When Bill Heithold turned from ranching to ministry at 41, he ended up riding farther than he ever did on the range. On Sundays the central South Dakota minister logs more than 100 miles driving to three different churches. He also travels long distances to Bible studies during the week.

"It's got to be done," says the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor, who counts fewer than 300 in his extended flock. "There's no way around it."

These churches are not alone. Migration to more heavily populated cities and towns has left schools, hospitals, and other institutions in rural South Dakota struggling to fill vacancies. Heithold, a pastor for four years who lives in the southern town of Winner, is one of three LCMS pastors in South Dakota who each tends a trio of congregations. Yet these churches are faring better than eight others. Vernon Schindler, president of the 118-church district, says the eight are too spread out to share a pastor, let alone to afford their own.

The South Dakota situation may signal national trouble ahead. Today 14 percent of churches in the heavily rural LCMS lack pastors. A 1999 LCMS study projects that by 2020, 30 to 40 percent of LCMS congregations will have no pastoral leadership. LCMS leaders are beginning to strengthen recruiting and retention efforts before the crisis hits full force.

The denomination of 2.6 million is not unique. In recent years, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have all faced significant numbers of empty pulpits.

In the ELCA, the synods with the most vacant pulpits are most often in economically weak areas.

In addition, the ELCA is shrinking overall. In 1988, there were 10,030 pastors and 11,120 congregations in ...

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