An oil boom changes everything

Stories
05/09/2014

An oil boom changes everything
North Dakota was the fastest-growing state in 2013, straining needs for housing,
services and new ways of thinking about prosperity.

By Carrie Gubsch

In his 10 years as the senior pastor at First Lutheran Church, Martin Mock has seen first-hand Williston, North Dakota’s ups and downs.

“It was a very wonderful church and community; a place where my children wanted to raise their families,” Martin said. “They were just kind of maintaining their way of life in the post (oil) bust of the 1980s.”

Maintenance mode is now a thing of the past in Williston.

“(We’ve) gone from a time of plenty to a time of surviving,” Martin said. “Now it’s a time of plenty again and people are cashing in on that.”

Martin’s congregation has changed a lot since oil exploration began in what’s called the Bakken formation near Williston. The oil-rich formation spans some 200,000 miles under parts of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Since 2008, more than 4,000 wells have been drilled in the Williston Basin.

People have traveled from all over the country to Williston looking for work, bringing ethnic and cultural diversity both to the town and the congregation. From 2010-2012 alone, Williston’s population grew by nearly 4,000 people, an increase of about 25 percent, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The oil boom and prosperity don’t come without concerns for leaders in the Williston area though. Stewardship of the land and strains on infrastructure present big issues, Martin said.

“The infrastructure has grown tired because of all of the impact,” he added. “It’s just a big animal, the oil industry.”

Many longtime members of the congregation have moved away, selling their homes for large profits; others are only there temporarily.

“They aren’t available to be called into mission in this particular place,” he said. As the lives and circumstances of members and local residents change, so does First Lutheran’s sense of identity and ministry.

There’s some anguish that comes with the change, but Martin and his congregation have been intentional about learning and exploring their reactions as a community, including a preaching series on grief, loss and moving forward.

“We’ve been working on fear a lot and helping people get over fear,” said Martin.

Building ecumenical partnerships to serve others

A lot of new efforts and partnerships have developed as faith communities work together to grow and adapt alongside the sudden changes in Williston and its neighboring communities.

One of the ways First Lutheran is moving forward with the change is by getting more involved in mission work in the community.

Martin says he and his associate pastor, Ben Loven, see four to five people a day who need help finding housing or financial help with rent or utilities. “We end up being a social center.”

First Lutheran has teamed up with other congregations in the area to jointly provide help to people who come into town looking for work and needing help.

They work with Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, two other ELCA congregations, and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to serve free meals on Sunday nights to address the needs of those who may be hungry, homeless or lonely.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Williston started a day care program in 2012 to help provide day care services in the area for infants through kindergarten.

At Upper Missouri Ministries, an ELCA outdoor ministry just 30 minutes from Williston, young adults are being encouraged to explore vocation and faith through a new nine-month experience working with local churches and businesses.

“(The oil boom) has forced us to be more missional in our outreach to the community,” Martin said. “We have collaborated with all of the other churches in trying to address the needs of the people.”

New cultural influences

New people in Williston have meant new and diverse faces in the pews of First Lutheran, Martin said. The congregation’s membership has grown beyond its traditional racial identity, adding more members from different ethnic groups who have come looking for work.

“We’ve become more mixed racially, which I think is a good thing.”

“We see a lot more people who come here with hope, where ever they may be coming from,” Martin added.

“It’s amazing.”


Carrie Gubsch is the communications coordinator at Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton, Minn.

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