Dear Brothers and Co-laborers in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,
It is in the grace of our God of all mercy that he has sustained us through another year. We are called to battle, and we have been engaged in a true spiritual battle amid a culture war driven by darkness and wickedness.
As I thought about your reports my mind was drawn to the words of Psalm 3 – Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. 2Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.” 3But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head. 4I cried to the Lord with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill. 5I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.
6I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. 7Arise, O Lord; Save me, O my God! For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly. 8Salvation belongs to the Lord. Your blessing is upon Your people.
The history of the Northern Plains Classis reaches back to over a century ago when the Eureka Classis was formed on June 7th, 1911. Its first meeting was in Scotland, SD but it derived its name from the Eureka charge that had filed a protest against the Professor H. Meier of Mission House Seminary as teaching contrary to the Heidelberg Catechism. The name represents the commitment of this Classis to the defense of the Reformed biblical teaching as summarized in our catechism. Through the years it has been the history of the Classis in this region that has stood firm against the impact of unreformed, de-formed unionism.1
One hundred years ago this June, the Rev. John Grossmann was called and installed as the pastor of the Artas charge which would include Herried. Later his son, the Rev. Walter Grossmann would serve for eighteen years in Hosmer, SD. Then John’s grandsons Peter would serve in Eureka, and Robert would serve in Artas and Herried. Today his great-grandson, James, has served in Ashly and now serves in Eureka. Together, the Artas and Herried charges were known as the Odesa charge which has an immediate significance in light of the invasion of Ukraine this past week and in particular the attack underway as we meet on the beaches of Odesa, the land from which our German-Russian forefathers migrated to this region. There is a strong Reformed influence in Ukraine even today as a result of our forefathers from the Palatinate moving there during the thirty years war several centuries ago.
As I reflected on the history that has brought us to this meeting, what is reflected in your reports, in our current history, and the perspective of most of you is that the LORD has sustained his church, and he has sustained you, both your congregations and you personally. Over the past two years, dealing with the various constraints of Covid 19 has put tremendous pressure on pursuing our calling in the ministry of the gospel. The threat was serious, and many of us suffered illness and even loss of life of friends, family, and in our congregations and communities. Mandates and regulations from the State have compounded how we function as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to preach the Word, to reach the lost, and to minister to those who are hurting and suffering.
Most churches were forced to deal with controversy, conflict and even schism due to the difficulties of these times and that is unfortunate given that the body of Christ is to view everything from a perspective that we are one in the love of Christ and are made a family that is to have compassion and care for one another. What is reflected in your reports is a realization that the LORD has sustained us and is now restoring within our congregations a relative return to normalcy.
The membership of the Northern Plains Classis continues to experience a slow decline. In 2021 our total communicant membership again fell from 369 to 362. The Northern Plains Classis was established in 1987 with a total of twelve churches and 939 communicant members. Six of those original churches no longer exist. Today we are at eight churches and almost a third of the original members. Half of our congregations lost membership, two stayed the same, and two grew. Over our 35 year history, we have added two mission churches. We have transitioned from the largest classis in 1987 to the smallest in 2022 by a wide margin. Brothers, the Northern Plains Classis is at a crossroads and the path we commit ourselves to may determine our survival. Historically, a Classis should have as a minimum, ten charges.
Every pastor here knows that though we may be small in numbers we are not short on work. Whether we have a congregation of almost 100 or under 20, the workload within our congregations is very heavy. We are a busy lot! But that is our calling, brothers. We are co-laborers in Christ and I emphasize “laborers.” Sermons, Bible studies, catechism, nursing home chapels, and visitations, along with Classis and Synod committee work, or work on pursuit of higher degrees; oh, and by the way, try to fit in some time for the family. Many of you mentioned that you have not had a vacation for an extended period. The point is that our churches are being faithfully attended to by you men who are faithful in your calling almost to a breaking point.
However, ouoweverr pastoral core is aging and we are short of pastors. Our church in Minot has aggressively been pursuing a qualified man to replace our dear brother Rev. Poe who retired in June, but without much success so far. With the ascending of our brother Rev. Brice last month after having preached for 66 years, this places even more pressure on the need to recruit and train a new generation of men who will feed the sheep and guard the flock of God. We have two more men in our Classis who are entering into the twilight of their years of pastoral ministry. Every Classis in the RCUS is seeking to fill empty pulpits, and this is the case in those denominations we have fraternal relations with as well. The laborers are indeed few.
We are thankful for our student, Mr. David Voytek, who was well received and exhibited tremendous gifts for the ministry over his summer internship in Aberdeen. He plans to serve this summer at Sacramento Covenant Reformed Church before he enters his senior year. Another of our sons of the Northern Plains Classis, Mr. Matthew Dawn is on schedule to graduate from Heidelberg Theological Seminary in May.
