A cemetery fight was roiling this South Dakota church. Then came the armed guards
Attendees to a recent meeting at a small country church on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota found armed guards at the church entrance. Then someone saw an AR-15, prompting a visit by the sheriff. It's the latest development in a battle for the soul of Singsaas Church near Astoria, South Dakota. The conflict pits a divisive new pastor and his growing nondenominational congregation, who revived the old church, and many descendants of the church's old families, worried about the future of a pioneer legacy.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Rollie Trooien stood outside the plain white church on a hot Sunday afternoon, June 12, determined to attend the annual meeting of the cemetery association.
He was eager to vote on the association’s new leadership.
After all, generations of his ancestors were buried here, in the cemetery by Singsaas Church , a rural house of worship on the South Dakota side of the Minnesota state line.
Yet in front of him, on the church's front steps, were guards — armed guards. Their untucked shirts showed the lines of hip-holstered handguns.
Then there was the AR-15. Someone had reported seeing an assault rifle, a weapon built for a war zone, not a house of worship.
Trooien, 82, wryly admitted later he was beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of attending this meeting.
"I got second thoughts about wanting to go in the church, because if I'm the one they're after and they have an AR-15, I wouldn't have much chance — it would be kind of a shooting gallery," he said. "You hear about these shootings and that, and you say, 'I don't want to get shot — not today anyway,' so you put up your guard a little bit."
The AR-15 sighting was the last straw from someone in the crowd. They called the sheriff.
The armed guards at the Singsaas Church cemetery association's annual meeting was the latest escalation in the battle over the soul of the prairie church, founded by Norwegian Lutheran pioneers in 1874 among farm fields in east central South Dakota.
On one side of the dispute stands a growing nondenominational congregation led by an outspoken, divisive pastor who brought the old church back from the brink of closure and is eager to take a stand in the culture wars.
On the other side are many descendants of old families who worshiped in and sustained the quiet rural Lutheran church for generations, and who see the new pastor and congregation as a threat to their heritage.
The Singsaas Cemetery association lies at the heart of the conflict due to an unusual relationship between the well-funded association and the church itself. Whoever controls the cemetery association controls its finances — and the church's physical future.
At stake is not only what Singsaas Church is now, but what it means as a historical location and pioneer legacy.
The firebrand pastor
Without Pastor Jason Hartung, Singsaas Church would likely be dead and gone.
Many rural churches across America's Midwest — especially mainline Protestant churches — are dying or dead . Stricken by a shifting economy and social changes, their exit can leave gaping holes in the social fabric of surrounding communities.
Singsaas Church, too, was once on the brink. It was founded by thrifty, hardy pioneer farmers, all from Singsås, Norway, who traveled by wagon train to the area around Hendricks, Minnesota, and built a church just like the one back home .
But the church had faltered in recent decades. The dwindling congregation abandoned two Lutheran denominations since 2011, and then became nondenominational.
Just over a dozen people regularly attended Sunday service. The church seemed destined to close.
Then Hartung arrived in early 2019. Under the charismatic new pastor, Singsaas began to grow.
Hartung is no staid Lutheran preacher, and Singsaas is not a quiet Lutheran church. Congregants recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag and hear a reading of the U.S. Constitution during Sunday services. And the church has become stridently vocal on social issues of the day.
"What the church generationally has not done is stand, and it should stand," Hartung told Forum News Service. "It should be bold. It should not cower."
Hartung has become a lightning rod for criticism about Singsaas Church's new direction, both in the local community and for Singsaas' extended church family.
Earlier this month the church hung a large black-and-white-striped "straight pride" banner on a church fence for the Pride month in June, meant to celebrate LGBTQ people. The banner declares: "Identity is God Determined. Marriage is God Defined."
Then, it posted a photo of the banner on Facebook , drawing many critical comments.
"This is gross and you should be ashamed to call yourself a church. This isn't actually Singsaas church anymore. It's been taken over by a leader who is self-serving and probably doesn't actually care what God thinks as long as he gets what he wants," said a Hendricks resident. "It's sad and it breaks my heart for those who have been a part of the congregation for generations."
Hartung addressed the local reaction to the banner at Sunday morning service, June 19.
"I was asked this week if I had any regrets about dividing the Hendricks community, and I — not arrogantly, but confidently — looked this individual in the eyes and I said, 'I have no regrets, because I didn't divide this community. The word of God exposed the community.'"
There was plenty more afoot. Hartung said there had been threats on social media to get the church's tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS, a threat he shrugged off.
"We have broken no law and there is nothing to fear," he said.
