Wilkes to lead start-up of new WELS congregation

Jill Meier, Journal editor
Christine and Craig Wilke

If someone had asked Craig Wilke and his wife, Christina, where they wanted to make their home as newlyweds, Brandon, S.D., may not have made the list.
But the Wilkes weren’t given a choice. Instead, administrators of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church hand-picked Brandon for the Wilkes, who have begun the process of planting a new church here, Sure Foundation Lutheran Church. 
“I didn’t know anything about Brandon, S.D.,” Pastor Wilke said. “But the people who assigned me here, they knew my gifts and they knew Brandon’s and said, ‘You’ll fit here.’ So, in a way, it’s a trusting way to say I trust God to send me where he’s going to send me.”
Since arriving in Brandon this past fall, Wilke said they’ve found the community to be very welcoming.
“People are so friendly here and it’s similar size to the town I grew up in, so I find a lot of similarities. South Dakota and Wisconsin obviously have a little difference in their cultures, but it’s a very minor difference. It’s still a hard-working Midwestern town,” he said.
The church was named in November, and Wilke said the community itself had a role in its naming.
“We went out into the community, knocked on doors and offered free coffee to anybody who would answer our survey, which was really short. Basically, we asked what name do you like the best, and why?” Wilke shared.
Narrowed down to five names, church leaders wanted a name that best reflected Brandon.
“Sure Foundation seemed the best because there’s a lot of building going on in Brandon, and when you drive into Brandon, there is a ‘Building a Better Life’ right on the sign, which connects to the sure foundation you find in the Bible and with Jesus,” he said.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is a national church body that was founded in the mid-1800s. At one point, Wilke explains it was in fellowship with the Missouri Synod, which dates back to the early 1900s. The WELS has been planting missions around the United States for decades, and this year, Brandon is one of three communities that was selected.
“They saw Brandon as this growing community that needs to hear about Jesus, and we can we can be a contributor to that, too,” he said.
The Brandon congregation will be supported by three neighboring congregations in Sioux Falls and Luverne, Minn. In Sioux Falls, Bethel is located on the west side of the city, and Good Shepherd is positioned in the southeast area of the city. Bethany Lutheran is in Luverne.
“They have partnered to find this middle spot in Brandon, because there’s people that live in Brandon that are commuting to church,” Wilke said, estimating that number at 50. “Identifying Brandon as a growing community that builds 40 to 60 homes a year, that’s pretty steady growth and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping, and new businesses are coming in all of the time. We live out in the apartments in front of The Bluffs and I feel like there’s foundations being dug every day, in the summer especially, it seems like at least one or two a week.”
WELS church planners did their homework before settling on Brandon. A 2017 survey, based on weekly worship attendance and membership numbers of each church, indicates that half of the city’s 10,000 residents either attend church in Sioux Falls or do not have a church home. The numbers, Wilke said, opens the door for the Lutheran church.
Sure Foundation Lutheran will officially begin weekly worship services with their Sept. 20 launch. And like other churches in Brandon, they will likely worship in the commons of a Brandon Valley school. While no contract has been signed, Wilke said Robert Bennis Elementary is the likely choice.
Presently, the Wilkes are hosting Wednesday evening Bible studies twice a month in their home. 
“It’s a close, intimate setting,” he assured.
For their first studies, Wilke said members had to bring their camping chairs.
“We didn’t have any furniture because I had just graduated and we’re working on getting furniture,” he said.
In time, the church members will have their own worship space, and Wilke estimates that home will be constructed in five to eight years. 
“I would say five years is an aggressive goal, so eight years is probably more likely. But only the Lord know what’s going to happen to us in the future here,” he said.
Wilke said his mission is not to raise funds for the future building. For now, Sure Foundation is supported financially by the Synod.
“When some churches start, their first step is to go and fundraise, which is a step we don’t have to take because our Synod does that for us so we can focus on outreach and talking to people about Jesus. As far as the money concern is, we teach that offerings come from the heart and come from a heart that wants to give back to Jesus and trust that that’s His anyways,” he said. “The gospel is the main thing and that’s what we want to be all about is the gospel giving confidence and clarity. All of these other things are fruits of faith. They come from a heart of faith, not from obligation or from us saying, ‘We need more money.’” 
In December, Sure Foundation held its first Christmas party, inviting people from the community to the gathering space at Sioux Valley Energy. As a way to reach out to the community, attendees wrote Christmas cards to veterans and then delivered them to the local VFW to be dispersed.
Wilke said they are planning an event geared to kids this summer, possibly partnering with a local business. 
“Obviously, kids are a big part of this community and the schools are the central focus, so we’re trying to find our niche there,” he said. “In this new year, we’re looking at more ways to get connected into Brandon. With small groups, you’ve got to pick and choose what you’re able to do and what the gifts of your people are to serve in Brandon, but we’re just trying to make those community connections as much as we can building up to our launch.”
