My name is Rev. Pat Vollertsen. I have served in several suburban settings and now I am pastor at Grace United Church of Christ in the southern part of the city of St. Louis. In moving from one setting to the other, I observed more difference than just geography.
Both city and county church faith communities are comprised of persons seeking meaning in their lives, needing support and prayer and trying to maintain and find new ways of providing service to others. Both have similar belief systems and are relatively the same in cultural, ethnic and racial diversity content, yet very different in mission, purpose and surrounding neighborhoods.
When members of the congregation came to discuss life problems with the pastor, the needs of those in the county were usually things that would work themselves out with prayer and reassurance, tempered with compassion. When counseling was needed, it was easy to refer to the person's health insurance and get the help they needed. It is different with those in the city. Mental health issues seem more urgent, and the care is more difficult to find as those in need may not have adequate healthcare insurance, and the systems are overloaded and backed up, and crisis occurs faster than one can find the right program. It is exactly the opposite for those who are developmentally disabled. In the county the organizations created to help those families were hardly visible and had to be sought out with a lot of time and energy. In the city, it is easier to access organizations to help. The social justice concerns within the congregation itself are greater within the city congregation than the county. I am speaking from my perspective and my experience. Other pastors may have had similar or different experiences. It is not something that pastors compare generally.
The work of ministry within a congregation is demanding and never completed but so very gratifying and meaningful. Ministering to the needs of those sick, dying, and hurt, or to those looking for ways to express their faith, or to those who simply look to you for inspiration and leadership in worship; administering sacraments; marrying; baptizing; burying; and then reaching out to the community at large these are all awesome privileges. In the city, a great deal more is needed as welfare programs disappear and poverty seems overwhelming. People show up at the church doors daily, desperately looking for help with basic needs. There are not enough places to send them.
This sense of desperation and poverty, and the widespread urgency for help, is the biggest difference I have noticed between my urban and suburban experiences. The greatest similarity I have found is that in suburban and urban churches, there is strong belief. It is the belief that God is active in the present and has been in the past, and that God works best through individuals caring enough to give a little of what they have to those who have little or nothing. In a world of corporate greed and individualism, there is still much to be said for working together to make the world a better place for all God's creatures. Jesus taught us that with the story of the fishes and the loaves.