Booming ministry: Luther grads respond to changing needs in oil-rich North Dakota
by John Klawiter, M.Div. '12
There used to be two reasons why the western North Dakota Synod was nicknamed “Siberia” for those seeking a new call. One reason is obvious—because both can be bitterly cold. The other reason—nobody lives there—no longer applies.
Western North Dakota, once considered one of the least visited regions in the country, is now one of the largest growing areas of the state.
What changed? Suddenly there was an oil boom. Tourism picked up—and some are choosing to stay.
Ben Loven, ’09, took his first call at First Lutheran Church in Williston in September 2009. “When I got here, the boom hadn’t quite started,” Loven said. “There’s a big highway, U.S. 85, which goes through the Badlands. I met five cars on that [first] trip. Now, you’d see five cars in five seconds. The change is unbelievable.”
Forty miles south, at Wilmington Lutheran Church in Arnegard, Dan Paulson, ’96, says that his community is eight miles due west from the busiest part of the oil fields. “A lot of times I need to take a right and turn around to go east [because the highway is too busy to cross]. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
Beth Anderson, ‘01, has served as synod ministry coordinator since 2009. She says that a ministry needs assessment conducted by the ELCA churchwide office in 2007-2008 showed that the stories of western North Dakota were about decline and economic concerns. “Then the boom came,” Anderson says. “And it was like a coin flipped.”
Williston, as a community, is getting younger and people are having babies. According to Loven, some people stick around, but some are here for three months, and then they’re gone, usually back home.
“When I arrived, the population was around 12,000,” Loven says. “Now it’s over 35,000—and that’s just the permanent population.”
While the story of North Dakota might appear to be about a boom, the depths of those affected by it have created one of the most unique ministry fields imaginable.
“There was no housing, no shelters in place [when the boom happened],” says Anderson. “The churches were the first stop when getting off Amtrak. People had a job, but nowhere to go.”
Pastors face the challenge of how to do ministry with people who are only in town temporarily. “Some of the people on the rigs are working 18-hour days for a month,” Loven says. “Then they have three days off, so they’re sleeping or catching up, or they’re heading back home. Housing is such a huge issue, a lot of people don’t want to bring their families here. It’s an interesting population of people.”
Paulson has firsthand experience with ministry in the oil fields. He retired as a pastor a couple years ago—but soon took up a different kind of work.
“I had two people [from my congregation] who were the head of a gauging business,” Paulson says. “They told me, ‘You’re not going to retire. We need you.’ So they taught me how to gauge for 22 months in and amongst the people.”
This opportunity brought Paulson together with people from all over the world who came to North Dakota to make a living. “Many of them have left their families and homes so that they can come here to make enough to send home and pay bills and live,” Paulson says. “Some are now starting to establish themselves as residents of the area. That’s fantastic. There’s a lot of new housing too, not just the temporary housing. People are putting down roots and that’s exciting. We’ve got some growth here that I never expected. … There’s opportunity beyond belief. We’re excited about that!”
Paulson joined the ministry later in life, after an entrepreneurial career in cabinet-making and contracting. He was always self-employed. “When I [gauged] those 22 months, I wasn’t preaching from the pulpit, but I was teaching and helping people by being pastoral,” Paulson says. “I had a congregation of men that was growing profoundly. … It was 22 months of true ministry—of hope and promise.”
Paulson admits that he’s too old to continue working in the oil fields, but he did recently return to the pulpit. Paulson and his wife, Kathleen, who shares her husband’s current call, are looking to help ease the succession for the next pastoral leaders in their present contexts.
He reflects on how much things have changed from when he began doing rural ministry in 1996 and where he is now. “Sometimes, in the back of my mind, [I thought] ministry out here was just about sustaining—helping people in the demise,” Paulson says. “I did a lot of burying, but not a lot of marrying, and very few baptisms. That’s turned around. People are coming home. They’ve come back and brought their careers with them. Professional careers are coming home: farmers, doctors, nurses. There are a lot of opportunities.”
