WATFORD CITY Having recently stepped into their new assignments in June, the Rev. Russell Kovash and the Rev. Brian Gross are excited about the seemingly endless opportunities that exist in being pastors of parishes in the heart of oil country.
During the Aug. 30 pastoral council meeting in Watford City, Kovash and Gross openly discussed the challenges of serving such a rapidly changing population.
The two pastors agreed. The top challenge is simply reaching such a diverse and fluid flock.
The Rev. Russell Kovash, of Williston, looks on as the Rev. Brian Gross, of Watford City, speaks during a pastoral council meeting Aug. 30 in Watford City. The pastors are excited about the seemingly endless opportunities to evangelize in the heart of oil country.
The Rev. Brian Gross, right, and Deacon Kris Ringwall, from the Church of Queen of Peace in Dickinson, concelebrate Mass during a pastoral council meeting Aug. 30 in Watford City. Gross is pastor of Church of Epiphany, Watford City. The Rev. James Braaten, Church of Ascension, Bismarck, is visible behind Ringwall.
Kovash is pastor of Church of St. Joseph, Williston, and Church of St. John the Baptist, Trenton. Gross is pastor of Church of Epiphany, Watford City, Church of Our Lady of Consolation in Alexander.
"I can drive from Williston to Watford and where there was an open field last week and they were harvesting wheat, [this week] is now four campers," said Kovash. "How do you reach the people living in those four campers?"
"We have to be willing, especially as pastors, to come out of our shell," said Gross. "Maybe instead of driving by those four campers a hundred times, one time I actually stop and knock on their door."
Both pastors agreed that their reach alone is not enough. Current parishioners, they said, need to realize there is a "serious duty to invite other people back to Mass."
While evangelization may intimidate the average parishioner, Gross admitted the process of reaching out best begins with the priest.
"I have to give my people every possible opportunity to first be converted themselves. Once people have that real deep interior conversion then you can't not share," Gross said.
"Evangelization is non-negotiable for all of us," Kovash stressed. "Father isn't going to be able to reach everybody. We must never forget that based on what's happening here in western North Dakota, we need everybody to evangelize."
Before the meeting, Kovash consulted with a parishioner who works in the oil industry and lives in his car. Kovash said he's seeing "a boatload of irregular sacramental situations" in Williston. "You have to kind of throw everything out the window and work with people where they're at," he added.
The pastors also mentioned the following as current challenges in oil country: creating more opportunities for confession, developing materials and handouts with important resource information such as contact information for local soup kitchens, shower facilities, clinics and other important offices, addressing communication barriers with non-English speaking residents and balancing the already existing needs of each parish.
Gross also addressed a common situation for clergymen in the oil patch: resisting the temptation to begin acting as a social worker instead of a priest.
"It's easy to write a check, but it's maybe sometimes hard to have the real serious conversation that's needed with a person who comes in," Gross said. "I will determine the needs and perhaps respond to that need, but I'm never going to let them get out until they talk to me about Jesus."
The priests are remaining grounded in their ministry as they face each challenge in the oil patch.
"What we always are going to focus on first and foremost is the sacramental and the spiritual needs of the people in the community," Gross stressed. "That's why our parish exists: to present Jesus Christ as he comes to us in the sacraments to the people who so desperately need him."