Still, the distrust was mounting. There were rumblings that the church was going to make changes to Singsaas that would eliminate its spot on the National Register of Historic Places, where the church was placed in 2003. Recently a cemetery association member noticed the plaque indicating the church's status had been removed from the front of the church.
Meanwhile, the dispute over who controlled the cemetery association was rising to a boil. There was already pending litigation: a lawsuit over cemetery documents retained by a former board member, and a counterclaim arguing the board in place wasn't legitimate.
Nothing was settled yet. But the association's annual meeting was set for June 12.
Both sides knew the meeting would likely be a flash point.
Fighting for control
The Singsaas Lutheran Church Cemetery association has, as it turns out, a lot of power.
It was founded in 1995 by the church as a separate entity. The goal: Make sure that if and when Singsaas Church closed, there would always be funds to care for the historic cemetery, with about 900 graves that date back to the earliest white settlers in the area.
The association owns 40 acres , which include the cemetery and the church. So, control of the cemetery association fundamentally means control over both the upkeep, changes to and legacy of the graveyard and the church itself.
In 1996 the Singsaas congregation and the cemetery association signed a 99-year agreement in which the congregation pays rent by covering the cost of insurance and maintenance.
Nailing down who exactly is a voting member of a cemetery association can be a tricky matter, and largely depends on the association's bylaws, said an attorney and a law professor with experience in South Dakota nonprofit law consulted by Forum News Service.
Because association membership is made up of those who own burial plots, including descendants of those buried in the cemetery, the membership is now spread far and wide.
Others, like Trooien, are still local but have been booted off the Singsaas Church membership roll for, among other things, failure to regularly attend services. He now goes to church elsewhere. Yet he's still involved in the cemetery association.
So while many old church family descendants aren't active in the congregation day to day, they view it as their beloved historical legacy, whether they're legally a voting member in the cemetery association or not.
Who ordered the guns?
After getting the call about what was happening at Singsaas Church, Brookings County Sheriff Marty Stanwick personally responded, despite being out of uniform on a Sunday afternoon.
He found three men with concealed carry weapons posted at the church's front door. And yes, there was an AR-15, in a church closet.
No laws were being broken, the sheriff concluded.
"There's no law against having weapons in the church," he said.
"The entire time I was there, there was no threats, no shouting or name calling. it was pretty peaceful," Stanwick said. "Sometimes emotions take over common sense — and evidently at some point emotions were high before this meeting."
It's not clear who ultimately made the decision to have armed guards at the church.
Hartung said he and his family's physical safety had been threatened. So Dennis Evenson, a Clear Lake lawyer who has represented the association since it was formed, recommended armed security, the pastor said in a June 13 statement on behalf of the church.
"That was not requested by myself or the church," told Forum News Service later. "That was requested by the law firm."
Evenson confirmed he recommended the meeting have security, but said the specifics were left up to others.
"That was left up to the congregation to determine how that was handled," he said in a phone interview.
He was only aware the guards were armed when he arrived at the meeting, he said.
The men carrying concealed weapons never displayed them, Hartung said in his June 13 statement. And, "There were NO assault weapons present," he wrote.
Asked by Forum News Service if he knew there was in fact an AR-15 in a church closet, Hartung replied: "That's news to me." He said he wasn't aware of that weapon in his church on Sunday when he wrote the statement.
I have no regrets, because I didn't divide this community. The word of God exposed the community.
Something else happened on June 12 that is certain to further complicate the matter.
There now seem to be two boards of the Singsaas Cemetery association.
Those who remained outside met in the cemetery, viewing themselves as the voting membership of the cemetery association, and chose a new board.
But the group inside the church also voted as the cemetery association, and also chose a new board.
"The minutes were read and approved. The financial report was given and approved. There was the nomination of new board members, the votes were submitted, counted, and approved. The public meeting was adjourned," Hartung wrote in his Facebook statement.
The day's events will now be part of the ongoing litigation, confirmed Eric Rasmussen, a Brookings lawyer representing those contending against the church-supported board.
"The lawsuit has been pending for more than a year; we have been hoping that an agreed settlement of the issues could be reached," he said. "Unfortunately, that has not happened, and it now appears that the court will have to settle the matter."
Trooien, who says he was once a supporter of Hartung, has soured on the pastor and his approach, and disputes that those inside the church formed a legitimate cemetery association board.
"What would I call it? A wildcat effort that's probably going to fail," he said. "I don't know what to think of it.
"There's not that many of us old-timers left that are really able to get into there and scrap over it. And you hate to scrap over church matters, you know."