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Stephen J. Lee, Published September 01 2013

Rural ND mega-parishes split

GRAND FORKS – The pending dismantling of a five-church Lutheran parish, Turtle River Ministry, based in Larimore, N.D., will end what was seen a decade ago as a good example of a new way to do rural ministry.

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church voted in June to leave Turtle River Ministry, said the Rev. Darrel Corey, who came last year as interim pastor for the five congregations.

“They simply decided that they wanted to be a single, solo-pastor congregation and to be on their own,” he said this week. It becomes official at the end of the year but is already in effect.

What happens to the other four congregations hasn’t been decided.

All members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, they are Ascension in Emerado, Faith in Inkster, Ness in Mekinock and St. Paul’s in Honeyford.

“The four churches, at this point, want to stick together because they are so small,” said Judy Fossum, a longtime leader in St. Paul’s, who helped form Turtle River Ministry 10 years ago.

The idea in 2003 was that the larger town congregation would provide a sort of hub or anchor, providing more resources for the smaller country churches, Fossum said. But Our Savior’s, with as many members as the other four combined, felt it wasn’t working.

Breakup

The change echoes a similar move three years ago in a more celebrated mega-parish, Tri-County Ministry in and around Cooperstown, formed 21 years ago.

Formed by eight congregations in 1992, all Lutheran save a Presbyterian church in Cooperstown, Tri-County was “anchored” by the largest congregation, Trinity Lutheran in Cooperstown.

The idea was to combine resources, helping small congregations that couldn’t afford a pastor on their own, energized by the anchor church.

The sprawling parish – which grew to 10 congregations for a time serving a 50-by-50-mile area – rivaled Delaware in acreage and garnered national attention.

The New York Times featured Tri-County Ministry on its front page in 1995 as an exemplar of a new model of rural ministry.

But three years ago, Trinity in Cooperstown voted to leave the arrangement.

Duna Frigaard has been a leader in Trinity Lutheran for decades and helped form Tri-County.

“We were famous for being famous,” she says now with a laugh. “Many of us felt at the outset that the large church was necessary to the organization and that we were doing something beneficial to everyone.”

It worked great for some years, said Frigaard, now in her 80s.

But changes in the pastors and larger church, among other things, led Trinity in Cooperstown to decide it needed to have its own pastor in its own parsonage again, Frigaard said.

Under it all, the region’s chief reality loomed, she said.

“It is one of those things that can be explained as a lot of things in North Dakota can be explained: by population decline.”

As the smaller congregations got smaller, the biggest church’s share of financial support grew, with pastors stretched just as thin.

“It was a situation that was fairly comfortable at the outset, but the needs of congregations changed and congregations’ perceptions of what the parish was all about changed,” Frigaard said. “Not that we left with any ill feeling. We left on good terms.”

Stretched thin

The Rev. Michael Jacobson came to be Trinity Lutheran’s pastor, living in the parsonage in Cooperstown.

He is the right man for the church right now, Frigaard said. Membership and attendance are up again.

“A multi-point parish really can work, but it’s kind of like combining school districts,” Jacobson said. “It works for some and it doesn’t work for others.”

Meanwhile, Tri-County Ministry, now seven smaller congregations based out of Trinity Lutheran in Binford and covering nearly 2,500 square miles with two pastors, has adapted well, said Theresa Fiebiger, parish administrator and 40-year member of the Binford congregation.

“Everybody still has a service every Sunday,” she said. “Each pastor does three services and every Sunday there is a pulpit-supply pastor in one of our churches.”

But Tri-County has been looking for a permanent pastor since Jan. 1, relying on an interim.

“There are just not enough pastors,” Fiebiger said. “A lot don’t want to go to a rural area or it’s the lack of jobs for their spouse or something like that.”

Bishop Bill Rindy, head of the ELCA’s Eastern North Dakota Synod, said he heard the same things from the larger churches in both Tri-County and Turtle River parishes.

“In Cooperstown at Trinity, I heard, ‘We would love to have our own pastor in our own parsonage, who we bump into at basketball games and at the post office – kind of a community pastor.’ ”

“Some of the things I heard at Our Savior’s were about ‘Our pastor being able to stay after worship and not have to jump in the car right away.’ ”

That’s not trivial, the bishop said.

“I always say the half-hour before and after worship is one of the most intense times of ministry in the week,” Rindy said. “That’s where you find out someone’s mom is dying of cancer or that Aunt Tilly is in the hospital. And if you are part of a multiple-point parish, the pastor is going to come in flying Sunday morning and fly out the door to go to the next service.”

Evolving church

Like many churches across the region, Turtle River Ministry saw membership fall, from 205 in 2005 to 175 in 2010, about half of them in Our Savior’s.

Sometimes a handful or fewer show up for services in Inkster, Fossum said. “And some of them are in their 90s.”

She represents part of the problem, Fossum admits. Their kids grown, she and her husband spend winters in Arizona and many summer weekends in their camper on Devils Lake. Young people aren’t replacing them in the pews.

To cope, the four smaller churches of Turtle River Ministry will start holding worship service only twice a month each, she said.

Fossum hates to see Turtle River Ministry end, but says it seems inevitable.

“We worked hard at that, we had a lot of hopes and dreams. The thing is, Our Savior’s felt so strongly about taking it alone again, I don’t think anybody wanted to oppose it.”

Corey said there are no hard feelings in the last months of Turtle River Ministry. “In fact, we had a 10-year anniversary on Aug. 4 and it was a beautifully put-together service with excellent representation from all five congregations.”

On Dec. 29, the parish will hold a final joint “service of Blessing,” he said. “To send each other off on their way.”

Years ago, St. Paul’s in Honeyford was yoked with three other congregations, but that fell apart, too, Fossum said.

“It just keeps changing and this will be a big change again.”