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Embracing the Oil Rebound

North Dakota church in boom town sees rig workers as a window of opportunity.

When Sheldon McGorman became youth pastor at Watford City Assembly of God in 2000, the North Dakota community had a population of 1,300 — and falling. The recent oil boom appeared over. Two homes seemed to be for sale on every block. Youth left never to return.

McGorman, who grew up in Manitoba, Canada, graduated from Trinity Bible College, where he met his wife, Jen. After five years as youth pastor, McGorman went to work in the Bakken oil fields, which experienced spurts of resurgence with hydraulic horizontal drilling and fracking around North Dakota.

“My hands were pretty dirty every day,” remembers McGorman, who returned to Watford City AG as senior pastor in 2007. “God was preparing me so I could look a guy in the eye and tell him I knew how he felt.”

Soon after McGorman moved back, the oil field renewal began in earnest. In less than a decade, the number of residents in the community ballooned to 10,000. Residents had to wait to fill up at the gas pumps. People couldn’t find a seat in restaurants. Bread and milk didn’t stay long on shelves in grocery stores — where customers lined up 15 deep to pay.

Initially, most locals, including religious folk, didn’t embrace the newcomers straining the infrastructure. Yet McGorman displayed a different attitude with the influx of rig workers.

“I encouraged our congregation not to curse the blessing of God,” says McGorman, 41. “God is sending people from all over the nation, and even the world, to our front door.”

At first, single men comprised most of the workers. But soon married men trying to salvage their heavily mortgaged home or troubled family also appeared, along with middle-aged men who hadn’t saved enough for retirement. Before the construction of additional apartment units, some of the workers lived in campers, not a pleasant experience during North Dakota winters. In the past three years, more families have moved to Watford City in connection with the oil industry. In the meantime, the number of residents has fallen to 7,000, given the cyclical nature of the refining business.

While 130 people attended Watford City when McGorman became pastor, that number has risen to 400.

“A lot work heavy schedules and may only attend once a month, but they still sense that this is their church,” McGorman says. Because of the boom or bust complexion of the oil industry, the pastor urges congregants to not squander this ministry opening.

“Watford City could be a ghost town tomorrow,” McGorman says. “We have a timed window of opportunity to give our best while they are right in front of us. We don’t know when the parade will end.”

One of those opportunities is a Tuesday night Oilfield Christian Fellowship Bible study at the church, started seven years ago by Terry Kellogg. An average of 25 men attend the gatherings, which begin with an hourlong meal and conversation.

“A number of the guys are single, divorced, or have families living in another state,” says Kellogg, 61. “The fellowship helps them with that loneliness.”

Kellogg, a semiretired cattle rancher who formerly hauled oil as a truck driver, says some of the attendees pick Tuesday as a day off — if they have the option — in order to attend. Meetings include times of testimony and prayer, as well as Scripture study.

McGorman believes Watford City AG has no choice but to embrace the rough and ragged newcomers, although some church members left over that stance.

“We want to reach people who are far from God,” says McGorman, who isn’t the first AG pastor in North Dakota with oil field experience. “We try to minister to those with a lot of hurts and baggage.”

Similar to the strain on military families that face long separations, an oil field worker may not see his wife and kids for weeks. McGorman and his wife have six children, ages 6 to 19.

“God has called us to see people’s lives transformed, not to be the safe, old country church we once had,” McGorman says. “God planted this church and knew there was oil underground. The reality is Jesus always ended up in the most broken places, like the oil fields.”

Image by Richard Bartz - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7567599

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.