Church challenges in the ND oil boom
By Katherine Grandstrand
DICKINSON, N.D. — One of the scariest things about moving to a new state is leaving friends and family behind and the loss of a social network, but many newcomers to the Dickinson area are seeking out congregations and local pastors are welcoming them with open arms.
One of the biggest changes has been the growth in the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bishop Michael Cartmill said.
“We’ve been getting upwards around 400 people at church each week,” Cartmill said. “For us, that’s a pretty good size — big enough that we’ve been approved to move to two congregations, which will happen next month.”
People have moved from states with traditionally large Mormon populations to the Oil Patch, and have been joining the Dickinson congregation, Cartmill said.
“It is something that was kind of expected in that there’s a lot of folks from Utah, from Idaho, and, of course, LDS people in other places, who are working either in the industry or who are in related industries — in construction and so on — who came out,” Cartmill said.
“So we were expecting that there probably would be a number of LDS people moving in.”
The rate of growth was a surprise. When Cartmill and his family moved to Dickinson about four and a half years ago when he began teaching at Dickinson State University, there were fewer than 70 people who attended church regularly.
“It was really significant, and caught us off guard, actually,” Cartmill said. “So each of the times we had our building expansion, we were behind even when we were building. The first expansion wasn’t even halfway done when when knew we weren’t going to fit.”
The growing congregation is unique for the LDS faith as a whole, Cartmill said.
“I don’t think that it’s happening anywhere to this extent,” Cartmill said. “The church is constantly growing, but the rate here is incomparable to anybody else.”
The growth began as single men who were trying to make money for their families, but now the families are joining them, Cartmill said.
“I think we’re seeing some really top-quality people who are coming out to this area,” Cartmill said.
“They are people who have great work ethic, who are used to working hard, are use to doing what’s necessary to keep their family going and they’re strong in their work as well as their faith. The group that has come out is an amazing group of people.”
The Evangelical Bible Church in Dickinson is experiencing similar growth and is building a new church and school in northwest Dickinson.
“We’ve had to add — we’re up to two services,” said Ron Dazell, associate pastor at Evangelical Bible.
“You have to change your schedule to make that fit, you have to get more out of the same people. Everybody is doing more to pull off the same thing.”
Evangelical Bible Church is the physical home to Hope Christian Academy, a Christian school which began its high school this autumn.
“On a Wednesday night, we can’t fit everybody on campus anymore,” Dazell said. “Even my office is used for our children’s ministries.”
It has added two new fulltime positions within its administrative staff.
Making sure people who have just moved to the area feel welcome has been a fun challenge, said Rachel Simonson, who, with her husband John, pastors St. John’s Lutheran in Killdeer.
“I think the real mission and ministry of people who have been living here for decades — their great-grandparents moved in and and they’ve stayed here, you have such deep roots to this area, and then you have people moving in from all over the place, so what’s that like for people who have been living here, and vice versa,” Rachel Simonson said. “How do you fit in with people who do have such deep roots? How do you integrate into an already established system? And how do those two groups come together, especially in God?”
John Simonson grew up in Minot and moved away to begin seminary in St. Paul as the boom began.
“What is happening now is the biggest thing to happen to North Dakota since its original settling,” Simonson said.
Dazell has witnessed some “us versus them” mentality in the community between newcomers and longtime North Dakotans.
“What I’ve noticed is they’re kind of the same as everybody else,” Dazell said, “They’re people that are working and trying to provide for their families.”
The growth in his congregation has stirred up more of a need for ministry beyond Sunday morning services, said Pastor Ron Gold of Hillside Baptist Church.
“Some of these folks who work in the oil field are away from their families,” Gold said.
“One of the best ministries that churches can do is to incorporate them in the family — we view church as a family here, because it is.”
The church leaders are getting additional training to help those with “hurts, habits and hang-ups,” Gold said.
“Everybody’s got baggage of some kind,” Gold said. “Our goal here is to serve and help folks to unpack the suitcase.”
Part of the training is to recognize when medical professionals need to be involved, Gold said.
Hillside Baptists also has played host to art, sewing, cooking and finance classes to help its congregation build life skills, Gold said.
“We’re going to keep having these different kinds of things,” Gold said.
Having more people also has increased the numbers of those who serve.
There is a group at Evangelical Bible called Embrace that has banded together to learn more about adoption and foster care and has taken the foster parenting certification together, Dazell said.
“Because the church has grown, we have more ability to meet those needs,” Dazell said.
Helping the homeless
Because Dickinson lacks a set homeless shelter, in January a group of churches came together in front of the Dickinson City Commission to ask for a special use permit to run a seasonal homeless shelter out of at least a dozen churches.
Each church takes a turn hosting for a week, usually setting up a sleeping space in its basement, and provides a warm place to sleep on sub-zero nights.
“One guy had been piled under nine blankets overnight, and he slept in his car for a few nights that way before he finally gave up and said, ‘Alright, I’ll go into the shelter,’ ” Dazell said. “He just wanted to stay in his car because of independence.”
Church and family are often synonymous, which can leave those who have either never married or are living here without their families feel extra lonely, especially around the holidays.
Hillside Baptist hosts small groups to help congregation members get to know one another on a more intimate level, Gold said.
“That’s probably the best way we’ve actually integrated people who have stayed is by the small group,” Gold said.
At the Mormon church, families make an extra effort to include single people, whether truly single or in North Dakota without their family, Cartmill said.
“A lot of them get to go home for a holiday, but, if not, there’s always something that is available for them to — that they can do,” Cartmill said.
The Dickinson congregation gets together with congregations from Bismarck and other North Dakota cities to host events for just the singles, Cartmill said.
Building social connections
Outside of regular worship services and religious education, many churches provide activities to encourage social growth.
Hillside Baptist Church held its first-ever Harvest Hoopla this autumn and hosts regular movie nights throughout the year, Gold said.
“It’s more down time, there’s no agenda, it’s just to get to know people,” Gold said.
The Mormon church hosts a quarterly event for its whole congregation and participation in Boy Scouts is encouraged.
“Growth is neither a good thing or a bad thing, it just is a thing,” Dazell said.
“It’s the opportunity we have at this point. There’s different opportunities that arise, and now we have the opportunity to minister to people that are coming into town.
“I find that a lot of people who are coming into town, there’s a special ministry for them,” Dazell said.
“It’s good for us to continue to be welcoming and to be considerate of those who are coming in and their unique circumstances while trying to maintain what made us fall in love with Dickinson in the first place.”