COLLEGE STATION — Bringing needed hospice care to a small town in West Texas has helped earn Rev. James H. Hanson a new title — The 1995 Texas Rural Minister of the Year.
Hanson of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Winters received the award at the 50th Town and Country Church Conference Oct. 2. A minister for 41 years, he has lived in Texas for 10, serving in Odessa before coming to Winters in 1991.
For some time, congregation members had been trying to establish a hospice program in Winters before Hanson arrived. Volunteers had been trained, but larger cities were still reluctant to extend their services to the small town. Hanson, who had worked on the Board of Hospice in Odessa, chaired a committee that eventually convinced Hospice of Abilene to establish a program in Winters.
“The contracts and agreements were made,” said Ted Ahrens, church council president. “But in order to recruit volunteers, the community needed to know what hospice was and what hospice did. Pastor wrote a series of articles for the newspapers and set up several information meetings.”
The congregation was surprised when 30 volunteers showed up for training, he said. It was the largest group Hospice of Abilene had ever trained at one time.
“Folks are no longer sending the terminally ill away from home to die,” Ahrens said. “They are keeping them home, and caring for them.” During the conference banquet another minister also received a special award. Rev. Virgie Holbrook of Lakeway United Methodist Church in Pottsboro was honored as the Small Community Minister of the Year.
Hanson and Holbrook were chosen from 26 ministers nominated from across Texas. Others among the top five candidates for the award were Bobby L. Myers, Eighth Avenue Baptist Church, Teague; Daniel R. Sebesta, First Presbyterian Church, Graham; and Robert J. Vitek, Grace Lutheran Church, Sinton.
The Rural Minister of the Year recognition program is a highlight of the two-day church conference, said Dr. Greg Taylor, program leader for community development with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. The program, sponsored by the Extension Service and the publishers of Progressive Farmer, provides a showcase of outstanding work of nominees in small town and rural communities. Participants also gain useful information, ideas and skills to help their ministries.
“Progressive Farmer has been involved in presenting the award since 1949 because we feel that the rural minister plays a vital role in the community life,” said Del Deterling of Dallas, the magazine’s executive editor. “We feel that the church is the rallying point where people in rural areas unite, worship together and celebrate together. People who are in leadership positions, particularly the pastors, do a superb job and should be recognized.”
The magazine is not involved in the selection process. That difficult task is left to a committee, Deterling said.
“I believe that the committee looks to find well-rounded individuals who are not only doing excellent jobs of serving their congregations, but also in extending their reach out into the communities,” he said.
As simple as it may sound, Hanson says becoming minister of the year means “everything” to him. He did not always live in rural America, but grew up dreaming of becoming a farmer or rancher, and ended up in ministry instead.
“But my ministry has always been in rural America in the Great Plains,” Hanson said. “I try to have an encouraging word for my congregation at all times. It’s tough living in rural America. There are not a lot of winning moments. For example, we thought we had a good cotton crop coming in Runnels County, but the Army Worms got there and nearly wiped us out.
“Folks who are on the land have the faith,” he said. “It’s just that encouraging words keep it going with a little hope, cheer and a little love.”
Members of St. John’s know that Hanson not only gives encouragement, but is a hard worker.
Since the hospice program was established, “the attitude of the whole community has changed toward terminal illness, death and the people affected,” members wrote in their nomination application. “It really has become our version of Mother Teresa’s ministry to the dying. It has brought new life and hope, not only to those served, but to those who are serving. And St. John’s and our minister made it happen.”