Lutherans in Minnesota

God bless the tractors, and those who use them

Rural Minnesota congregation has created its own pre-harvest ritual

The members of Trinity Lutheran Church, rural Gaylord, Minnesota have been
linked to agriculture since their founding 142 years ago. It was not, however,
until the arrival last year of their current pastor, the Rev. William Nelsen, that
it occurred to any of them to invoke God’s blessing — not only upon each
year’s coming harvest, but also upon the farmers and the equipment they
use to make the harvest happen.

The tiny German-background ELCA parish (with 120 baptized on the rolls)
decided to become proactive about its situation in recent years. The economic
fortunes for agriculture directly affect this congregation, where all 52
households are connected to farming in some way. Says parish member David
Kahle, “There are fewer and fewer farm families in our area these days. Larger
farms mean fewer farmers and smaller congregations.” Kahle farms 400
acres. “That used to be a big farm around here. Now it’s a small one.”

Like others at Trinity, Kahle wants to see the congregation hold its own,
perhaps even grow. “We have a lot of unchurched families living in the
countryside,” he told Metro Lutheran. “That might come as a surprise to
people who live in cities, where the impression is that all farmers are
churched.”

It was the concern for reaching non-members that led Kahle and his pastor,
Bill Nelsen, to hit upon the idea of blessing tractors — and the farmers who
use them. The two were doing some informal strategizing when the idea
surfaced. Both agreed that developing a tractor blessing rite could appeal to
members of Trinity, while providing an outreach opportunity as well.

According to Nelsen, who began serving the parish less than a year ago, a
“tractor roll-out” seemed like a good idea. “We’d heard of gatherings of
antique tractor owners and their prized equipment. David and I decided,
between us, ‘Why not assemble working tractors — and their owners?’”
But suppose you announce a tractor roll-out and nobody responds? The
members at Trinity realized they’d be taking a risk. They needn’t have
worried. Seventeen tractors arrived for the Sunday morning service, held on
the front church lawn. They came from four different congregations, and
some were owned by unchurched farmers.

Part of the service involved Nelsen pausing before each piece of farm
equipment and offering a blessing for it and the family it served. “It was
similar to what Lutherans do during the rite of confirmation, where each
candidate receives individual attention from the pastor,” he explained.

So, what does it mean to bless something? Three dictionary definitions
provide some insight: Bless. 1. To hallow or consecrate by religious rite or
word. 2. To make the sign of the cross upon or over. 3. To invoke divine care
for. All three describe what went on out in front of Trinity Lutheran on
September 14 last year.

Says Nelsen, “In the Old Testament, a blessing was a big deal. It wasn’t given
out casually.” One thinks of the blessing Isaac mistakenly administered to his
younger son, Jacob, disenfranchising the conniver’s older brother, Esau. In
that case, it actually determined who inherited the ranch — because, once
given, the blessing couldn’t be taken back.

“In my research,” Nelsen explains, “I couldn’t find anything quite like what we
wanted to do. We wanted to bless tractors and the families who use them, as
the harvest approached. The church council liked the idea. I had a double
motive. Churches that are going downhill tend to feel inferior. I wanted to
help this congregation feel it has a future, that there’s something special
about them.”

The ceremony, which will become an annual September ritual at Trinity, has
made the congregation special indeed. Local and national media have picked
up on it, giving the parish publicity far beyond its borders. It’s led other
congregations to inquire about the practice. There are signs the newly-
created tradition may well embed itself in the church life of other rural
congregations. One query came from as far away as Halifax, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Trinity isn’t satisfying itself with a pre-harvest ceremony. The
congregation will bless its farms and farmers this spring in a symbolic
planting of seeds. And, says Nelsen, there are a number of other ways
blessings can be pronounced in the faith community. “I encourage people to
celebrate the anniversary of their baptism. We could also bless high school
graduates as we send them off to college or into careers. And we can bless
members when they go out to represent the congregation beyond the parish
borders.”

For more information about blessing tractors, write to Trinity Lutheran
Church, 32234 431st Avenue, Gaylord, MN 55334-9529.