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Circuit Rider


Circuit Rider is a popular (as opposed to official) term referring to clergy in the earliest years of the United States who were assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations. 


In sparsely populated areas of the United States it always has been common for clergy in many denominations to serve more than one congregation at a time, a form of church organization sometimes called a "preaching circuit".  A "circuit" was a geographic area that encompassed two or more local churches.  Because of the distance between churches, these preachers would ride on horseback.  They were popularly called "circuit riders" or "saddlebag preachers".  These frontier clergy were never officially called "circuit riders," but the name was appropriate and it "stuck."  Officially they were called "traveling" clergy.  They traveled with few possessions, carrying only what they could fit in their saddlebags.  They traveled through wilderness and villages; they preached every day at any place available (peoples' cabins, courthouses, fields, meeting houses, later even basements and street corners).  Unlike clergy in urban areas, circuit riders were always on the move.  Many circuits were so large that it would take 5 to 6 weeks to cover them.


"Lutherans Alive!" interview with Pastor John and Pastor Beth

(Click on the links to see the videos.  The videos will open a new web page)

          "Lutherans Alive!" Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries, part 1 (time = 10:01) You Tube


          "Lutherans Alive!" Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries, part 2 (time = 9:15)


          "Lutherans Alive!" Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries, part 3 (time = 8:14)



Circuit riders sprint among multiple churches in Western Pennsylvania

By Tom Fontaine
Sunday, August 9, 2009
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The Rev. John Gropp preaches in St. Andrew
Philip G. Pavely/Tribune-Review

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In East Liberty
Philip G. Pavely/Tribune-Review

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The Rev. John Gropp
Philip G. Pavely/Tribune-Review

About the writer

Tom Fontaine is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer and can be reached at 412-320-7847 or via e-mail.

After completing an early-morning service at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in East Carnegie, the Rev. John Gropp had 40 minutes to dash across town for his second service of the day.

Perhaps through divine intervention, the last eight traffic signals en route to East Liberty Lutheran Church were green that Sunday.

"That wasn't so bad," Gropp, 49, said as he got out of his minivan after the 25-minute trip.

Gropp is one of more than 100 pastors and priests in Western Pennsylvania who rely on cars, daily planners and faith to serve multiple churches.

In many ways, the clergy men and women are descendants of the nation's circuit riders of the 18th and 19th centuries who rode horses across broad geographic areas ministering largely to people in frontier and rural settings.

But while the traditional circuit riders played integral roles establishing churches beyond the young nation's urban centers, the local pastors and priests are helping long-standing churches with shrinking congregations and budgets stay open and maintain vital roles in communities.

"We don't see the same pastor every Sunday, but it's kind of refreshing getting a different perspective and point of view," said Steve McGrogan of Heidelberg, a member of St. Andrew in East Carnegie.

The locals rarely travel more than 15 miles between churches. Often, they serve churches in the same small community, like the Rev. Frank Almade, who serves three Catholic churches that earlier this year became one parish in Sharpsburg, just 0.6 square miles.

Handling weekend worship services at multiple churches can be a challenge, but the biggest challenge is what happens after services end. That's when the pastors and priests say they really get pulled in many directions, and that routinely translates to 60-hour work weeks or more.

"It's morning to night, seven days a week," said the Rev. Sam Lamendola, who serves three Catholic parishes, St. Ambrose and St. Matthew in northern Westmoreland County and nearby St. Sylvester just over the Indiana County line.

"You constantly have to prioritize what's important ... and I have to carry my Palm Pilot with me virtually everywhere I go," he said.

The laundry list of responsibilities includes obvious pastoral duties, such as anointing the sick, visiting the homebound and hospitalized, officiating funerals and weddings and counseling church members on a wide range of personal issues. There are church programs to oversee, board meetings to attend and sermons to write. And then there are administrative responsibilities that don't seem to have anything to do with a higher calling.

"I spend more time than I ever would have imagined talking to contractors and worrying about repairs to buildings and what I call the 'Five Ls' -- lights, leaks, locks, loot and lawns," Almade said.

"It takes a special person to juggle the responsibilities of multiple churches with grace," said the Rev. Lisa Dormire, vice president of seminary relations for the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Dormire said the number of Protestant pastors serving multiple churches has declined slightly in recent years because commissioned lay pastors are being used more, particularly in Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

The United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) have the second- and third-largest denominations in the Pittsburgh area, behind Catholicism, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Judaism round out the top 5.

Jeffrey Cohan, spokesman for the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, knew of no cases in Western Pennsylvania where synagogues share rabbis, though he said "one issue we share in common with our other religious partners is that we're all struggling to retain membership in our houses of worship."

The Rev. Dr. Charles Perrine, executive presbyter of the Washington Presbytery, agreed that commissioned lay pastors have reduced the number of fully ordained pastors who serve multiple churches. Combined, the region's four presbyteries have about a dozen of the latter, officials said.

The Pittsburgh district of the United Methodist Church said seven of its pastors serve multiple churches. "I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is that it motivates people to reach out more to each other through ministry rather than only depending on a pastor to take care of those things," said the Rev. Donald G. Scandrol, district superintendent.

The Rev. Brenda Walker's River's Edge Charge includes United Methodist churches in Millvale, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall and Blawnox. "Sometimes I have honestly forgotten where I was at. Twice, I showed up at the wrong church on the wrong day," said Walker, who gives sermons at two churches on a rotating basis each weekend. "It can be mentally tiring to juggle, but I have grown to love each of these communities."

Maureen O'Brien, associate professor of theology at Duquesne University, said the number of Catholic priests with multiple parishes increased steadily since the mid-20th century because of the declining number of priests. On average, 40 percent of parishes nationwide share a priest, she said. The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh relies on 35 priests to serve about one-third of the diocese's 212 parishes.

Getting around can be tough for the modern-day circuit riders.

"Who knows what the traffic is going to be like from one week to the next. I worry about things like the Rankin Bridge, marathons and Steelers games," Gropp said.

Gropp and the Rev. Beth Siefert have presided over Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries for five years. Its churches are in East Carnegie, East Liberty, Mount Oliver and Allentown and the city of Duquesne. Trinity Lutheran Church in Sheraden will become a member Sept. 1.

"We treat it as one parish throughout the week for visitations and other ministry needs, but they're all small congregations in urban settings that have their own special needs," Gropp said.

No two sermons are exactly the same, Gropp said. "They have the same message, but I use different illustrations. That's what I'm thinking about when I'm in the car, what I'm going to say."

It can be touch for busy pastors and priests to find time for their own spiritual needs.

"To be honest, our administrative offices are in Aspinwall and the other three churches are empty during the week," said Walker. "Sometimes I go to one of the empty buildings, sit in the sanctuary and find some peace."

Original Tribune Review article may be found at: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_637464.html




Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries (PLUM), 405 Kennedy Avenue, Duquesne, PA 15110        412-466-7773