The United Methodist Church has been assigning a chaplain each year to do ministry along the Appalachian Trail, the two thousand plus mile path that winds along the eastern mountains from Maine to Georgia. This year was the first time that an ordained minister was assigned to the role. The Rev Matt Hall has been on the trail since June is nearing the end – of the trail and of this call.
For most United Methodist itinerant pastors, changing churches can be a period of anxiety. But once the Rev. Matt Hall finishes his appointment now, he may welcome a pulpit that doesn’t move every day.
Hall is the fifth chaplain sent to hike the Appalachian Trail by the Holston Conference, which includes East Tennessee, northern Georgia and southwest Virginia — also a significant portion of the trail. He began his trek at Mount Katahdin in Maine on June 21 and is on track to finish his nearly 2,200 miles of ministry at Springer Mountain in Georgia around Nov. 19.
“My goal is to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my family,” Hall said.
The ministry was begun by two Methodist churches in Bland County, VA, which is bisected by the trail, sixteen years ago and the Conference (similar to an Episcopal diocese) has been overseeing the ministry since 2013.
“It’s more of an appointment to a community; that’s no different from a typical church appointment,” Hall said. “I’m here to serve spiritual needs as they arise, but a lot of my ministry is just simple service.”
There is a strong ethos of helping one another on the trail and Hall’s ministry has sought to build on that.
It’s a common occurrence for people struggling with addiction to turn to the trail as a way to get clean. Hall gleans from both his ministerial training and personal experience (he is in recovery himself) to help them.
“If I meet someone and they’re having problems with drugs or alcohol but want nothing to do with Jesus, that’s fine. I’ve been there, that’s where I started. But to help I can point them to a community like AA, NA, just those small things. Once you get one roadblock out of the way, then we can worry about the other ones.
“Some folks come here because they’re between careers, or maybe something tragic happened and they’re looking for a way to ‘check out’ and let some healing happen. In those instances, I ask them what they came here to find and are they finding it.”
Since hikers are on the move during the day, the deeper conversations happen in the evenings at shelters and hostels.
“That’s one reason I start later in the day, so I can talk to some of the stragglers in the shelters,” Hall said. “I try to be where I’m going by 5 p.m., and that gives me about four hours to talk to people as they come in.”
He said some of his deepest encounters have come not with hikers, but with hostel owners and townspeople who provide services and help to hikers.
“These folks are people-pleasers at heart and are so used to pouring themselves out to help hikers but don’t often have someone to listen to them. A large part of what I’m doing is just listening. I like to get people to tell their faith stories — even if they have no faith.
“I don’t claim to be an expert in anything but I do know that if someone came to me firmly rooted in any faith, my role as a chaplain is to be able to help them in any way possible.”
As much as Hall has enjoyed this ministry and found meaning in it, he is also looking forward to a more rooted ministry after his tour is done.
“I’ll be in a more formal and traditional setting for ministry. I may be at a two-point charge, but we’re not 100 percent on that yet.”
Apart from regular showers and ready access to soda, Hall acknowledged that he has also missed traditional worship.
“It took a while to adjust to an unstructured community,” he said, “but part of this ministry is to bring an intentional community experience to people on the trail who would normally never walk through church doors. As I miss things like liturgy and lectionary, it’s almost the creativity to make our own.”
You can learn more about the Appalachian Trail ministry here
image: The Rev. Matt Hall conducts a renewal of wedding vows service for Nick and Stephanie Houle atop Sugar Run Mountain, just off the Appalachian Trail near Pearisburg, Va. Hall serves as a United Methodist chaplain appointed to the trail community.