented number of farming parishioners who have had no choice but to sell their properties due to the tragic decline in the small-holder farming industry, Yandilla and Millmerran were both forced to close. This has left the parish with two congregations averaging a weekly attendance of 60 people across mixed generations.
Having previously served for a decade in one of Queensland’s heritage cities, Maryborough on the Fraser Coast, Pastor Rohrlach has had the time and experience to reflect on the differences between city and country ministry, ‘At first I would say that there’s really no difference in a sense, they are all people of God. And they all have the needs of support and affirmation and engagement with each other and with God. So that’s a basic human need’, he says thoughtfully, ‘But when it comes to approach and how to do things there is a marked difference. In the city you are used to things being done, and things happening, with someone else being in charge; but in a rural community where they are largely family style churches, everybody likes to have a say. Another big difference is that for country people, when something doesn’t happen as planned, like if it gets rained out, they have a “well there’s always next year” approach.’
He also points out that, in his observations, city congregations are mostly centered around a church or a school, and that location is where they meet their pastor; whereas in rural areas the pastor doesn’t just stay there – he is expected to be out among the people, ‘On any one day I may do a hundred kilometer round trip visiting several families’, he says.
Being amongst his parishioners Pastor Rohrlach is seeing that many are struggling with a loss of community, with the farms going and the dairy industry almost collapsing due to the drought. Many of his congregants have been touched by the rising rates of suicide among struggling farmers through their extended circles, but Pastor Rohrlach notes that amongst his congregants, though they are struggling deeply, there have been very few cases of suicide, ‘The despair is there’, he says, ‘But their faith keeps them going, and we’re a community that keeps an eye on each other. They are the ones who, even in their despair, are trying to help their neighbours’.
Keen to see connections between city and rural churches, Pastor Rohrlach has several inspiring ideas to form relationships. He suggests that urban congregations email rural pastors to ask in what ways they need prayer support and share these at worship services. He invites urban congregants to visit rural towns for a weekend and partake in Sunday gatherings. He would love to see a Queensland synod held inland and for urban delegates to experience traditional country hospitality. He would also ask that urban churches might consider sponsoring a rural child to attend one of LYQ’s Christian Life Week camps.
Helping country children to get to Christian Life Week is a cause close to his heart and he is part of an association to raise funds to get them there. In fact, as a country pastor he is part of many associations! These include several ministry associations as well as associations that support local chaplains. These commitments spread him across several towns; as such he has integrated himself into many communities throughout his vast parish. ‘I am occasionally asked where I live’, he muses, ‘my answer every time is … well … I sleep in Pittsworth!’