By Paul Boatman
For 46 years Ron Payne has served as minister with the 173-year-old Ingraham (Illinois) Christian Church.
How did nearly a half century of ministry with one church begin?
When I was a Bible college freshman, I was asked to fill in [at Ingraham] until they found a preacher. They never found one, so I’m still here.
Was there anything about the church to predict such a long ministry?
Since 1839, only the founding minister, Mr. Ingraham, stayed longer than four years. The 16 preachers who served before me stayed an average of just 11 months.
Clay County has been a launching point for well-known preachers and missionaries. But you stayed. Why?
I’ve really never felt a call to go anywhere else. I’ve had a few invitations, but it never seemed clear that God wanted me to relocate. I believe ministry should be like a marriage between the preacher and the congregation, a covenant to work together. You don’t just move on because of tough times. We’ve had some ups and downs, but we worked through them, and the relationship has grown. It hasn’t been all fun, but it is always exciting to see what happens next.
You serve a church with a worship attendance of 48 in a village of 90 people. Is this the best stewardship of your life?
Yes. We’ve worked through some hard times—crises and bankruptcies for our farmers and young people leaving the area. Attendance has topped 100 and been in the 30s. Clay County’s population has been declining since before I came. I believe God uses things the world devalues to do his work. God does some great things through this church.
Such as . . .
We host a conference for preachers of small churches. Back in the 1970s, I attended conferences that spoke mainly to leaders of congregations of more than 500 or 1,000. The material was good, but it rarely spoke to our circumstances. Some of my friends in small churches said, “Why don’t you start a conference for us?” When I asked my elders, they agreed to try it once.
For the next 10 years, we hosted a three-day preachers’ conference. Then we had some leaders leave the area, I had some health problems, and we dropped it for a few years. After a lapse, we restarted it as a one-day program. We have had nearly 500 preachers come from 15 states. The folks say they come because it renews them in ministry.
Your “Giveaway Day” has also drawn attention. Tell us about it.
Our people wanted to get things into the hands of people who can use them. They collect “stuff” and bring it to the church to sort and display. It is a little bit of everything—clothes, shoes, knickknacks, baby items, books, videos, bikes, microwaves, a bowling ball. When the day opened this year, 20 of our people, mostly ladies, welcomed 280 guests. They lined up outside the gym, which was packed with things for people to take home for free.
Is it really getting into the hands of people in need?
We figure that if we do the right thing, what people do with it is their thing. We say it is not for resale; we want needy people to be blessed. And it is not just “junk” being given away. A lady in the church runs a consignment shop. She limits the time items stay on her shelves and racks. Then, it either goes back to the owner or to the giveaway. Our people loaded more than 100 sacks from her shop alone. Anything we have left at the end of the day, we take to an inner-city ministry in Springfield and a few other charities.
You mentioned “the gym.” How does that fit your little church?
For about 25 years, we have been doing things that are bigger than our facility can handle. When we received an estate gift of $103,000, we decided to use it to make more ministries possible. Besides the conference and the giveaway, we have a Wednesday night youth program with up to 60 kids. When area kids say, “There’s nothing to do around here,” we say, “Oh yes there is!” Our elders proposed the gym as a tool for ministry, and before we broke ground in 2000, we had more than $200,000. We borrowed another $200,000, and by this Christmas it will all be paid off.
Describe some of the other uses.
We keep it open for whoever can use it. High school athletic teams have practiced here. College kids have games here. It is the center of activity for our community. I have a hard time believing this: We hosted the senior prom for the high school. It was a “well-behaved” event. Hey, I went to my first dance when I was over 60 years old!
Every other institution has been consolidating, deciding it makes no sense to fight the population trends in rural America. In your town, the school closed 40 years ago. There are 14 Christian churches in your county, most of them shrinking. Would it be better to consolidate to three or four churches?
Maybe, but for a lot of reasons, it won’t happen. We just want to do what God leads us to do. Our Vacation Bible School was on a downward slope, so we prayed and prayed and in two years the attendance went from 28 to 76. A pew of faithful old women was emptied by death and disease. We prayed for more people, and new young families came. Every year after Thanksgiving we celebrate harvest with a cash offering that is sometimes over $50,000, coming from no more than 75 people.
The offerings go to . . . ?
We’ve built a church building, a parsonage, a fellowship/education wing, and gym. We bought a bus. Last year our mission giving was more than $18,000. We have a benevolence program that serves the whole community. We support Bible college students preparing to preach. Our people believe you cannot out give God. Because of generosity, this little church reaches all over the world.
I also notice you still put out a weekly church paper.
Not many small churches do that anymore. I used to get 50 or 60 papers. Now I get five. I enjoy publishing it for information, encouragement, promotion, and pastoral care. People who still like to get mail are reading and saying thanks.
Talk about your hardest times.
I had two physical problems that really set me back. I’ve had esophagus, stomach, and intestinal problems that looked like they might kill me. I got addicted to prescription meds and had to go through 30 days of drug rehab. But the hard times were good because they showed me that we were all serving the Lord together. The church backed me through it all. I believe the Lord has kept me alive, and I plan to keep serving him as long as he makes it possible.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.