The First United Methodist Church’s congregation had seen plenty of growth since its founding about 140 years ago. Now, the church is moving forward with capital campaigns to expand its ministries, preserve the building — constructed in 1911 — and make improvements as it looks toward the future.

Pastor Greg Kroger said the church’s relationship with the community evolved throughout its time in Pierre.

“When it started in Pierre, it was pretty much a missional movement — Methodist Churches and related movements in the evangelistic churches and united brethren churches,” he said. “We were among the first churches to be established in the communities that were being formed — typical in other communities in South Dakota. There was a desire to be there at the beginning for the sake of sharing the gospel. As the communities developed, our churches developed. We built buildings, we grew as the communities grew, and we became firmly established churches.”

Church and leadership team member Tom Dravland said the church was founded in the late 1800s when Pierre was a frontier town at the end of the railroad.

“The church was one of the first churches in Pierre,” he said. “There was a larger number of children in the church. We were the YMCA in Pierre — that’s how important and civic-minded it was in the community.”

Dennis Unkenholz is also part of the church’s leadership team. He found past leadership who built the current building in 1910 didn’t need a massive location to accommodate the congregation but were planning for the future.

“Their vision was it was going to be here for a long time, and it was going to grow,” Unkenholz said. “We are going to make disciples, followers of Jesus.”

When leadership constructed the building in 1910, it was for a community numbering around 3,650 people, comfortably serving 300 attendees.

But as the town grew, so did the congregation.

“It is amazing to me to think of how the church functioned and we didn’t have the additional space we have today,” Kroger said.

ExpansionsThe church built an addition to the building around 2007 that more than doubled the usable space and replaced other nearby buildings.

Kroger said that the addition happened when several other Methodist churches in the state took on similar projects. At about the same time, the church in Aberdeen did a major addition, as did the one in Brookings. In Huron, the Methodist church relocated into a new facility.

“It’s a solid facility, built in a manner after churches in Europe and other places in the United States,” Kroger said about Pierre’s Methodist church. “The biggest challenge is, over time, various systems require replacement of parts that may no longer be available. But through the years, those responsible for its care have done an amazing job to keep in sync with changes in technology.”

In connection with Pierre’s United Methodist’s 140th and the building’s 110th anniversaries, the church body is in the middle of two campaigns to raise improvement funds. One is a $200,000 capital campaign for several improvement and repair projects. The other is a $250,000 endowment campaign for new ministries and preservation of the facility — a long-term strategy.

AttendanceThere is plenty of service to the community outside of the church’s congregation. The number of people using the church’s space remains busy, and not all of the events, meetings and organizations are church-related.

The Boys and Girls Club used the church as the organization’s home for about a year during the new facility’s construction.

Other local groups also use the space.

“We open our church up to Boy Scouts, to knitting groups, to fundraising events, to PAWS and others,” Dravland said. “This is a community center. I think it will be here for a long time.”

Kroger added that many people in the church’s internal groups also use the building throughout the week, including Little Learners Preschool, older youth groups and bell choir rehearsals.

“We pretty much accommodate everybody, having people here seven days a week,” Kroger said.

COVID-19While some community organizations still use the church’s space, Sunday morning attendee numbers may have diminished in recent years.

The coronavirus pandemic played a part in reducing the usage and attendance the congregation typically sees throughout the year.

“For me, the largest service was Christmas Eve back in 2019, which was about 350-400,” Kroger said. “People were in the choir loft, all of the pews, chairs set up in the back — it was packed.”

Kroger recalled the annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner served to the community. In 2019, it had 800 people, but the church has put the dinner on hold due to COVID-19.

“And we have not been able to hold some of the other signature events of the church,” Kroger said. “Like the Halloween party that has had around 500 kids and adults. Next year is still to be determined. We thought we would be back this year, but circumstances didn’t allow that.”

Kroger said that it’s not only a question of health for the community but not wanting to put volunteers in a situation that could endanger their health.

“Since the vaccines have been widely available, we have relaxed the expectations to wear masks,” he said. “We would hope those who have not been vaccinated would wear masks, but we don’t ask — it’s their decision. We continue to make masks available and have hand sanitizer available. And we shifted meetings, such as the choir practices are now in the sanctuary rather than in the much more compact choir room. We find worship attendance is now back to about 60 percent from pre-COVID.”

Changing dynamics

But the entire decline may not fall entirely on COVID-19. The overall number of in-person Sunday morning attendance decreased, and some of it might be due to changing times outside of COVID-19.

“The congregation is currently around 400, with about 150-200 attending at 75-100 for each of the two Sunday services, and another couple of hundred on Facebook,” Kroger said. “The church, as a mainline denominational church, has experienced the same changes and dynamics as other mainline denominations. We have seen our congregation has been an aging congregation. The overall worship attendance has dropped, as it has in many churches. The relationship of the church to the culture has shifted. We are still very much engaged in the core functions of what it means to be a church — worship, discipleship and mission outreach.”

Dravland and his wife found more youth and member involvement with the congregation when they began attending in 1984.

“There’s been a reduction in the number of people, for one reason or another, who regularly attend church on Sundays, and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with our church,” Dravland said. “This facility has been here 110 years, and I hope we have at least another 110 years serving the needs of not just the people who worship here but the whole community.”

Unkenholz sensed an aging population among the congregation might be impacting the numbers.

“We did a self-assessment about six to eight years ago, and there was a pretty fair distribution of most age groups that called this their church,” he said. “The reality of it is those of us who show up on Sunday are the older folks. I agree in why the people are coming here, to connect with their church family.”

Despite the changes brought on by aging populations, COVID-19 and other factors, the congregation’s leadership is still looking to the future with its capital campaigns to keep up with needed building improvements.

But as necessary as the building might be, the individuals who make up the congregation are the most important part of the church.

“This is a facility for the gathering of the faithful and people who want to be in community with other Christians,” Dravland said. “That’s what church really is. The church isn’t this building. The church is the people. But you talk about the building itself — the brick and mortar — the original 150 members had a vision.”

Del Bartels | 605-224-7301

Reporter Del Bartels, a born and raised South Dakotan and a graduate from Black Hills State University, was the editor of a weekly newspaper for 17 years.

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