Grace. Easter. The Final Week/Holy Week/Passion Week. These are familiar terms that all Christians share. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. Easter is the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The Final Week contains the events that happened between Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his execution and resurrection.
These words have a double meaning for me today. They have the first meaning, because yesterday was Palm Sunday and we are about to walk through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter; like we do every year.
There is a second meaning for me today, however. Yesterday I officially received a call from Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN to be the Pastor of Family Faith, and this is my final week at Grace Lutheran Church in Andover, MN. Easter Sunday is my last day at Grace.
The Back Story, For Those Who Are Interested
Two months ago, Pastor Kris Capel called me up and asked if I would be interested in this position. We first met at the Bishop’s Theological Conference in Brainerd last September during a God-orchestrated conversation. I hit her radar at that point, but she didn’t think I was interested or looking for another associate position. They pursued another candidate, extended a call, and, at the last minute, the candidate declined. That sent Kris back to the drawing board. She listed all the qualities she wanted in this new pastor and said, “That sounds like Steve. I should give him a call.”
Thank you Holy Spirit.
We’ve been traveling through the call process since that phone call: Two interviews with the call committee, an interview with the Bishop (new Synod), a meeting with the Vision Board, a couple of meetings with the staff, a recommendation from the Call Committee to the Vision Board, a recommendation from the Vision Board to the congregation, a three-week waiting period, and a special Congregational Meeting (yesterday) to vote.
Now, for those of you who do not know the Lutheran process and have wondered why I went ahead and sold my house and started looking for a house before the official vote, let me explain. A congregation appoints a call committee to do all the hard work of finding and vetting a candidate. Once the call committee recommends a candidate, it’s practically a done deal, but not technically. The congregational vote is like that old wedding tradition when the pastor says, “Does anyone see any reason why these two should not be married?” The congregational vote allows an opportunity for an unknown minority to voice its opinion and block a candidate from coming, for whatever reason.
Yesterday, while I was sitting with my extended family at dinner, celebrating my Dad’s 79th birthday, I received a FaceTime call from Pastor Kris. She had me on her phone in front of the congregational meeting crowd. She said, “Hey, do you want to be our pastor?”
“Yes,” I said, and the crowd went wild.
The vote was unanimous. We’re moving to Easter!
That’s a good thing, because we already sold our house and we placed an offer on a house on Saturday. Kris’s call relieved the first tension of the day. A couple of hours later, Sara, our realtor, called and relieved the second tension. The seller accepted our offer with no counter offer. We have a place to live!
Yes, it was a leap of faith to move forward with the house sale, but it was a pretty calculated risk. Now it is official and we move full steam ahead.
Reflections on Grace
So, today, I stand at the beginning of my final week at Grace. This place has lived up to its name for me. Pastor Mark Hellmann found me in a sad state. I considered myself a two-time loser in ministry. I walked away from Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV to plant a house church in 2002. The house church died in 2007. It hurt so bad that I vowed I would never be a pastor again. God told me to move to Minnesota to get a PhD, but I had no idea where to get one or how I could afford it if I did. We lost our Vegas house in a short sale and lost all financial security in the process. I tried to make it as a freelance artist for two and a half years. I worked my fingers off, only to slowly slip deeper into debt.
Following the Cloud almost never leads us in the way we would have planned or desired. This is what we often call the Wilderness.
Then my Dad introduced me to Pastor Mark. He welcomed me into his life and was patient with me. When he first invited me to work with his staff, I declined. He waited. Slowly, the Spirit nudged me to consider it. I began as a consultant, working ten hours per week to help the staff and leadership implement the Focus 20/20 vision they had so diligently crafted over the previous two years.
I began to preach and teach an adult class in January 2010. The congregation warmly welcomed me and my family and I was reminded of my true passion and calling to preach, teach, and help people grow deeper in the love of God.
I also began exploring Lutheran theology and the vision of the ELCA. It felt like I had come home. Lutheran theology understands God’s Grace and presence in the world in a way that resonates with how I had been interpreting scripture and growing theologically over the past decade. I became increasingly uncomfortable in my home tribe. Lutheran theology opened a new path for me.
I surrendered to God and to Pastor Mark in March of 2010. “If God wants me to be an ELCA pastor, then that’s what I will do.”
That’s when Pastor Mark said, “I think you should pursue a PhD.”
He introduced me to Dr. Craig Van Gelder at Luther Seminary. By the end of 2010 I was applying to the PhD program in Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary and applying to transfer my ordination into the ELCA. Plus, the youth director at Grace had quit unexpectedly just before I came there. In late August, the Spirit gave me the final nudge to take on Youth ministry and go full-time at Grace.
Fast-forward seven and a half years. I’ve had the privilege to lead six classes of students through Confirmation, supervise the Children’s Ministry staff, hire a full-time Director of Youth and Family Ministries, travel on Mission Trips, raise my adolescent children to adulthood along with many other families, be a total goofball at VBS, teach hundreds of hours of adult classes, preach nearly 200 sermons, preside over baptisms, funerals and weddings, do some memorable live art services, become a rostered ELCA pastor, get a PhD in Congregational Mission and Leadership, and make lots of friends along the way.
Thank you Pastor Mark. Thank you Grace.
Now, that chapter of my life will be laid to rest. Like all of life, things are planted, they grow, they produce fruit, then they die and plant new seeds. This is called resurrection.
This is Easter.
My final day at Grace is Easter, and Easter is my resurrection into a new call. The Holy Spirit cycle continues.
Thanks be to God.