On a Sunday morning in central Montana, the Rev. David Iverson steers his car on an isolated gravel road toward Forest Grove Church in the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains, where far-flung congregants are gathering to worship.
Scanning the landscape during the 50-mile drive from their ranch near Winnett (pop. 185), Iverson, 80, and his wife, Ella, 77, chat about which neighbors are lambing, calving or putting up hay—and they wonder aloud who among their congregation will attend worship service that day.
“We have families who are Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and so on,” says Iverson, noting the need for nondenominational churches in remote areas. “Our hearts are open to everyone.”
For 54 years, Iverson has preached, prayed and sung his way into the lives and hearts of his parishioners. His 200-mile roundtrip circuit to three rural churches is reminiscent of frontier preachers who traveled by horseback, wagon or foot to spread the Gospel, to lead Bible studies, and to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Since 1968, Iverson’s circuit has included century-old Forest Grove, a country church without electricity or plumbing because congregants “want to keep it that way,” he says. Faithful parishioners typically travel to church by car or truck and, depending on the season and the weather, may arrive by sled, hay wagon, tractor or horseback. Several trace their heritage to pioneering families who raised the church roof in 1907 and are buried in the churchyard cemetery.
Inside, a potbellied stove warms the sanctuary. Pews creak as 25 congregants stand to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” while Ella plays the church’s pump organ. Two kerosene lamps affixed to the walls illuminate the pulpit where Iverson preaches in blue jeans, cowboy boots, a Western shirt and a bolo tie.
Iverson weaves life-on-the-ranch anecdotes into his sermons, and his pastor-rancher status gives him a kinship with his flock. “They relate to me because we’re in the same place,” he says. “If it’s a dry year, or if prices are down, I suffer too.”
The son of a sheep rancher and daughter of a cattleman, the Iversons tend cattle on their 30,000-acre Silver Sage Ranch. “I feel God has blessed us because we make our living on the ranch,” Ella says. “Our small churches can’t pay much for a pastor.”
Growing up near Winnett, Iverson admired people who worked the land but also recognized the need for churches in prairie communities. Feeling called into ministry, he graduated with a degree in Biblical studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and received his master’s degree in New Testament literature from Wheaton (Ill.) College. In 1956, he wed Ella, whom he met at a church camp when they were teens, and the couple settled in central Montana, where they raised two children. Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1958, he established churches in Winnett and Sand Springs with only handfuls of believers.
“If we didn’t have our faith, we would have been discouraged,” Iverson says. “We felt it was God’s direction to do our church work, and we were faithful to him. We believed it was our purpose in life.”
Today, Iverson is the chief shepherd of a scattered but faithful flock.
“David holds everyone together,” says Bobbie Cox, 74, who with her husband, Bill, 75, operate a cattle ranch and serve as caretakers of Forest Grove Church.
“David talks our language,” Bill adds. “He teaches a good salvation message and is faithful to the Bible’s teachings.”
Ranchers Royal and Josie Melton appreciate a pastor who understands the blessings and challenges of ranch life. “He told us about pulling back the covers on his bed and finding a rattlesnake on his pillow, but the snake didn’t strike,” recalls Josie, 41. “The message was God protected him.”
For Iverson, Montana’s rugged prairieland is a stark reminder that both animals and people need shepherding. “Sheep and people can be easily misled,” he says. “They both have to have care.”