She turned on her car. Drove down the gravel road until she reached the paved one. Took the hairpin turns down into the valley and back up the next mountain.
Forty-one minutes later, she walked through the doors of her next church, where the service was well underway. Still wearing her white robes, she waited while a congregant finished reading from the book of Psalms, then took over the pulpit. “I invite you to stand as you are able for a reading of the Gospel,” she picked up seamlessly.
Two churches down and one more to go on this Sunday for Felici.
Jess, 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.
That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.
Mainline denominations — the historically indomitable Protestant institutions that were the backbone of early American respectability, including Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches — are now on a precipitous decline.
From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the number of mainline Protestants in the United States dropped by about 5 million people, leaving just 14 percent of Americans — about 36 million — identifying with any mainline denomination.
One in every five American adults were raised in a mainline church. But less than half of them continue to affiliate as adults.
That has left churches, especially in rural areas, facing the tough question of how to keep serving the members who remain. Some churches simply close. Others merge. And in an increasing number of places, rural and even urban, pastors are bringing back an old-fashioned concept: the circuit preacher.
“The circuit rider in a lot of ways was lost,” Jason Felici said. “This is, in some way, the model of the future.”
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research found in a survey of more than 4,000 churches that in 2010, 71 percent of churches had a full-time paid pastor. Five years later, 62 percent did.
The Felicis, who started dating while both were in seminary to become pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA, a liberal-leaning mainline church that is not an evangelical denomination, despite its name), have spent their careers facing these trends.
When they graduated seven years ago, they took up their call as the pastors not of one local Lutheran church, but five.
In these seven years, they have come to know individual deer by sight. They have become accustomed to a 100-year-old parishioner coating cotton balls in peppermint oil to get the smell out when the skunk gets under a church building. Their daughter, Emma, was born here, and they will welcome another child soon.
They have learned the signs of a church emptying out. There are the economic pressures — jobs lost in Pendleton and Pocahontas counties that have forced families to move to Virginia or Washington; shrinking farm profits that have pushed people out of full-time farming.
This isolated corner of Appalachia is simply a hard place to live. The drive from the nearest city, Harrisonburg, Va., is at least an hour — all the way up and down the steep mountain that separates this area from the outside world. Under decades-old law meant to preserve this area for scientific research, there’s no cellphone service or radio in most of the two counties, which are in the National Radio Quiet Zone. In certain parts, even at-home wireless Internet or microwave ovens are banned to protect the research zone.
And then there are the religious trends — Americans are growing ever more secular, with well over 20 percent now identifying with no religion at all. Conservative evangelical churches have shrunk, too, but not as rapidly as the mainline denominations, such as the Felicis’ Lutheran church, that hold more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.
“It’s secularization. I don’t know how else to say it. The product that we had is not working for a lot of people,” said Lewis Parks, a professor retired from Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist training institute in the District. Parks traveled to small churches throughout the country, researching a book. “What’s happening now,” he said, “it’s the cutting edge of a lot of mainline denominations — how to cope with the loss of members. . . . What’s our model?”
In the United Methodist Church, decisions can come from the top down, with denominational leaders deciding to shutter a church or have churches start sharing a pastor.
“Many laity feel their traditions and cultures are lost when two local churches merge into one,” said Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. Rather than mergers, therefore, bishops are turning more often to a circuit-preacher model. “The UMC has a history of circuits,” Carter said. “The practice of a pastor serving more than one church dates back more than two hundred years.”
In other denominations, the decisions are left to local churches. That is the case in the ELCA, the denomination of all five of the Felicis’ churches: Any church or collection of churches, of any size, can hire a pastor as long as the members can raise at least the set base salary.
Every Sunday, one of the Felicis starts the day at 7:15 a.m. with a 57-mile drive to the farthest of their churches, New Hope in Minnehaha Springs. After the service, that pastor drives all the way back to Franklin, where the Felicis live, to preach at the 11 a.m. service at the church next door to their parsonage. Meanwhile, the other pastor makes a mad dash through three church services, which means leaving early and arriving back late to get it all done. Each pastor writes one sermon each week and delivers it two or three times.
