SALT LAKE CITY — On the first Sunday of every month, Barnard Mthembu drives the 40 miles from home to church with bread and grape juice beside him.

The food and drink, wrapped carefully in plastic, aren’t a snack for later or a potluck contribution. They’re the elements of holy communion, and Mthembu will share them with members of Tooele United Methodist Church.

Since it’s rare for congregations to bake their own bread or squeeze fresh juice, it’s not unusual for communion ingredients to travel by car to a church altar. What makes Mthembu’s cargo unique is that it’s already been blessed by a Salt Lake City pastor and, according to United Methodist teaching, contains the presence of Jesus Christ.

“I do have this feeling that it’s sacred,” said Mthembu, who leads the Tooele church but is not yet ordained.

In an ideal world, the communion elements would be blessed in front of the congregation and served more than once a month. But for small churches, circumstances are rarely ideal, especially amid a widespread decline in religious affiliation.

Budgets are tightening. Pews are emptying. Ordained pastors who can lead communion services are growing harder to find.

Rather than abandon small and often rural churches, religious denominations are embracing creative solutions. Some ask lay preachers, like Mthembu, to serve pre-blessed communion elements. Some have ordained pastors lead more than one church at a time. The Catholic Church may soon, for the first time in nearly 1,000 years, ordain married men in order to better serve remote communities in the Amazon region.

Catholic missionary Antelmo Pereira, 61, leads a prayer service in Santa Rosa, Brazil, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. In remote Amazonian communities that are only accessible by boat, villagers can go for months without sacraments that only priests are allowed to deliver — including Mass and confessions — and the faithful have to depend on missionaries like Pereira who are only allowed to lead prayer ceremonies. | Fernando Vergara, Associated Press

These shifts can be controversial, but they’re also often a godsend for congregations struggling to remain connected to sacraments like communion. If current demographic trends continue, they’re going to become more common, not less, said the Rev. Robert Shives, an Episcopal priest who serves two churches in rural West Virginia in addition to working for the government full time.

“The way we do God’s business is going to have to change a little bit,” he said.

Adjusting to a new reality

Sometimes, churches need only to look to the past to solve contemporary problems. During the revolutionary period, it was common for pastors to be assigned to a region rather than an individual church, said the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, who leads two Methodist churches in Salt Lake City.

“They would ride to a different church on their horse every Sunday. While they were there, they would give communion,” she said.

In the past, these “circuit riders” helped bring unity to religious denominations during periods of rapid growth. They now help make it possible for small churches to stay open in the midst of decline.

“By sharing a priest, small congregations can keep their doors open,” the Rev. Shives said.

Today, nearly 1 in 5 congregation leaders (19%) in the United States serve more than one house of worship, according to preliminary results from the 2018-2019 National Congregations Study provided by the study’s director, Mark Chaves.

In the U.S. context, pastors who lead multiple congregations often hold services for all of them every week. Members of each church have regular access to spiritual counseling and to sacraments, like communion, that can only be performed by an ordained leader.

The Rev. McVicker’s Sundays begin at 8:30 a.m. in downtown Salt Lake City at First United Methodist Church, where she oversees a breakfast for members of the homeless community and then leads a worship service at 10 a.m. After the closing prayer, she drives three miles to Centenary United Methodist Church, where worship begins at 11:15 a.m.

“I’m usually a few minutes late, but they go ahead and start without me,” she said.

Barnard Mthembu follows the Rev. Russell Butler, senior pastor for Christ United Methodist Church, into the chapel where the Rev. Butler consecrated bread and grape juice for Mthembu so he could use it for his Sunday morning service in Tooele, Utah. Mthembu brought the bread and juice to the Rev. Butler at the Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In rural parts of other countries, the situation is much more dire. Congregations sometimes have to wait months to see an ordained pastor and receive communion.

For example, in the Amazon region of South America, Catholic priests are in such short supply that churches are run almost entirely by deacons, said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith and Public Life. Deacons are ordained, but, since they’re not priests, they can’t consecrate the elements of communion.

“When Catholics can’t receive communion for months at a time, this is a pastoral emergency,” Gehring said.

During an October gathering at the Vatican on the Amazon region’s struggles, Catholic leaders voted to recommend allowing deacons to be ordained as priests, even if they’re married. It’s now up to Pope Francis to determine if the church will move forward with this plan.

“This recommendation from bishops was really a practical and deeply pastoral response to an urgent need and a very specific geographic context,” Gehring said.

It was also a controversial response, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes a column on Catholicism for Religion News Service. The Catholic Church has explicitly required a celibate priesthood since 1123.

“The bishops had to ask themselves which is more important: the eucharist or a celibate priesthood. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ He didn’t tell the disciples to practice celibacy,” the Rev. Reese said.

Communion is a core part of the Catholic tradition, just as it is in other Christian denominations. It’s worth making bold changes in order to ensure even small or remote congregations can take part in it, the Rev. Shives said.

“When we don’t get the eucharist every Sunday, we kind of feel like something’s missing,” he said.

Future solutions

During a period of uncertainty and transition, it’s hard for churches to know where to go next. Today’s challenges “require a response that is rooted in tradition,” but preserving old traditions shouldn’t take precedent over serving people in need, Gehring said.

When looking for the right path forward, it helps to stay focused on shared beliefs and unifying rituals, like communion, rather than panic about departing from old ideals, religious leaders said. Most small churches today are focused on finding a way to stay open, no matter how their worship routine has to change.

“Smaller churches are really family oriented. They don’t want to let go,” the Rev. Shives said.

So, with the help of denominational leaders, they find unique ways to keep the door open, which go beyond sharing ordained pastors with congregations nearby.

“They’re coming up with different ways for the laity to become more involved,” the Rev. Shives said.

Mthembu, who, during the week, works as a psychiatric technician at the University of Utah, sort of stumbled into his current ministry role. He was attending a church in the Salt Lake City area when his pastor heard that he’d received some theological training in his native South Africa.

“She asked if I could go and help” in Tooele, Mthembu said.

At first, he did so on an informal basis, stopping by one or two Sundays each month to offer a sermon and some spiritual encouragement. But for the past year, he’s served the church in a more official capacity as a lay preacher and started studying to be ordained, which would allow him to consecrate the communion elements himself.

“I’m happy to continue preaching and help people have a spiritual home,” Mthembu said.

Those who help lead small or remote congregations acknowledge that many people, including some members of their denomination, don’t understand why they bother. It might be easier to close a church like Tooele United Methodist, which only about 15 people attend on a typical Sunday, than ordain a new leader just for their benefit.

But Mthembu believes small churches represent the best of faith. They keep gathering despite obstacles, like having to have the communion elements pre-blessed, and find joy in simple things.

“These people remind me of why we worship,” Mthembu said.

Barnard Mthembu follows Rev. Russell Butler, senior pastor for Christ United Methodist Church, into the chapel where Rev. Butler consecrated bread and grape juice for Mthembu, who is not yet ordained, so he could use it for his Sunday morning service in Tooele. Mthembu brought the bread and juice to Rev. Butler at the Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News