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
"Lutherans Alive!" Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries, part 1
(time = 10:01)
"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
Sunday, August 9, 2009
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.
divine intervention, the last eight
traffic signals en route to East
Liberty Lutheran Church were green
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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