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Small town churches doing big things

The heart of a pastor: One family’s journey across small-town North Dakota

By Scott Harrup

When the knocking dragged him out of slumber, he saw that the alarm clock read 1 a.m. Not typical counseling hours, even at this parsonage. The man at the door was drunk.

“Are you a preacher?” the man asked.

“Yes, I am,” Bruce Gunderson replied.

“Well, I don’t know why I’m here, but I’m supposed to be here,” the man slurred.

Bruce quickly invited him in and just as quickly demanded that he turn over his car keys. The man’s story unfolded as Bruce’s coffee took effect. He’d been driving his pickup truck out of Carrington, N.D., with thoughts of suicide. A voice told him to drive into town and led him to the Gundersons’ house.

“I drove him home to his wife,” Bruce remembers, “and told her they could come back the next day for their keys. Funny thing was, next day he had to call me to find out where I lived. Yet God had led him to our house the night before.”

The couple had no connection with Bethel Chapel, the Assemblies of God church in Carrington that Bruce and Patti Gunderson have pastored since 2001. No matter. The Gundersons have always considered themselves community pastors. If you’re hurting, if you wonder whether life has any real answers, pull up a chair with Bruce or Patti and you’ll find a listening ear and gentle but straightforward advice.

Their road to pastoral ministry took a few turns. Both of them had been raised in devout farming families. They regularly attended liturgical churches where traditions had seemed to assure them of salvation. But Bruce had rejected all religion as a teen.

They married in December 1968. Bruce was 20, Patti, 19, and they had plans for a prosperous future and a large family. God used the birth of their second child to begin redirecting their priorities.

“On January 1, 1975, I saw Heather delivered and I saw her open her mouth and take her first breath,” Bruce remembers. “Her skin went from blue-gray to pink as she cried and oxygen filled her. When I witnessed that, I remembered the Scripture about God forming Adam. I realized I had been running from God and living in denial.”

In his living room three days later, Bruce knelt and asked Jesus to forgive his sins and come into his heart. He reached into his pocket and took out his pack of Winstons.

“I knew I couldn’t serve God and tobacco at the same time,” he says. “I crushed them in my hand and said, ‘God, I’ll take these out of my mouth, but You have to take them out of my heart.’ I threw them in the garbage, God delivered me on the spot, and I’ve been tobacco-free since January 4, 1975.”

The liquor met a similar fate. In his newfound faith, Bruce even struggled with whether he should dump the empty bottles in the garbage after pouring his whiskey down the sink.

“What kind of witness would that be to the garbage men?” he says.

That desire to be a witness for Christ consumed Bruce. He began sharing his faith with the contractors coming to the lumberyard he managed in Langdon, N.D.

“I was sharing with a backslidden Baptist salesman,” he remembers. “The Holy Spirit came on me as I told him, ‘What you need is Jesus.’ He broke into tears and became my first convert. We prayed together. He was reunited with his wife and delivered from alcohol and his job was restored.”

A few days later, Bruce was talking with Patti about his new life. She accepted Christ as her Savior.

Soon afterwards, Bruce realized God was calling him into ministry. He and Patti left his well-paying managerial position and journeyed to Minot to a local Bible school.

“We paid for our move and had about $40 in the bank,” Bruce says.

Patti was pregnant with their third child and they had walked away from medical insurance. There was no money for tuition and no income, but they knew they were supposed to be there. Without telling anyone of their need, they began to agree in prayer.

“My tuition was due on Monday,” Bruce says. “On Sunday night a man came up to me and said, ‘The Lord told me I’m supposed to give this to you.’ He handed me a check. I looked at it later and it was for $1,000. My tuition bill was $1,000.”

Similar miracles helped Bruce through Bible college. He had already earned a bachelor of science degree while planning to become a teacher. But even that piece of the puzzle would fall into place eventually.

The Gundersons plunged into their pastoral ministry with continued faith in God’s provision. They pastored an independent Pentecostal church in Watford City for 15 years.

“We accepted a church without a salary,” Bruce says. “No parsonage. We had three children. But I knew God wanted me there.”

And then the Lord laid it on their hearts to open their home to other children.

“We lived about a block from the Social Services office,” Patti says. “There were a couple of kids coming into the system and they had come to Sunday School at our church. We learned they were short of foster parents. They asked us to take them.”

That was the beginning of a ministry that the Gundersons have continued some 18 years, even as their own children have grown, married and made them grandparents. In all, about 35 children and teens have come through their home. Many have come from abusive backgrounds. But to a child, all of them responded to the quiet, loving testimony of Christ’s love that permeated the Gundersons’ home. Most of those children eventually came to Christ themselves.

Britney*, 12, is the current resident at the Gundersons’. Bruce and Patti hope to adopt her. She says this year has been wonderful.

“I went to Family Camp this summer with Bruce and Patti,” she says. “I was baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

Her smile is quick and warm.

The Gundersons’ next pastorate was to a congregation in Golden Valley. They relocated the congregation to a new building in nearby Halliday. “The high school in Halliday lost its science teacher,” Bruce says. “Without one, you don’t qualify for financial aid. So I agreed to fill in.” He became the school’s science department, teaching biology, anatomy, chemistry and physical science. The community then elected him mayor as a write-in candidate.

But when Bruce heard that Bethel Chapel in Carrington was looking for a pastor in 2001, he sensed God nudging him to return to the community where he had once worked. Carrington, population 2,800, is home to a large pasta plant and is surrounded by rich farmland.

Many of Bethel’s parishioners are from mainline denominational backgrounds.

Jeff Topp, 45, came to the church in 1978 just out of high school. At Bethel, Jeff saw an uncompromising presentation of the gospel. “This is the church I was saved in,” he says.

John Gallagher, 45, has attended Bethel for nearly 10 years. A veteran community reporter for the Foster County Independent, he came to the church in February 1995 to report on its new affiliation with the Assemblies of God.

“While I was here that morning,” he remembers, “they had a time for prayer requests. A man stood up and talked about someone he was witnessing to and he wanted prayer for that process. I liked that. My church wasn’t as involved in evangelism. That’s what attracted me to the Assemblies of God. It’s one of the most evangelistic churches going.”

The Gundersons came to Carrington at a challenging time for the state. Many young families are choosing to leave small towns for jobs in larger cities or other states. Bethel Chapel, like other churches, has had to bid farewell to its share of committed church members who have found work elsewhere. Yet, the church continues to support nine missionaries every month and look for ways to reach the community.

The congregation ministers to the men and women in the neighboring retirement home and assisted living facility, where Bruce serves as chaplain. And church members actively share their faith through serving in a number of community organizations.

“All I know,” he says, “is that I’m where God wants me — loving people and trying to be a witness to those who don’t know God. They’re right in front of you. You don’t have to go looking for them. They’re in your path every day. You just have to stop and minister to them and bless them.”

* Name changed.

Scott Harrup is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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