ELSMORE, Kansas – Rev. Ralph Peters asks and answers his own question.
“Why is an old pastor, 91 years old, still preaching?” he said in the middle of a recent sermon at Elsmore United Methodist Church. “I’m still preaching because I love the Lord God, God’s power, and the things He can do.”
According to Great Plains Conference statistics, he’s the only nonagenarian pastor. Serving less than a quarter-time appointment, Peters has been the pastor at Elsmore — a town of about 50 in Allen County — since 2013. The first five years of his appointment, he also pastored a church in Mildred, 17 miles away, which is now yoked with Moran and Bronson.
A pastor in both the Disciples of Christ and United Methodist churches, Peters retired at age 65.
It lasted a year.
“Your conscience bothers you,” he said of retirement. “You feel it.”
“He started out retiring, and after a year he wanted to get back into the ministry,” said Carol Peters, who will celebrate her 63rd anniversary with Ralph at the end of the month. “We’ve had churches ever since.”
Peters was ordained a few months after his wedding in 1960.
In his sermon on a recent Sunday morning, Peters, a Delaware native, talked about being “lost” in 1953, after flunking out of college. He recalled walking to a nearby lake, looking up at the sky and saying, “What do I do, Lord? Is life worth living?”
“I said, ‘Lord, take my life. I’ve made a mess of it,’” he remembered.
He said he received his call to the ministry at that moment, walked home and told his family, who responded that his character wasn’t good, and he didn’t get along with people.
“I said (to God), ‘Lord, if I make a mess of my life, I’ll just say I’m following You,” he said of his lakeside discernment.
He tried a seminary in Pennsylvania, where a psychology professor told him he didn’t belong in the ministry.
“They wanted ministers to be prestige, stand up and wear robes. I just didn’t fit in there,” he said, relaxing in a pew after his sermon. “But I fit into places like this.”
Peters ended up at Missouri School of Religion, at the time located in Columbia, which specialized in rural church ministry.
“I don’t want to serve in large churches, just small, rural churches,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t fit into a big church. I’m just plain and enjoy country people.”
Making himself available to Disciples and United Methodist churches, he served at least nine in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma.
“If they needed a pastor, I went. But I really insisted they be strong in their denomination, whatever they were,” he said. “That is definitely a requirement. I’m not one of these independents, I believe in being strong and working together.”
In the early 2010s, Peters contacted a district superintendent in the Great Plains Conference to inquire about openings.
“Fortunately, at that time they didn’t have enough ministers,” he said.
The congregation didn’t bat an eye when they heard his age.
“We’ve got an 80-(something)-year-old pastor, so what?” recalled Roger Larson, who’s attended Elsmore most of his life.
“He’s a man of God,” said Judy Nelson, a retired teacher who has attended the church her entire life, except when she went to college. “He loves God, and in his sermons, he always gives God the glory. He always tells us how blessed our church is that we can serve God.”
And the church does serve. Two years before Peters’ arrival, the church began making a concerted effort to reach out to the community and the region, making holiday contributions to four nonprofits in nearby Iola, and to the Elsmore Ruritan Club, a service organization of businesspeople and farmers nearby.
“This year we’re very blessed,” Larson said. “We gave away a lot of money this year, I think about $7,500 to $8,000 for Christmas. We try to keep our ear to the ground for people who need help. It’s a blessing to us, and we try to tell them that we’re not blessing you, God is.”
Peters went a step further with the giving, with all of the offerings from fifth Sundays going to the community.
Congregation members — usually 12 to 15 attend weekly services — know that Peters’ favorite phrase is “You can’t outgive God.”
“We as a church have tried to help people as much as we can throughout the community and help individuals, and Pastor Ralph is really an advocate of that,” Nelson said.
“The amazing part of it is that no matter how much we give them, the mission money keeps growing,” Peters said. “It doesn’t stop.”
Not to say all of the money is leaving the church, which is in the middle of a renovation and reflooring of its fellowship hall.
Ralph and Carol Peters make the 16-mile drive from rural Chanute each week for Sunday services. Elsmore, residents say, is equal distance from Chanute, Iola and Fort Scott.
“They are very involved, as much as they can be in our community,” Larson said of Ralph and Carol Peters.
Ralph says his spouse has always been an integral part of his ministry.
“I’m blessed with a minister’s wife,” he said. “Not that ministers don’t have wives, but there’s a big, big difference. She doesn’t want me to quit. She and I are together. She’s a good pastor’s wife, because when she goes in, she doesn’t go to the head. She works behind the scenes and gives leadership.”
Peters mostly walks with a cane, citing bad knees, but is energetic enough to dart out of the church and ring the bell in front of the building before the 9:15 a.m. worship.
Church members installed handrails to make it easier for him to make it to the altar, and Peters reluctantly agreed recently to preach his sermons from the floor of the church, seated in an office chair at a card table, which holds his well-worn Bible, hymnal and sermon notes.
“We try to keep attune to his needs so he can continue to be pastor of the church,” Larson said. “We’re not rigid and say he has to stand at the pulpit. He didn’t want to (be seated), but his family kind of wanted him to.”
Most of Peters’ family — three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren — live nearby, while one son is a pilot in Wisconsin.
A survivor of colon cancer, Peters said he’ll keep preaching “as long as my health holds out.”
“I’m deteriorating, I’m slipping — but the miracle for me in this is that He has not taken away my preaching ability. I have other things going wrong, can hardly move. But I can still preach,” he said. “That’s a gift.”
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