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Christ makes the yoke easy for two PC(USA) churches in South Dakota

On Sunday, the Bemis-Holland and Castlewood congregations will celebrate a century of yoked ministry

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Together with First Presbyterian Church of Castlewood, South Dakota, Bemis-Holland Presbyterian Church will celebrate a century of yoked ministry on Sunday. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Two South Dakota churches yoked for the past century are set to celebrate their hundred years of ministry on Sunday with worship, food, fun and festivities.

The Rev. Duane M. Mullen, who serves Bemis-Holland Presbyterian Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Castlewood, about 20 minutes south of Watertown in the eastern part of the state, said as far as congregational researchers can tell, the parishes have been yoked continuously longer than any other yoked houses of worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

While worship normally begins at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. each Sunday, this week will feature one joint worship service, at 11 o’clock Central Time at the Bemis-Holland church. Worship will be followed by a celebration that will include cornhole, wagon rides and an FPC-Bemis-Holland water balloon fight to close out the celebration. Mullen suspects the Bemis-Holland congregation, which has 100 fewer members than First Church does, might prevail.

“There are 47 of them,” he said of the Bemis-Holland congregation, “but they are scrappy.”

The history of the Bemis-Holland church begins in 1881, and the Castlewood church was founded a year later. Bemis-Holland Presbyterian Church has a photo taken around the day in July 1923 when the two churches were first yoked. “That church was filled with over 100 people,” Mullen says of the photo. “It was packed.”

“An interesting thing about these communities is there are lots of people related between the churches,” Mullen said of the congregations, which are about 15 minutes apart. “There’s a lot of history at both places. Several families have been here since the beginning.”

After a year of helping to lead the yoked churches, Mullen said one of his biggest joys is serving two communities with “really different personalities.” Castlewood, which has nearly 700 people, is not far from Watertown, South Dakota’s fifth-largest city. Many Castlewood members live in that town and work in Watertown.

Two churches, two messages

When he begins writing sermons for the two faith communities each week, Mullen asks God, “What is your story and what’s your message for this church, and also for that church?” The sermons rarely come out the same way “because the communities are different,” Mullen said. If the service goes long at Castlewood, “I’m just late” for the 11 o’clock service at Bemis-Holland. “The country church just says, ‘If you’re late, that’s fine,’” Mullen said. “When it comes to preaching, I don’t look at the clock. If the sermon is long, I hope it’s because the Lord is speaking.”

First Presbyterian Church of Castlewood, South Dakota, traces its history to 1882 and its yoked relationship with Bemis-Holland Presbyterian Church to 1923. (Contributed photo)

Mullen’s first year of yoked ministry — his first calling in ministry — hasn’t been without challenges, of course. After being called to his current position on May 1, 2022, a tornado struck Castlewood on May 12. It passed between the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, but several houses were damaged, and half the school was destroyed.

“My first day on the job was June 22, and we knew the school would not be repaired before the new [school] year,” Mullen said. “So, we opened our church up to 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade and special education.” Physical education classes were held outside the church, and the Lutheran church opened its doors to kindergarten and first-grade classes.

“The school was in our building from August through November, and we served school lunches in our fellowship hall,” Mullen recounted. “You might say I hit the ground running.”

Once they’re done with worship this Sunday, neighboring churches have been invited to the Centennial Yoking Celebration, as have four pastors who preceded Mullen serving the two PC(USA) congregations.

“I have come to congregations that have been around for a very long time,” Mullen said. “They are surprisingly alike and surprisingly different.”

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