December 6, 2017

‘Creating Room at the Table’ at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, South Dakota

Flexibility was key to the new expansion for Bethlehem’s growing ministries.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church is a thriving center of worship and ministry in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Ministry here is so vibrant, in fact, that the congregation had outgrown its space a decade ago.

Back then, every Wednesday evening, folks would squeeze into the fellowship space to partake in the beloved weekly meal. “It was not uncommon for people to be sitting on the floor for our Wednesday Night Suppers—and that was with 10 to 12 extra tables set up in the narthex for overflow,” the Rev. Jeff Whillock, congregation pastor, recalls. These immensely popular Wednesday Night Suppers promise “a hot meal and warm fellowship” and are open to the congregation and the community.

Bethlehem’s youth ministry, too, was operating out of a less-than-desirable space: a stand-alone building that also served as the congregation’s garage.

It was clear that the congregation needed to expand. “Leadership planted the seed for a building addition 10 years ago,” Pastor Whillock says. “Many people had been dreaming about this expansion for quite a while.”

Congregation members began organizing those dreams of expansion in the winter of 2012-2013. They named their plan “Creating Room at the Table,” and proclaimed: “Our dream is to create room for people to connect with one another and God in flexible spaces for learning, serving, fun, fellowship and worship.” 

Enter MIF
The plan for Creating Room at the Table called for additions radiating out from a central reception hall. The congregation went to work raising funds and recruited members with financial expertise to guide the selection of a lending institution. The Mission Investment Fund became the lender of choice.

“We invited proposals from local area lenders as well as MIF, and our team of accountants and financial people was so pleased with the package from MIF that they knew it was the best route for us,” Pastor Whillock says. He feels blessed that the members of his congregation were able to view the lending options with objectivity. “God has put some wonderful people here who, when they see God’s work, they support it.”

From fellowship to youth ministry
By 2016, the project was complete. The fellowship hall and kitchen were expanded at the east end of Bethlehem’s building. “This has allowed us to have sufficient space for our Wednesday Night Suppers, as well as have a two-part fellowship hall,” Pastor Whillock says. The expansion created a flexible fellowship space that can be divided according to space needs and to host several, simultaneous events.

This area also includes a new chapel, outfitted with sound and projection equipment, that is the chosen site for Baptisms, small weddings and funerals as well as Saturday evening workshops and adult education. When chapel attendance for any activity is greater than expected, folks can flow into the adjacent fellowship hall.

At the same time, Bethlehem bolstered the spirit of youth ministry and life-long learning by expanding the existing classroom wing. The congregation brought its spirited youth ministry back into the main building with a new youth center, complete with kitchenette and projection system. Now several youth programs have a new home: “Route 67” for sixth and seventh graders merging fun time with spiritual growth; Bridge 8 preparing eighth graders for Confirmation; and Peer Ministry helping teens to make good choices during their high school years. Expansion in this area also included two large, flexible classrooms and a Fireside Room for adult ministries.

The concept for the Fireside Room stems from a building the congregation occupied a decade ago. “There was a fireside room with a fireplace, TV and a serving area, and it was really great for adult gatherings,” Pastor Whillock says. “We wanted to replicate that feel in our new addition.”

These new spaces have created a more inviting place for congregants and community members to gather and grow. Recently, the women’s ministry scheduled a Fireside Room showing of the film “Hidden Figures,” the story of the African- American female mathematicians who helped facilitate the NASA space launches in the 1960s. Congregation members followed the film with a conversation about race, growing up in the ’60s and related issues of today. A senior health fair and a leadership training event were next on the agenda.

Finally, Bethlehem’s expansion established the new Re-Creation Center. This large multipurpose room on the south side of the property is often used as a gym—a vital asset for Bethlehem’s youth during South Dakota’s long and harsh winters. This is where Bethlehem’s youth participate in the national Upward Sports initiative—learning Christian values and good sportsmanship while playing basketball and cheerleading. Older adults, too, come to Bethlehem’s Re-Creation Center ministry for pickleball, yoga and more. This large space serves as one more site for worship on the growing campus, especially for the more “creative, out-of-the-box worship services,” as Pastor Whillock calls them.

Bethlehem members say that MIF was a steady partner throughout the lending and construction process. “I really enjoyed working with MIF,” says James Kuch, a member of the building project team. “They were very friendly folks, and they were responsive and practical when issues occurred. I was very pleased with the overall process from start to finish.”

Pastor Whillock and his congregation are thrilled with their refreshed ability to respond to their growing ministries. “We have been serving this community for 133 years,” he says, “and now we can continue our work even more effectively into the future.”