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Nov 23, 2016 | Carol E. Barnwell

Best Partners Build Relationships

[Diolog Magazine] “Much has changed in the past 12 years in North Dakota,” said Bishop Michael Smith. The Bakken oil boom of recent years resulted in the first population increase in the area since the Dust Bowl era. Along with Episcopalians from around the U.S. and Anglicans from around the world came many unchurched workers.


But new issues—like drugs and human trafficking—not seen before in the Diocese of North Dakota, arrived as well.


“While we have an opportunity to reach out to thousands of unchurched people with the good news of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Smith said, “like most parts of the Episcopal Church, we struggle with the issue of institutional decline related to aging congregations.” To face the resulting decrease in resources, the diocese has experimented with a part-time episcopacy and is considering the possibility of a merger with the Diocese of South Dakota.


The desire to keep financial resources as close to ministry as possible led Bishop Smith to some unique approaches. In the last 12 years, he has served as Bishop of North Dakota as well as a part-time assistant bishop in another diocese. He has also served as the part-time dean of the diocese’s cathedral at times, and this spring, will assist in the Diocese of Dallas. “These are all attempts to keep the resources of our ‘canon missioners’ closer to the congregations in the field,” he said.


Bishop Smith presides over one of the most racially diverse dioceses in the Episcopal Church. “Come to our Diocesan Convention and you’ll experience a gathering of European, Native and African/Sudanese Americans who genuinely care about one another,” he said. Together, Episcopalians in North Dakota embrace ministry across great geographic distances in the face of meager financial resources and “the busyness of contemporary life,” he added.


The ethnic population of North Dakota is not reflected in the Episcopal churches there. While Native Americans make up only 5.5 percent of the state’s population, six of the dDiocese’s 20 congregations are Native American, more than 25 percent. Ninety percent of the state’s population is Caucasian and 1.2 percent Black or African-American. Interestingly, one of the largest congregations in the diocese is Sudanese-American. Three of 14 seminary-trained clergy are from Rwanda, Sudan and Haiti; four are Lutheran (ELCA) and 12 of 50 clergy are people of color.


The Message paraphrase of the Bible says that, ‘the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood’ (John 1:14). Anglicanism at its heart is incarnational and this theology is appealing to and consistent with Native American culture,” the Bishop explained. But, he said, “It takes time to establish relationships, and relationships are the foundation of all ministry, especially in Native American communities.”


The most helpful partnerships don’t focus on Native congregations as the “recipients of mission,” but rather are those that stand with Native congregations to reach out through them to the communities where they live and acknowledge the special challenges they face in these communities, the Bishop said.


“Nominal Christianity will no longer suffice in our culture,” he explained, adding, “We need committed disciples of Jesus Christ who are willing to witness to their faith by sharing generously of their time, talent and treasure. The future belongs to those who are willing to pay that price.”