Conference Minister Keith Mills, 65, dies unexpectedly
The Rev. Keith Mills, leader of the Northern Plains Conference of the United Church of Christ, died suddenly Monday, Feb. 1. He was 65.
The unexpected death, of undetermined natural causes, occurred at his home near Streeter, N.D., said his wife, Denise Mills.
Keith Mills had been Conference minister since 2013, serving all of North Dakota and one congregation in Manitoba. “His passion was for his churches, rural and rugged and resolved to keep the gospel alive in hard places,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president.
“His passion was for justice. He exhibited an inner strength and a fierce and dogged determinism for any soul beleaguered, ostracized or marginalized by those who wield power with malice. We saw him at Standing Rock fighting for indigenous rights, in D.C. fighting for immigrant rights, in Selma marching for racial equity.”
Born and educated in Ohio, Keith Alan Mills graduated from Capital University and Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He was ordained in the UCC in 1985. Before becoming Conference minister, he pastored congregations in Lowell, Ohio, Milton, Pa., and Minot, Granville, Grand Forks and Manvel, N.D.
“Though he was a city boy from Columbus, Ohio, Keith and his wife had come to embrace and enjoy the country life over the years,” said the Rev. Kevin Cassiday-Maloney, who chairs the Northern Plains Conference Council.
The Conference’s 50 churches have a total of about 6,000 members. “We’re small here, and we have a lot of challenges,” Cassiday-Maloney said. “But Keith was willing to embrace those.”
‘Very big dreams’
“He was very big in his dreams and very big in his efforts,” said the Rev. David Hartson of Valley City, Conference moderator. He remembered long car trips with Mills to visit churches. “We had hours of driving across the prairies. Our talk was always about religion, about faith. He had some mighty ideas for North Dakota.”
One of them was a “reconciliation lab.” Hartson said Mills had tried it successfully in several churches before COVID19 interrupted a wider roll-out. The idea was to bring people together across lines of difference, on purpose.
“His belief was that, even though you are completely different from somebody else, you can reconcile if you find something to work together on and be successful.”
Small, rural strength
As one example, Mills hoped small, rural churches of varied denominations would lead their communities in starting food co-ops. “Not in a traditional capitalistic sort of way,” Hartson said, “but a co-op that might include new immigrants. His large idea was that a community would be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, with all food and goods within walking distance.”
Mills wanted such food efforts to help build local strength in a broader initiative he called Communities Acting Together for Change and Hope, or CATCH.
In a recent outline of it, he wrote: “We have small membership churches that are in trouble, and these churches reside in small membership towns that are equally in trouble. We will not save the church unless we save the town.”
‘Future of the church’
Trying new things was a mark of Mills’ ministry.
The pandemic may have interrupted much, but it also brought isolated people together in a new way. Seeing that some rural churches couldn’t offer online worship, Mills started a Conference-wide Sunday service open to all. It usually draws 20 to 25 people and includes a lively sermon discussion. “I personally think it’s the future of the church in North Dakota,” Hartson said.
In Grand Forks, Mills led a church “through the daring process of selling their building to an Islamic group and then renting from them for a year before sharing space with Buddhists on the University of North Dakota campus,” Cassiday-Maloney said.
“At the time, the concept of a church without a building seemed a bit beyond the pale to some. But subsequent years have confirmed Keith as an astute reader of ecclesiastical and societal trends. That model of church is not so uncommon anymore.”
Tributes from colleagues
His counterparts in Conference ministry across the UCC remembered him as a friendly, storytelling colleague — and for showing up for justice. Among them were:
- The Rev. Shari Prestemon, Minnesota: “Keith persevered in his passion for rural communities, and long felt that the future of our churches in small towns and rural settings entirely depended on the health of those communities themselves. He crafted an ambitious vision to enter into those communities and bring them back to life … The Cabinet of the Council of Conference Ministers recently approved his grant request to support that work. … It said to him that his Conference, and his struggling churches and communities, actually mattered to the wider UCC community.”
- Edith Guffey, Kansas-Oklahoma: “Keith and I spoke late last week about him working with some of his churches and pastors to speak against a bill that was being considered in North Dakota about transgender youth. He knew exactly who to call and was anxious to be engaged with this. My heart breaks at this news and I am so sad for Keith’s family, the Northern Plains Conference. So many friends are now grieving as we are as we hear this news.”
- The Rev. Bill Lyons, Southwest: “Keith was such a caring and compassionate man. He pulled me aside more than once to ask how I was doing, to check in, and to share a joke or two. I give thanks for his groundedness and passion for rural communities, for rural churches and for our Indigenous neighbors.”
- The Rev. Phil Hart, Michigan: “He was such a good guy. Kind, thoughtful, steady and real. What a blessing to have been touched and impacted by him. Prayers for his family and churches.”
- The Rev. Gordon Rankin, New Hampshire: “Every time I finished a phone call with Keith, and there were many, he would say to me, ‘Let me tell you a joke.’ Not much seems funny at this moment. Nonetheless, I am inspired by the witness of our dear friend who invited us at all times to look for the grace that comes from laughter and playfulness and friendship and caring and love.”
The Rev. Lee Albertson, from the staff of the UCC’s Office of the General Minister and President, met by Zoom with Cassiday-Maloney and Hartson Feb. 2 to discuss a process for finding acting leadership for the Conference.
Mills is survived by Denise; their three grown children, Tyler (Debra) Mills, Connor (Angelica) Mills, Blair (Matt) Mills; and a sister, Kim (John) Parent.
A memorial service will take place online Sunday, Feb. 14, at 2 p.m. CT. People can register for it at the Northern Plains Conference website. An obituary and space for written tributes are at the website of Haut Funeral Home. The family has suggested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Mills’ honor to the Northern Plains Conference of the UCC.
“We all have a goodbye waiting for him — words left unsaid to a brother we love,” Dorhauer said. “Utterly unfair. One more, ‘Hey, I have a joke’; one more ‘canary in the mine’ story about his beloved Northern Plains; one more folksy tale with his Aesop-ish moral at the end to make plain what we could not see before.”
“I am most grateful for having shared laughter, healthy ranting, prayer, brainstorming and friendship with Keith over the years,” Cassiday-Maloney said. “His death leaves a huge void in my life and in the life of the Conference. But Keith would want us to carry on with continued energy of heart and soul as we can. Let us keep on being the Northern Plains Conference UCC with vigor and verve as God’s Spirit will lead us through this time of grief and loss.”
This article was updated on Feb. 3, 2021, with a revised description of the cause of death and with added information about survivors; and on Feb. 10, 2021, with information on memorial arrangements and a link to an obituary.
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