The United Methodist Church is the only church in the town of St. Thomas, North Dakota.
“I am proud of what we have done as a church for our community,” said Robert Green, who serves as the chair of the administrative council at St. Thomas United Methodist Church.
Three hundred thirty people live in the town of St. Thomas, North Dakota. An average of 20-30 people attend in-person worship at the United Methodist Church.
People in the farming community, located 30 miles from the Canadian border, are fed body and soul by the United Methodist congregation.
Besides in-person worship, the congregation live-streams their worship service. They also have several outreach ministries like a Little Free Food Pantry and the Pumpkin Patch event.
Members of the congregation bring food items to replenish the Little Food Pantry. A volunteer checks the supply a couple of times each week and stocks items as needed. No strings are attached. People come and take the things they want at any time. Read more
St. Thomas UMC welcomes children and their families to God’s Pumpkin Patch. The event, which happens on a Wednesday in the fall each year, involves supper, games, a Bible lesson, and of course, pumpkins. Due to the pandemic, this year's event was held in a drive-through format.
All this is happening because the members in the congregation want to keep the church vibrant, even though they do not have a full-time pastor. Currently, pastoral leadership is happening through a very part-time arrangement with Rev. Jerry Bass, a retired elder of the Dakotas Conference.
“I have been serving the congregation for about five years,” said Bass. “Initially, I was called to serve as their interim pastor for a couple of weeks. That turned into a year. Then I served as their part-time pastor, as a quarter-time appointment, for more than three years. I am gradually stepping away from that.”
Bass is now providing pulpit supply to the congregation. He travels, one-hour or 62 miles, once a month, to do in-person worship with communion. He also supplies the congregation with two video sermons for two other worship services each month.
“When I go to do in-person worship services, I bring a flash drive loaded with two other sermons,” said Bass. “Then someone in the congregation leads worship.”
The church has a large screen television on a cart. The TV is hooked up to a desktop computer. Sermons and a PowerPoint are loaded on the computer for worship. A lay leader, Karen Bigwood, leads worship.
“Karen prepares the PowerPoint. She makes sure the sermon video from Pastor Jerry is ready,” said Green. “We are grateful to Karen. Her faith can move mountains.”
Bigwood studies the scripture for the week and plans worship to fit the needs of the congregation.
"I really want everyone to have a worship experience that is meaningful, even if we don't have an ordained pastor," said Bigwood. "We could sit at home and watch Pastor Jerry give a message on our screens, but it is not the same as being together in worship."
The congregation in St. Thomas is also blessed to have Rev. Ray Kemp, a Angelican priest, return to the community to farm. He leads worship once a month.
“It is great to have him farming in our area. We are blessed to have him lead worship once a month. His sermons are uplifting,” said Green.
The congregation follows the liturgical calendar of The United Methodist Church. Pastor Jerry shares what the scripture and liturgy focus will be six weeks in advance. It gives the lay leader, Karen Bigwood, and Susan Green, Robert’s wife, who plays the piano, a chance to get things planned and organized.
Lay Leader, Karen Bigwood, also serves as the secretary to the administrative council. She sees her role with worship as something that is an outgrowth of her involvement on the council.
"Things fell my way," Bigwood said. "I want us to continue to be a worshipping community. We have molded into a church family that really looks after each other."
Green is first to admit that there is pressure to keep the doors of the church open. He notes that Rev. Kris Mutzenberger, District Superintendent for the Northeast District of the Dakotas Conference, has been searching for ways to support the congregation and ministry that happens in this rural community.
Green said, “I think we keep her up at night. Our church is a valued service to this community. There is some pressure to keep the doors open. But, there is a lot that the church offers the community.”
Bass is grateful for the flexible arrangement. He sees his services as a way to serve the congregation and enjoy retirement.
“I am sure all churches, including St. Thomas, want to have a pastor in-person at worship. This is an option that works. It started during the pandemic, with services and sermons being live-streamed on YouTube. The members at St. Thomas felt like they would rather have video sermons from me, a couple of times each month, rather than from someone they did not know.”
Rev. Bass will conduct funerals, weddings, and Baptisms if there is a request and he is available. In addition, he plans to spend Christmas and Easter with his family and provide a video sermon to St. Thomas UMC.
“This is an active, vibrant rural church that is open to the possibilities,” Bass said. “They have an active food ministry. They prepared 80 UMCOR kits this fall. They are working on supplying Shoebox Christmas gifts. They are open to where God leads them!”
Are you wondering how to keep your rural ministry vibrant? The Dakotas Annual Conference is hosting fall gatherings for rural ministry churches. These gatherings are part of our million-dollar Dakotas Connection Initiative, a rural ministry grant from the Lilly Endowment. These gatherings are designed to connect laity and clergy from our rural churches so that we might encourage one another, be reminded of the importance of our mission in these communities, and think creatively about how to maximize our resources and our impact. Register and attend a gathering in Park River, North Dakota, on November 6; or, attend a gathering in Iroquois, South Dakota, on November 14. Register and get the details here.