Going door to door, Wilke said he found residents to be receptive to his knock at the door. 
“We don’t go to doors necessarily trying to jump into a deep spiritual conversation right away,” he explained. “We’re more about finding out about the community and its people. We want to hear from people what they think about Brandon, what the strengths are, what the weaknesses are, why they moved here, when they moved here, that kind of thing, because I’m not from Brandon, and some of our people aren’t either. So, it’s a learning experience for us to hear what Brandon is all about, and that helps in my preaching and how we choose to serve and where we find our niche to serve in the community,” he said.
Wilke said he learned that residents here really do love their community.  
“I guess it’s not surprising now that I know a little bit about Brandon, but there was really nothing negative about Brandon, which was great. It was a positive response from almost everyone,” he said. “Maybe the most surprising thing is how many people I talked to that just moved here two or three years ago, which maybe that’s not surprising when you look at the statistics. If you’re out on the east side specifically, they’ve been there for two years, three years, and then you get to talk to them about why they came here, so it’s fun to talk to a diversity of people that some have been here for their whole lives and some have just moved here, but there’s always positive things to say about Brandon. It’s growing. It’s a bigger city for South Dakota, but it still has that small-town feel, which is kind of cool.”
The long-term goal, Wilke said, is to develop a holistic, multi-generational ministry.
“For now, we have people that are really excited and pumped up about this. We want to do these things as soon as we can, but the reality is, we’re a small group right now, and so our goal will be to focus on one thing and do it well, and then work on adding another thing, and little by little we’ll hopefully add all those aspects,” Wilke said.
Meet Pastor Wilke
Pastor Wilke said ministry was not his initial career interest, that was until two pastors at two different times in his young life encouraged him to consider ministry. He was encouraged by a pastor leading confirmation classes during his seventh and eighth grade years in school. The second came a few years later.
“When I was in high school, I had another pastor that that told me I could skip school and go shadow another pastor, which was really appealing for a high schooler, and so I did. We got to go visit somebody in the hospital when I was shadowing that pastor and read a Psalm to him. I got to learn about how he writes his sermons and I got to spend the day with him and ask him questions about ministry, about being a pastor. After that, I kind of thought I might want to give this a shot,” Wilke recalls.
To be an ordained pastor in the WELS, it’s an eight-year process, Wilke said.
He attended Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn., and completed his seminary at Wisconsin Lutheran in Mecklen, Wis.
“As I was going to MLC, I fell more in love with ministry and what I was learning about and doing, and I’d never go back now,” he said. “So, there wasn’t one defining moment, but a lot of positive influences in my life.”
The 27-year-old native of Fort Atkinson, Wis., met his wife, Christina at MLC in 2015, the same year he graduated from there. In 2017, just before he began his third year – also deemed his vicar year – the Wilkes were married and then moved to Austin, Texas. There, he served as a vicar for a year at Holy Word Lutheran.
“That’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “I learned a lot of things from that church and that experience.
The Wilkes then returned to Mecklen for his final year of seminary.
He well remembers the day he was assigned to plant a church in Brandon.
“For seminary graduates, they assign you. So, we sat in this big church service, and right after the sermon got done, they tell you where you’re going to go. They decide ahead of time what congregations need a pastor. They know your gifts and they know what your interests are. A lot of my classmates went to established churches. Me and two of my other classmates went to new missions. And so we heard ‘Craig Wilke, Brandon, South Dakota, new mission start.’ That’s how that works.”
Wilke is the first in his family to have a career in ministry.
Christina recently secured part-time work at Anytime Fitness. Pastor Wilke said she gained the job through joining the 24/7 gym and getting to know owner Jayme Smid. Christina graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in rehab psychology. She plans to return to school to obtain her master’s.
“She’s been just great in the sense that she said, ‘We’re going to get married and I’m going to follow you around for a few years. She kind of sacrificed and put her career on hold so we can do this ministry thing,” he said.
The pastor’s wife, he adds, has an instrumental role in the church planting process. 
“She does a lot of things behind the scenes that nobody sees, and since we host a lot of things, on top of that, she’s my musician. She plays she plays piano, violin and cello. She’s very accomplished in her music, and I’m not. Right now, we don’t have many people that can play instruments in our church, so she’s going to be our one-woman band,” he said.
Pastor Craig Wilke, wife Christina
Website: surechurch.com
Bible Study: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, two times a month. Contact Pastor Wilke for location.


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