Lynn Nelson’s fascination with spiritual questions led the Colfax woman to serve as part-time pastor of her hometown church starting four years ago.
Her call to ministry grew from her long involvement in the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Colfax, and its openness to her questions and challenges.
During high school, she and her family shifted from the United Methodist Church to Plymouth so she could attend church with her friends. Now she describes the church as “graying and declining, but vibrant, ready for taking their next steps into the future.”
Nelson grew up and lived her married life on what has expanded to be a 1,500-acre wheat and barley farm with 200 head of cattle, now run by her son and grandson.
Recently, she moved from the old farmhouse seven miles southwest of town into a smaller house, where her daughter and family lived. Her daughter, who teaches at Colfax High School, moved to the farm.
“I often filled in to preach sermons when the pastors were away,” she said. “I was unusually easily accepted as pastor and treated with respect.”
Nelson, who has been a volunteer hospice chaplain since the 1980s, became licensed to serve the church.
“I’m good at nurturing and listening, so I nurture, love and bless in the name of all that’s holy,” she said.
She is in conversation with the Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference’s Committee on Ministry, which has accepted her as a “person in discernment” on the path to ordination. She is considering continuing education options.
Starting at a late age, and needing to stay in Colfax to assist her daughter, who has multiple sclerosis, Nelson can’t go away to seminary.
“I’m ideal for this church because I don’t cost a lot,” she said. “I have a house, food, Medicare and soon Social Security.”
Nelson started college thinking she would be a secretary, but met her farmer husband, Bill, and married him in 1965.
He was from Idaho and had a small operation of cattle he brought to her family’s farm. When her father died, he took over.
“I can ride a horse, rope a cow, cook dinner for 30 and haul it to the middle of the wheat field,” Nelson said, pausing to say that at 66 she has set those activities aside.
Her younger brother and sister chose paths other than farming, so she and her husband bought them out. He farmed until he died three years ago.
Growing up, Nelson attended church every Sunday, participated in the high school youth group and directed the junior choir for many of her young married years. She also taught vacation Bible school and “learned from the children.”
On her own, she engaged in spiritual study over the years. Since becoming pastor, she has done more Bible study.
“I’ve always been drawn by all religions and by the big picture of how we are alike and how small the world is if we do not divide ourselves up,” Nelson said. “I let God be as big as God needs to be to embrace the world of arguing children.”
She added that she likes the United Church of Christ “because it lets us ask questions and does not come with a set of rules.”
When Nelson began as pastor, she decided to shake the church up and proposed renaming it, adding “Affirmational United Church of Christ” in front of its name, Plymouth Congregational Church.
“I wanted to rattle cages, and use an ‘A’ word to put the church at the top of the list of churches in the phone book so people would call us first,” she said.
“It’s a warm-hearted congregation of older people in a building that’s falling down around us. The roof needs to be repaired, and we do not have money to repair it without going into debt. We can’t go in debt because we are an older congregation.”
There are about 50 members, with about 25 attending on any given Sunday. Most are retired from local farms or businesses. The church’s pianist is 93.
“There’s a spark waiting to be lit,” said Nelson. “We are older but still wonder where we can go from here.
“We aren’t willing to limit our possibilities. We have a drive to thrive. We pray to be open to how God wants us to be. We’re willing.”
Colfax’s population of 2,800 has remained constant, but fewer young people stay in town after graduating from high school, Nelson said. Baby boomers no longer fill the grade school and high school, and the economic times are hard.
Farms have consolidated over the years, but are still considered family farms, she said. In most cases, members of the younger generation are taking them over, and some of the younger farmers are in local churches.
Unlike other small towns that rural highways bypass, Colfax has S.R. 195 from Spokane to Pullman running through the center of town. It is also the Whitman County seat.
These dynamics keep the community viable, while other small communities struggle, Nelson said.
She said people in the community know she’s available to do weddings and funerals, even if they don’t attend her church.
For those who wonder where God is, she said she can take the God words out of conversations “to help people know and feel the holy.”
Although her life has centered on Colfax and the farm, the scope of her concern circles the Earth.
“Colfax is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I was born into Christianity, but I believe all religions offer insights and wisdom.”