Thinking Outside the Big Sky Box

By Jennifer Jones

Ministry in rural Montana requires some creativity in order to be effective.

All I need is a little bit of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus." It's a good T-shirt slogan that makes us giggle a bit on the way from the coffee bar to our padded church seat, caramel latte in hand.

Under the big sky in Montana, Rev. Samuel Smith is using a different tactic, having traded in cappuccinos and Americanos for branding irons and cowboy boots, metaphorically speaking. Pastor of Joliet Wesleyan Church, Joliet, Montana, Sam is combining his unique skills for ranching and farming with relationship building and technology in an area where a low percentage of residents say they are churchgoers and a high percentage are atheists.

Undaunted, these statistics caused Sam to roll up his sleeves, look at what has not worked in the past and vow to find what would. This is why it is not unusual for the Joliet church to use branding or cattle vaccination events to reach the lost.

Sam and Dianne Smith.jpg

Assistant District Superintendent of the Northwest District Rev. Isaac Smith (Sam’s brother) said Sam is reaching ranchers in Montana because they can relate to him.

“He’ll open with something like, ‘So, last week, I had this cow …’ and everyone gets the story! He speaks their language.”

He also speaks on their behalf. Sam is quick to plead the case for focusing attention on rural areas and on changing the misconception that rural means undereducated or poor. Montana ranchers own thousands of acres and go directly to Japan, for example, to do business. They are educated people who have adopted technology to survive.

And that is exactly what Sam is doing to reach isolated ranchers and farmers for Christ — using technology. Biddle, Montana, population 15, is made up almost exclusively of far-flung ranchers who watch downloads of Sam’s sermons on a big screen.

Twice a month, however, Sam and his wife, Dianne, preach and eat lunch in Joliet, drive three hours to Biddle, preach and eat dinner there and return home at 11:00 p.m. The next day, Sam rises early for his day job as a school bus driver. Somewhere in between he manages his own small herd of cows.


“We have to innovate, to find ways to get the gospel here,” said Sam. To explain how ranch life in Biddle is different, he said that during lambing season, some ranchers don’t want to be gone for longer than an hour because “sheep are terrible mothers” and need constant attention. This means church may be cancelled for a few weeks in a row.

Sam has also taken on a church with an average attendance of 15 in Pendroy, Montana, that left another denomination. Pendroy lay leader Jon Stolz said he watched the movie Heaven is For Real and liked what he heard about The Wesleyan Church and how it lined up with what his congregation believes.

“To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of The Wesleyan Church before. So, I Googled it.”

Pastor Sam appears in Pendroy on the big screen every Sunday. A 30-minute drive for most residents, Sam makes the five-hour drive on special occasions.

Pendroy and Biddle are places people wouldn’t normally target for a church plant. “It just doesn’t make sense to do traditional church planting here,” Isaac said, because there are no jobs.

“Other denominations are running away from rural,” said Isaac. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will. We need people who speak the language of small rural places and who genuinely value these places. And that is Sam’s strength; he genuinely loves them and values them, and they know that.”

Sam is thankful that his nephew, Rev. Wesley Smith, sees the importance of rural ministry. Wesley is the district superintendent of the Northwest District and “is very passionate about small and rural places and getting us to innovate to find some way to get the gospel there.”

Sam credits much of his ministry spirit to his father. “My dad was a pastor, and he traveled as an evangelist. Wherever we stopped, if there was a place I could work on a farm, I did,” said Sam, who starting preaching when he was 17.

Those early years instilled in Sam a love for rural areas and people. He believes pastors must be flexible and innovative — what works in rural Montana is not going to work in Upstate New York.

“I appreciate that our denomination allows us the freedom to experiment and implement what is needed,” said Sam.

Joliet Wesleyan Church

Learn More