We praise God for this but we must continue to pray for the Lord to send the gifts of leadership into our churches. Many of you report the hope of men who are preparing to serve in the offices of the church as either deacons or elders. Others are in serious prayer because of a lack of men to serve in their church. We must recognize that tomorrow’s deacons, elders and ministers are in today’s Sunday School and Catechism classes. We need younger men to serve in our churches to help bring a perspective in this digital age of how to reach the younger generation with the gospel of God’s grace.
Much of what has been stated up to this point may seem negative or even discouraging. I do not believe it is. I think that what you must see is that our course as the Reformed church in the Dakotas over the centuries has never been an easy one. There have always been battles to fight, challenges to meet, churches to plant. There has always been a struggle to have enough men to fill our pulpits. But God has sustained us and provided what was sufficient to keep forging ahead faithfully in propagating the preaching of the salvation that is found only in the name of Jesus.
We have hit a crossroads as the Northern Plains Classis that the status quo cannot be our course. There are some in the RCUS who think we should just cash it in and be dissolved into the South Central Classis or some form of a central super Classis. I disagree and believe that would be a terrible loss for the history of the RCUS. But what is the solution? Well, we have to set about the task of planting churches within our boundaries.
As I read our Missions Report what struck me was that it was very minimal. It only spoke to interaction with and a focus on our one existing mission church. I understand that. It is what is necessary and easy. But we have to do more. Those who are to serve on the Missions Committee must recognize that they are charged with the task of saving our Classis. They must be about the work of identifying strategic places to plant new churches and coming up with a plan to seek out possible new opportunities.
The newly formed Communications Committee of the Synod has been actively seeking to generate leads for possible groups interested in beginning a Reformed Church. Two things have come out of this that should be referred to one of our standing committees for further development. The first will be an overture regarding appointing someone from the Classis to follow up on inquiries within the Northern Plains Classis territory. The overture recommends someone from the missions committee although historically such initial contact was carried out by the executive committee. The second is a proposal to pursue the development of the concept of a home-based mission program that may be a logical solution to our lack of both manpower and resources in developing possible church plants.
I feel it is necessary to speak to what happened with the boundary change between the South Central Classis and Northern Plains Classis in 2019 along the I90 corridor of Montana. I don’t want to assign blame because everyone got the whole process wrong. When the opportunity for mission work in Manhattan arose the Classis was not made aware of the situation and so a committee was not sent to investigate and a report to the Classis. The communication between the two Classes was also improper and outside the authority of those involved. The recommendation at the Synod meeting was unconstitutional because the RCUS Constitution requires the consent of the Classis for their dissolution or the changing of their boundaries, and as Classis, we were caught off guard when the recommendation came to the floor of the Synod in 2019. We failed because we did not know our constitutions and so we failed to object. We also failed to appeal the decision the next year because we had yet to become aware of the constitutional requirement. In 2021 as a Classis, we overtured a back door kind of objection when we asked for the I-90 boundary to be adjusted. So where should we go now? In discussion with the Synod President in light of the constitutional violation, he has a concern that this not happen again in the future. As such, he recommended that the Northern Plains Classis overture the Synod to reconsider their decision of 2019 based on its unconstitutionality given the period for appeal has passed.
As your Classis President, I attended the funerals of two RCUS pastors, the Rev. Gene Sawtelle in Yuba City, CA, and the Rev. Wesley Brice in Manhattan, MT. A letter was sent on behalf of the Classis for the funeral of the Rev. Thomas Mayville as your President was recovering from Covid19. Both your President and Clerk were engaged in several meetings on the Special Committee to consider the boundaries of the Classes. We found this very frustrating as from the very start we felt we were backed into a corner defending the right for the Classis to exist as the Northern Plains Classis going forward. I am committed to the importance of the Classis continuation for both historical and strategic reasons. God has preserved and sustained our churches in the northern plains for over a century. I believe we should fight and labor to be that light that defends the great Reformed doctrines summarized in our beloved Heidelberg against any and all attacks of unreformed thought for another century.
On a final matter that has to do with the reality that it is always a challenge to cover the number of committee assignments with a minimal number of delegates. Last Classis we moved the Classis meeting from Monday and Tuesday to Friday and Saturday under the premise that this would help more elders to attend Classis. However, it appears that the opposite is the case. One of the elders it might have benefited would not have been here either way. Another church’s delegates are not planning to be here for fear of travel in pending weather conditions. With a pulpit vacant and another pastor out with physical hindrances that leaves us having to be more creative than ever as to how we will get our work done. I anticipate that this issue too will be referred for consideration of a change to the Standing Rule, just to give our Clerk something to do.
Beloved delegates of the Northern Plains Classis, let us not be afraid or discouraged in all of these pressing circumstances but let us rest in the promise of God that His blessing is upon His people.
Rev. Hank Bowen