Rev. Frank Ciampa describes his commute to church as a spiritual experience. “Beautiful sunrises, blue skies, billowing clouds, green fields in the spring, brown crops in the fall.”
Many can picture this scene driving down a two-lane road. However, Frank has a unique view of the landscape from the pilot seat of his airplane. While it’s not a pastor’s typical ride to church, the Piper airplane has had both practical and relational benefits in Frank’s ministry career as a pastor and chaplain.
Frank served as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and the coordinator for the pastoral education program for Clarian Health, now IU Health. In 1991, he was named the east regional director for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, and the airplane allowed for easy travel to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
It also made the commute to Terhune UMC, a small church in Boone County, a lot more enjoyable. Frank traded the one hour and 15-minute drive through city traffic for a 16-minute flight through the open skies. Frank became known by the Air Traffic Controllers, who noticed his routine Sunday flights between Greenwood and Sheridan, and often greeted him with “Have a great service, Reverend!”
More than a convenience, flying has allowed for unique ministry opportunities throughout his career. On one occasion, Frank pilotted a special flight for the daughter of a coworker who was near the end of her battle against breast cancer and was grateful to be able to see the city, her home, where she worked one more time.
On another occasion, flying enabled Frank to help a boy who was grieving the loss of his father. In one day, the boy was able to attend his state theater competition in Indianapolis, then fly to the northwestern part of the state where his father’s funeral services were being held.
“The airplane was dedicated to the Lord,” Frank said, reflecting how God has used his passion for flying as a form of ministry.
This week, Frank retired from Terhune UMC after 33 years of service—and in the Sheridan area for 44 years. He noted that the joy of ministering to a small congregation is the time and opportunity to know people closely. In those years, Frank has been a part of many milestones such as births, baptisms, weddings, hospitalizations, and deaths, which has allowed him to build deep relationships.
Though the Terhune UMC congregation is small (averaging around 30 people on Sunday morning), it is clear that their faithfulness is making a big impact locally, nationally, and around the world.
In a town the size of Terhune—which boasts no store or gas station—the church becomes a centralized location to build community and share God’s love with neighbors. Prior to the pandemic, the church had a tradition of serving a monthly lunch, which drew a crowd of around 100 community members. The monthly meal gave neighbors a chance to visit and encourage one another. The church has a presence and value in the town, even for those who don’t regularly attend.
Frank added, “When you’ve been in the community for 40 years, you sort of become the community pastor, so people who are not really connected to the church might need a pastor for a funeral service, and I get to minister in that way.”
One challenge of being part of a small congregation is the fluctuating number of children active in the church. These waves have made providing consistent children’s programming difficult at times; however, Frank is reminded of the beauty in sending young adults out into the world.
“Perhaps we should just be proud that one of the things this little congregation has been doing all its life is sending dedicated, talented and productive young people out to enrich the lives of other communities and other congregations!” Frank said.
Another way that this congregation is intentional about serving God’s Kingdom is through missional offering initiatives. For two months at a time, the congregation focuses on serving an organization through their offering contributions. They have provided lunches for children in local schools, given to missions groups, and supported UMCOR in disaster relief.
At times, it has been hard for Frank to not see the church growing in numbers. However, God has used these outreach opportunities to remind him of the impact that a small church can have.
Frank is grateful to have worshipped with Terhune UMC alongside his wife, son, and grandchildren. Frank noted that his wife, Dinah, has played a huge part in his ministry to this community.
“I do not see her as a ‘preacher’s wife,’ or an adjunct to my ministry, but as a dedicated, loving and effective pastor in her own right!” Frank said of Dinah.
Frank is still flying, mostly for recreation. The Ciampas are looking forward to spending time with family, visiting state parks, and traveling as they transition into retirement.
Frank’s story and career is a testament to how God is in the business of using His creation for good, whether it may be in an airplane or a rural church.