ACKERLY?Ray McMorris couldn’t have lived in a better place for his family to benefit from the rapid growth of Texas cities. Van Alstyne is a small Texas town on the verge of a population explosion like that experienced by the towns of Anna and Melissa to the south where the number of residents is four or five times larger than recorded in the 2000 census.
Most towns within an hour’s drive of the large metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth are starting to look more alike as chain stores move in and suburbia takes hold.
With two-thirds of Texans living in the state’s six largest cities, what would attract a middle-aged man to head for a town one-tenth the size of Van Alstyne with little prospect of growth? The answer is obvious to many rural church pastors who know what it means to watch an entire generation grow up under their ministries.
“I know everyone in town by name,” explained McMorris, who pastors a church in Ackerly that “runs 40 on a good Sunday,” halfway between Big Spring and Lamesa in West Texas. “You eat with them. You worship with them. You’re around them all the time,” he said.
He’s well aware that the future isn’t all that bright for tiny West Texas towns. “Young folks move away and the old folks pass on.”
Once a part of the massive Slaughter Ranch before it was sold and broken up into family tracts in 1923, the population peaked at 500 in 1948 but began declining as farming became a less stable source of income.
Now the city limits sign reflects a population that has remained flat at 245, though the town looked forward to welcoming two new residents?twin boys recently born into the pastor’s family.
“It’ll be good bringing them home,” he shared in early August after a week of commuting 90 miles north to a Lubbock hospital.
Surprisingly, the small church can support a full-time pastor.
“A man could live on it,” McMorris said, “but a man with five kids can’t.”
So he also works for an irrigation well service run by a church member. It’s a trade he already knew from his years of maintenance work for an energy contractor in North Texas.
The second job can require traveling long distances to service wells on the spread-out farms, but McMorris said he enjoys being separated from a big-city atmosphere. “You can see where you’re going out here,” he said in describing the wide-open spaces with little more than windmills and oil derricks in view.
Coming from an area on the outskirts of huge cities, McMorris worried how his kids would handle the transition. Instead, he found them embracing the small town. “They went from being one in a crowd to their own somebody.”
Now in a small school system of only 200 students they get plenty of personal attention. While the new additions to his family were a bit of a surprise, McMorris knew he could handle it if he stayed put.
“I kinda made a bargain with God,” he explained, recalling when he learned his wife would be having twins at a time when the youngest of his three kids is 10 years old. “I told him, ‘If you want us to stay here, let me stay ’til the kids graduate?that’s 18 more years.'”
That kind of commitment makes a difference in small town church where members trust each other and expect everyone to carry his own weight.
“Once somebody’s a Christian, they get after it,” he said, whether teaching Sunday School or serving on a committee. “It’s a huge advantage,” he added.
“If you want to find out how church is run, how it should run, come to a small little church. If I’m gone, they keep going. They don’t have to worry about who’s on what committee. That surprised me coming from the Dallas area. The church runs without you. You can lead ’em, but they’ll keep on going without you.”
The Ackerly pastor sees no shortage of prospects.
“We’ve got 245 of them?now it’s 247. I’ve baptized 18 so that’s 4 to 5 percent of the population. You don’t get those numbers in big areas,” he observed. “You’ve got a certain number of prospects and that’s it. You can’t look at it as closed in. Get out and minister to people that surround you and you’ll be surprised at how many people are there. You have to look for them.”
Besides, ministering in a small town has its advantages when trying to attract young people.
“Kids don’t have anything else to do in this town, so they come to church,” he stated. Plus, he said he plans to be their pastor at various stages of life.
He learned how to pastor from older, godly ministers through the years when he filled in preaching at other churches as needed, he said. The examples he looked to were men who preached the Scripture in churches that appreciated that priority.
With the move to First Baptist Church of Ackerly, McMorris has found a congregation of people who love each other and reach out to the community around them. “I haven’t had one regret.”