He may have grown up in the south, but he didn’t grow up around so much agriculture. In the past year, Oak Grove Presbyterian Church minister Andy Rice has slowly but surely become a Pocahontas countian with the help of his congregation.
“I grew up messing around with horses a little bit, but that was about it in terms of the barnyard experience,” he said. “I’ve had some very vivid barnyard experiences since I’ve been here. I find that very interesting.”
Rice, a native of western North Carolina, began his career last September when he arrived in Hillsboro.
“The Presbyterian church has a program called the small church residency program,” he said. “What it does is it tries to match recent seminary graduates with smaller churches that have had a hard time finding full-time clergy for a period of a couple of years for various reasons.”
Rice was matched with a church in Missouri, the Florida panhandle and Oak Grove. As he traveled to the three places to meet the congregations, he felt a connection to the people he met in Hillsboro.
“Each church gets a set of candidates that they interview and speak with, and out of that process, the connection developed between me and a group of Presbyterians here in Hillsboro, so that’s where I came,” he said. “I’m fairly unattached in terms of where I was going to be anyway so it seemed like a great opportunity. I wouldn’t have thought West Virginia to start with, but I ended up here.”
Rice’s initial call to the ministry wasn’t as clear cut as his first placement, though.
Out of high school, he originally wanted to be an army officer.
“I went to West Point and had some ethical reservations about some of the things that were going on at the time and decided to resign from that,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do because that was sort of what I always wanted to do.”
As he was pursuing a degree in history, Rice considered focusing on church history because his mother was a minister and he grew up in the church. That was when he opened his heart to a higher power, who had an idea.
“I had all these things swirling around in my head and not knowing what to really do with it and then God reached out to me and said, ‘hey, military chaplain.’ So I said, ‘yes, you’re right God, that would be good.’ And God is usually right about these things,” Rice recalled.
Rice attended seminary to pursue the call as a military chaplain and through his field education, decided he wanted to be a minister in a community church.
“So now I’m here full-time, and then I’m reserve chaplain with the Army, so that’s sort of a secondary kind of thing, and I’m still involved with that,” he said. “I still feel very committed to that. Right now, my primary sense of call is to the church. I don’t think I would have ever gotten there without the initial call to military chaplaincy. Because my mother is a Presbyterian minister, I saw the difficulties. There were rewards and challenges, but it seemed to be where I needed to be.”
Now, with several months – including a cold winter – under his belt, Rice has become a part of the Hillsboro community.
“I’m really loving it,” he said. “Wonderful people, just really welcoming, really eager to welcome me into this area and show me around. People who are very committed to what they are doing, to the church, to living as best they can and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Rice uses the Lectionary when he writes his sermons. The Lectionary is a collection of passages the are organized to follow through the entire Bible. It helps him ensure that all aspects of the Bible are shared with his congregation.
“I think that’s important to do because it forces me to engage with texts that I wouldn’t otherwise engage with,” he said. “It forces me to keep in this rhythm of the church life, of the church year. I’m not just opening the Bible and flipping through or flipping a coin. It gives me a sense of regularity. I don’t stick to that completely rigidly. I do vary it up sometimes if I feel that the scripture passage that week isn’t particularly relevant to the congregation.”
In some instances, the scripture is so relevant to the congregation and activities Rice is engaged in, it seems to be divine intervention.
“It was pretty funny. One of my earlier sermons here, the scripture passage was about the one lost sheep and the ninety-nine sheep,” he said. “So you have one sheep wandering around and the ninety-nine who are in the fold. The point of the scripture passage is there’s more rejoicing in heaven over one sheep who returns to the fold than the ninety-nine who were already there. You have ninety-nine sheep and that’s a good thing, but you really want that one that is wandering around and lost.
“Before then, I had been helping out the Beards [Bill and Barbara] with some of their cows,” he continued. “This was one of my first cow experiences and so I’m helping them urge the cows into a smaller pen where they were trying to load them onto a trailer. There was that one cow who just had to run by me and then had to get chased around. You see things like that and you think, ‘wow.’ It gives you a nice entry into discussing the passage. I try to find ways to ease our way into the passage and make it relatable.”
Over time, Rice has become quite the farmhand through his experiences with his congregation and he hopes to continue to learn from them. He also wants to get more involved in the community as a whole.
“I’d like to sort of get involved with the town a little bit more because we have town events, community events, and I try to be involved,” he said. “I’m helping with the Little Levels [Heritage] Festival. I think it is important to have that sense of community and I think it’s real important that the church is seen as a part of that and seen as a place where people can go if they do need help. It helps the church to be part of the community and it allows those relationships to form. Relationships are how people feel comfortable enough to come in on Sunday morning.”
Worship at Oak Grove is at 11 a.m. and Sunday School is at 10 a.m.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org