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Growing the faith: Some Dickinson churches see surging congregations

Dickinson Latter-day Saints church member Paul Schuetzler stands on the south side of the church's complex Friday. The Dickinson ward is undergoing an addition -- its second in two years -- that is scheduled to be completed later this year. Largely due to the Bakken energy boom, the church has more than doubled in membership in less than three years.

Just like area businesses, schools and political bodies, some church congregations have been faced with changing times lately in Dickinson.

As the Bakken oil boom has emerged on the scene as perhaps the country's biggest and most well-known energy play, no organization seems to be immune from the social peaks and valleys seen recently in western North Dakota.

While some churches have witnessed rampant change, other faith-based communities have seen little change in the way of attendance and membership.

"Our membership sits at 722 today and that's up from 552 a year ago, and about 300 three years ago," said Bishop Michael Cartmill of the Dickinson ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "One thing about our church is that it's the same church everywhere. When members move, they come and find where the church is and start attending. A lot of people who are newer here have brought their families out, so that really adds to our numbers."

After adding on to its existing facility in a project completed in 2011, the Latter-day Saints church on Dickinson's east side is under construction again.

Cartmill said the expansion is needed because the church has already outgrown itself and needs to build on just so everyone can attend worship services.

With a significant amount of out-of-state oil field workers coming from western states like Idaho and Utah -- states with large LDS populations -- Carmill said it only makes sense that the Dickinson ward has been growing rapidly.

"I think where the people are coming from is a huge part of it," said Cartmill, who came to Dickinson in 2009. "It's been challenging for us in some ways. We actually have a housing specialist whose job it is to help people find housing when they come here. At the end of the day, though, it's more exciting than challenging."

A member of the Dickinson ward since 1997, Paul Schuetzler said change has been a constant the past few years.

"When we first came here, there were probably 20 or 30 of us," Schuetzler said. "Now we're adding on to the building every year. It's been just crazy the past two or three years, but I think it's definitely a good thing."

Seeing similar growth as the LDS church, the Evangelical Bible Church on the north side of town has also experienced rapid growth as a result of the energy boom. Ron Dazell, the church's associate pastor, said before the effects of the boom started to take shape the congregation had a membership of 200 to 250 people.

"We have over 600 people now," Dazell said. "We've added staff because of the workload and we just started a building project in partnership with Hope Christian Academy. For years, we had one Sunday service and now we have two. There's been a lot of change."

Hope Christian Academy has an elementary school and a junior high and recently broke ground on what will become a high school.

Dazell said certain challenges can arise due to the uniqueness of everyone's situation as new people come into the Dickinson community.

"Sometimes we only know dad because he's out here working and the rest of the family is back home," Dazell said. "That separation can cause a lot of stress in the lives of those men. I don't want to guess what everybody's perception of oil workers is, but I think that some would be surprised at how many family men are out here. Good, honest family men who are working hard and it's hard for them because they can't be with their family as much. That creates interesting ministry opportunities."

While certain congregations have doubled or tripled their membership, others in Dickinson haven't seen that type of dramatic increase in numbers.

St. John Lutheran Church Pastor Lisa Lewton said the boom hasn't brought with it a rise in attendance in her congregation, though she has seen certain patterns emerge.

"We've seen a lot of different people in worship," Lewton said. "I've seen a lot more men come to church alone. That seems to be a unique thing in our tradition. Some come and go while others stay over time and I think some of that has to do with changing work schedules. It's really kind of a week-to-week thing."

St. John has shown slight declines in membership, as have three of the four Catholic parishes in Dickinson.

Queen of Peace, St. Joseph and St. Wenceslaus parishes have all shown a decline in membership from 2006 through 2012, according to numbers released by the Diocese of Bismarck.

The biggest decrease in parishioners in that six-year span was at Queen of Peace, which has lost 27 percent of its membership (2,279) since 2006. St. Patrick did see an increase in membership, going from 1,600 parishioners to 1,793 at the end of 2012.

"I have noticed some changes," Rev. Todd Kreitinger of St. Patrick's said. "One thing that we've seen is that, as the cost of living here has increased, some of our parishioners have found an opportunity to maybe get a fair price for their home and move away to join children and grandchildren. That can have a big impact on a parish."

Along those same lines, Kristin Schmidt of the United Methodist Church in Dickinson said her congregation hasn't seen a noticeable increase, though she's noticed a trend of churchgoers "shopping around" at different services around town.

One thing that church leaders seemed to all agree on: The boom has brought many new challenges -- a good number of those being social challenges -- and situations are very fluid, changing from day to day or week to week in many cases.

"I spoke with one person who said they were at Walmart, saw our cross from the parking lot, and decided to stop over and see what we're all about," Dazell said.

"It's an interesting dynamic. The people who were here before the boom were used to a small, quiet church that seemed like a family. As we've grown, you can no longer know everybody. Change can be difficult, but, at the same time, it's exciting."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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