A SLICE OF LIFE IN THE CLC
SNAPSHOTS OF CONGREGATIONS FROM AROUND THE CHURCH OF THE LUTHERAN CONFESSION
Snow on the prairie often comes early—and sideways. Once it finally reaches the ground it keeps tumbling and swirling until it finds a low spot or depression, and there it finally comes to rest. In the late fall of 1992, that resting place was the basement of the then-under-construction church and parsonage of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was only October, but prairie folk are used to that sort of thing. Then it warmed a bit, rained, and got cold again, covering everything with a shiny half inch of ice. Not to be deterred, the members shinnied along the trusses chipping ice off every one of the rafters so they could install the roof decking. But that still left a basement full of snow—which they then shoveled up to the ground-floor level and from there out the nearest window.
Such was the determination and resolve that the Lord granted to the earliest members of St. Paul congregation, along with their shepherd, Pastor Warren Fanning. With the congregation taking on virtually every aspect of the construction that local building codes would allow them to perform, slowly but surely the “little house on the prairie” was completed and dedicated in the spring of 1993. CLC members from neighboring congregations were regular volunteer laborers, all under the watchful supervision of contractor Jack Mayhew, a member of Grace Lutheran Church of Valentine, Nebraska.
Two years later, in 1995, Pastor Fanning accepted a call to Holy Trinity of West Columbia, South Carolina, and the congregation called its current shepherd, Pastor Michael Roehl.
Though first constructed “out in the country,” the City of Bismarck rapidly enveloped the property, and it is now bordered by one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. The blessed result is a steady stream of visitors, on an almost weekly basis. The location proved to be a great blessing for another reason. The congregation had wisely purchased three acres of land, which quickly appreciated in value. As the congregation outgrew the original facility, two of the three acres were sold at a substantial profit to help finance capital improvement, including a major expansion project in 2002. Again the members took on the work themselves, and again under the supervision of Mr. Mayhew. Both the original building project and the later expansion were made possible, in part, by loans from the CLC’s Church Extension Fund. The current facility was completed and dedicated in 2003.
The most recent addition was a beautiful church organ purchased through CLC member Barry Hay, a member of Faith Lutheran Church of Markesan, Wisconsin. That instrument was dedicated to the glory of our Lord in 2016.
Surely the Lord has richly blessed this gathering of His children. Membership is now 106 souls, with an average attendance of around 50. The congregation continues to carry forward the mantra first coined by Pastor Fanning: “Everyone does something around here.” The near-term goal is to retire the congregation’s Church Extension Fund mortgage within the next two years, and the congregation is hopeful that they might someday open their own Christian Day School, all as the Lord wills. Visitors have commented that St. Paul is one of the “most visiting congregations they have ever seen.” It is a group that struggles to make church the center of their lives, rather than just a small part. Several member families drive as far as ninety miles one way to attend weekly services. It is not uncommon for a substantial number of members to still be visiting in the fellowship hall an hour after the end of services.
While all of this is true (for which we thank and praise our Lord), the process of establishing and growing an orthodox Christian congregation in the Bismarck area has certainly not been without struggle and hardship. Nothing came quickly, and nothing easily. The congregation was originally founded by two groups, the first a core group of area CLC families that were faithfully served by CLC pastors from neighboring congregations in Jamestown and Bowdle. The second group was a blessed influx of Christians from another church body. This second part of what would become St. Paul Lutheran Church was composed of those who, recognizing the errors of their former church body, dropped their former memberships and began worshiping at what was then a preaching station in Bismarck.
The first group of CLC members struggled for many years, unsuccessfully, to establish and grow their own congregation. Then, in His wisdom and mercy and according to His plan, the Lord provided what was needed to grant the long-standing prayer of His children in Bismarck to finally have their own church home. He did so first of all by providing a local shepherd when Pastor Fanning, for reasons of doctrine and conscience, left his former church affiliation in Bismarck and joined the CLC through colloquy in 1989. The group now had a pastor and a core group of members. What they lacked was a facility.
As is common to such start-ups, the group worshiped in whatever space they could find—members’ homes, the basements of two bank buildings, an electric cooperative, and others. Once again, the Lord heard their prayer and answered it in amazing fashion. One of the founding members, Mr. Paul Blumhardt, worked as the city forester. He heard that the City of Bismarck was selling parcels of land that they owned on the northeast corner of the city. Despite the very reasonable asking price, the decision to buy the property required great faith on the part of the members of St. Paul. They were much encouraged and aided by the membership of the CLC, which had granted mission status to the congregation in 1988. The rest, as they say, is history.
What the members of this congregation would like to share with their brothers and sisters in the CLC, especially those struggling to establish their own congregation, is encouragement through what the Lord has accomplished through and for them. The struggle may be long and difficult, but the Lord of the harvest certainly hears our prayers. The congregation here is now turning its gaze outward, seeking how they might help others, as they were once helped. And so grows the Lord’s Church.
Michael Roehl is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.