SBTC partners to revitalize North Dakota church

WILLISTON, N.D. In an unprecedented move, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention is partnering with the Dakotas Baptist Convention (DBC) to assist with revitalization efforts in one of its churches. The venture is a covenant agreement assisting the DBC to bring new life to Cornerstone First Baptist Church in Williston, N.D., through a revitalization method developed by the SBTC. 

An oil and population boom to northwest North Dakota beginning in the mid-2000s more than doubled the population of Williston, the epicenter of the Bakken oil patch fracking production, to almost 30,000. The boom also created a lot blue-collar workers with six-figure jobs. 

Flush with cash and a pastor with big ideas, Cornerstone First Baptist Church relocated the church and built a $4 million facility. But the influx of people and money to the community and the church proved too much too fast. And the change became unwieldy.

With 98 percent of the congregation employed and “making good money,” DBC Executive Director Garvon Golden said the members paid down the debt on their new building to $1.2 million. But the underground fissures that brought financial wealth subsequently fractured the church when the price of oil and paychecks dropped precipitously in 2013. Cornerstone FBC membership plunged from 250 to 75, and even the pastor left.

An interim pastor served for about a year and, in 2016, Golden began making the five-hour, one-way trip from his home in Rapid City, S.D., each weekend to fill the pulpit. The drive gave him time to think and pray. The remaining congregation was committed to holding the church together, but Golden knew they would need help.

Throughout North and South Dakotas there are 87 SBC churches. The far-flung congregations average 30-35 members, with six churches having membership over 100 and the largest topping 200. The larger churches are “young and developing,” Golden said. But all combined, the convention did not have the resources to assist Cornerstone FBC.

Recalling a 2009-11 partnership between DBC and SBTC, Golden sent an email to Texas and two other SBC state conventions in the South asking for help.

Kenneth Priest, SBTC director of convention strategies, remembered the request.

“They could pay the bills, but they couldn’t pay a pastor,” said Priest.

Golden said SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards responded immediately asking the executive board to approve a revitalization covenant with a church outside the state. It had not been done before, but the prior working relationship between the two conventions and the realization that North Dakota could lose one of its strongest churches prompted SBTC leadership to readily agree, Priest said.

When Golden informed the congregation of the offer, he said they were “blown away.”

“Why would folks in Texas help?” he recalled them asking. “They were so encouraged to know they were not alone.”

That reassurance sparked a revitalization movement before officially partnering with the SBTC, and church members began filling the pulpit in October to relieve Golden of the task.

As part of the agreement, the church as well as any prospective pastor, had to sign on to the covenant. T.J. Green heartily agreed, saying he relished the idea of working with Cornerstone FBC, not in spite of but because of its circumstances.

In July Green accepted the call to pastor Cornerstone and moved his family—wife, Kristy, and their three sons Caedmon, 7, Tyler, 6, and Maverick, 10 months—from northern Florida to Williston, which is located just 70 miles south of the Canadian border. When asked by the TEXAN if he had purchased long underwear, Green laughed saying he had already researched clothes layering in preparation for the sub-zero degree winter.

Green, like the congregation, is grateful for the Texas partnership and sees it as more than a one-off venture. The SBTC’s covenant partnership model used in the DBC-Cornerstone FBC relationship “is the route people need to take,” he said.

That kind of covenant revitalization, he said, is an untapped resource. Referring to his own congregation at Cornerstone FBC, Green said, “What about these churches? We can save them.” 

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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