At Mount Hope in Upper Tract, some Sundays just eight people show up. “I just don’t want to be here when it ends,” Stanna Smith said about her diminishing congregation as she arrived at the church, less than a mile from her family’s chicken farm. She has been attending since her wedding 58 years ago. The church dates to the 1790s.
At St. John in Moyers, Judy Propst, suffering from congestive heart failure, got out of her wheelchair and into the pew with help from her daughter. Her oxygen quietly hissed and popped by her side. Her 96-year-old mother-in-law sat across the aisle, and her husband, who is battling cancer.
This church has been their family’s home for generations: outside, more than a dozen headstones in the graveyard say “Propst.” Now Judy worries about its future. “So many people with medical problems,” she said. “We don’t have so many people coming anymore.”
Already, these five churches are a result of consolidation. These valleys were home to Mount Zion, St. Michael and others — churches that West Virginia Lutherans still proudly proclaim as their home churches.
“There would be well over 100 people” at St. Michael on a Sunday, Beth Felton recalled as she tucked into the lunch after the service at Calvary Church in Brandywine. That church is gone, and the congregation left at Calvary is far smaller, but it is still proudly baking for the monthly potluck — chicken-noodle casserole and meatloaf, collard greens and tiny ham sandwiches, salad drenched in dressing and cheddar cheese.
The pastors and the congregants all know full well that these five churches will not last as they are. But no one is ready to talk about change yet.
“We have a significant number of people in their 90s and older who drive themselves. If they had to drive more than a mile and a half to get to their church, we wouldn’t see them anymore,” Jess said on one of the rare weekdays that she and Jason are at home together, instead of driving the long distances across their 75-mile-wide parish to visit sick or homebound members.
“Out here, the church is the last social organization left,” said Jason, who grew up in the more populous West Virginia city of Wheeling. “The local post office is closed. The local social hall is closed. The local general store is closed.”
“When you age out of the volunteer firefighters or EMT, the church is the one place you have contact with people socially,” said Jess, who grew up in the Harrisburg area.
Jason added, “People can name the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who literally built the buildings with their own hands.”
The two pastors reflected at the parsonage, where they live on a ridge overlooking endless trees, where they know the one spruce where a young bald eagle lives. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Jason said.
Through clergy networks on social media, Jason and Jess hear from pastors across the country who are new to circuit preaching. Their fellow circuit riders seek advice about how to maintain relationships with parishioners despite the long distances and about how to offer robust ministries when manpower is limited.
Jason and Jess tell these pastors how, come Sunday, they drive from church to church to church, holding the same service five times for a couple dozen people in each simple white-walled sanctuary.
When Jason drives the longest leg of the circuit, an hour and 15 minutes to Minnehaha Springs, sometimes he doesn’t pass another car.
“As the raw numbers in our counties decline, it’s not about the numbers,” he said on a recent Sunday. “It’s about faithfulness. It’s about the mission. It’s about what we are called to be doing in this place.”
Jess drove, this Sunday, in the other direction, toward their very smallest church, Mount Hope. “The thought of closing this church is just so grief-laden,” she said as she drove up the hill, past the chicken barn she visits every year when the baby chicks hatch. “We all think about what it would be like if there weren’t enough people to have a congregation here. We put it off. Because it’s just painful to think about.”
She pictured this church on its best night, when it fills to the brim on Christmas Eve. The young people who have moved away to Morgantown and Washington are home. The families too busy and exhausted to attend church more than once a year are there. “Everybody’s spirits are glowing and the candles are lit and it’s dark outside,” she said. “I’m not sure I have the words for it.”
She was almost at the church, the first one of the day. She thought of that sacred night, and the sacred spaces she and Jason create every Sunday.
She pulled up in front of the graveyard, where the faithful generations who sustained this church for more than two centuries are resting. She looked up at the simple building where their descendants carry on into an uncertain future. She turned off the car and opened the door.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the church in the top photo was misidentified as New Hope Lutheran Church in Minnehaha Springs, W.Va. It is Mount Hope Lutheran Church in Upper Tract.