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Faithful in Little, Fruitful in Much

Small-town pastor serves in rural community for 38 years — and counting.

Leroy M. Aufenkamp has been toiling as pastor of New Life Assembly of God, a small church in rural Drayton, North Dakota, for more than 38 years. The town near the Canadian border has a population of around 780, and falling.

On more than one occasion, Aufenkamp preached after only one congregant showed up. Today, the church averages 35 attendees on any given Sunday. Aufenkamp, 67, has no plans to retire.

“I don’t consider being a long-term pastor anything great,” Aufenkamp says. “But if I can reach more people for Jesus and bring them into the Kingdom, then it’s good.”

Previous pastors at New Life, formerly known as Fleece Assembly of God, for most of its 85 years, averaged less than three years in the pulpit. But Aufenkamp has stayed the course, his longevity and faithfulness earning him the respect of townspeople.

“Most people would be discouraged and possibly look for greener pastures,” says Andrew Duncklee, a 71-year-old church board member. “But pastor Leroy felt a calling here and stuck to it.”

Known around town as the “community pastor,” he is a regular fixture at the local hospital, visiting not only his own congregants but anyone who needs a friend. He is careful not to step on other ministerial toes.

“He counseled with a family before the death of one of their grandparents,” notes Duncklee. “Even though the family was Catholic, they wanted pastor Leroy to be part of the service along with the Catholic priest.”

The fruit of his life and ministry is clear, but life in a rural farming community hasn’t always been easy.

Over the years, Aufenkamp picked up odd jobs to support his wife, Bev, 62, and their four children. He spent 23 years doing fieldwork and driving tractors for local farms from April to October, picking up jobs where and when he could. For 17 years, he secured employment at a local apartment building vacuuming, keeping the grounds mowed, and functioning as the local handyman. For 35 years every October, he helped haul in the sugar beet harvest, an abundant crop in the area.

“I would put my sermon together in my head while driving the tractor and then write it out on a Saturday night,” says Aufenkamp. “Sunday I would put together the Sunday night sermon, and Sunday night after church, I would write a column for the local newspaper.”

Aufenkamp shows few signs of slowing down, although he admits he had to quit agricultural pursuits in 2011 because his body hurt. He also felt God telling him to focus more time on ministry.

At an age when most men are thinking about retirement — if they haven’t stopped working already — Aufenkamp intensified prayers about the church making a bigger impact in the community. Attendance had dwindled to around 20 people, but Aufenkamp thought remodeling the church might help attract newcomers.

“Changing the interior is not revival and doesn’t cause revival,” admits Aufenkamp. But he acceded to a suggestion from son-in-law Brandon Culver, even though the church didn’t really have the funds to remodel.

“Brandon encouraged me to believe God would not only take care of our finances, but He would help us reach more people for Jesus,” Aufenkamp says.

Through mostly volunteer efforts, church members removed pews, replaced the nearly 50-year-old carpet, and began serving cookies and coffee before and after services. LifeChurch, an AG church in Williston, North Dakota, bought two TV screens and a computer for the church.

New people began trickling in before the renovation, but more came upon completion.

Aufenkamp remains up to the task, noting that his father-in-law, Floyd Beckstrand, pastored until age 78 and his friend James Hessler is still pastoring River of Life Church International, an AG congregation in Dickinson, North Dakota, at 82.

“As long as I have energy, I will pastor," he says. "All I’ve ever wanted to do in my whole life was to be a preacher. I don’t see a reason to stop. I can’t see myself sitting back and relaxing.”

Mary J Yerkes

Mary J. Yerkes is a freelance writer based in metro Washington, D.C.