Gerald Roise, ’07, also came to ordained ministry later in life. After 35 years farming and ranching, he has a unique perspective on the boom, even though his call near Minot is more removed from the middle of the busiest boomers.
How things have changed for Roise is that he’s seeing more people willing to stay in North Dakota. “I’ve appreciated the oil business because it’s kept my kids here,” Roise says, whose son took over the ranch that has been run by the family for four generations. “Now, when you graduate from college, you can stay here.”
With the oil boom, the types of ministry situations have changed significantly. Many people are literally living on a huge nest egg, but not everyone.
“People have money to invest,” Roise says. “There’s a huge disparity going on. What most outsiders don’t realize is that the person owning the land doesn’t necessarily own the mineral rights underneath the surface.”
During the 1930s, people sold the mineral rights below their land in order to scrape by. If they didn’t ever buy those rights back, then, even if they own the land, they don’t own what’s below it.
And the promise of work for those moving to North Dakota doesn’t offset some surprises when they get here. Many from southern climates are not accustomed to the tenacious Midwest winters.
“What we noticed, in terms of impact to the church, was that people were coming into the office for basic necessities like gas,” Loven says. “They’d used their last dime to get here. They’d be employed, but needed something to get them to their first paycheck. People were staying in their cars.”
And with wealth also comes greed. Prices for hotel rooms and rent went way up. It’s a change that doesn’t just affect newcomers to town. “It stressed the fixed income seniors who are now dealing with higher rent,” Loven says. “A lot of people left because they couldn’t afford it or some sold their house they bought in the ‘60s.”
“The negative [we are seeing] in the church is crime following the money flow. Human trafficking has become a pretty big issue here,” Roise says. “Also, we’ve never had an issue with homeless men. Now we have a homeless shelter. If it was here [before the boom], it was very subtle for the churches. Now it’s front and center.”
“Our county has a 1 percent unemployment rate,” Loven says, explaining why a seemingly positive statistic is also taxing the community. “There’s a humungous amount of teachers, doctors and nurses needed. An elementary school had been closed, but now reopened and portable classes have been added. They need more spaces. They just approved a new high school. It’s going to be in need [of teachers] in a few years.”
“The other piece that you can’t underestimate is the deep sense of grief for many of our people who’ve lived here a long time,” Anderson says. “They love the rural lifestyle. The change happened so quickly and they weren’t prepared for it. There is deep grieving going on. Churches have to tend to the grief, but at the same time, offer deep hospitality to the stranger. We have some congregations that are responding to their communities in meaningful ways. We’ve seen congregations figure that out and follow Christ outside into the community.”
Those in ministry aren’t exempt from the stresses of a changing landscape. Loven has done things in ministry he never imagined during seminary. He’s done funerals for murders and suicides, and dealt with stewardship issues. “It’s been great to have a broad experience, but it’s been pretty taxing,” Loven says. “It makes you realize that you need to have good boundaries to take time away. There’s a little town 35 miles away as you head out of town. It’s in the oil patch, but every time I get there, I feel a weight come off my shoulders. You don’t realize the stress you’re under just being under that environment. There’s a compounding effect, I’ve got all of that past experience built up, it makes me aware of going to Minot, and just getting a relief.”
A sense of gratitude
Through all the ups and downs, positives and negatives of the oil boom, the prevailing feeling among those ministering in western North Dakota is hope.
“We have congregations that almost closed doors, but now, they have money from mineral rights,” Anderson says. “We can’t rely on that because oil prices might drop. How do we help people look at that as money for mission? Our challenge is that we want to rely on the stewardship from members rather than the money from oil.”
“I think it’s about being out in the community,” Paulson says. “It’s a ministry of presence. We’re out meeting people, offering hope, those kinds of opportunities.”
As Anderson notes, her synod has become a popular choice for people to request. “People have wanted to come out here. This is the place to be to experiment in ministry. We have churches willing to try new things for the sake of God’s mission.”