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By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – Part 6 of our series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church by focusing on the women clergy of our synod gives us a chance to hear a word from our second career pastors (or other life experiences that helped shaped first career pastors).  

QUESTION: Is this a second (even third!) career for you? What was your previous work? What, if anything, have you carried from your previous work into your work as a pastor? 

Pastor Joan Oleson: “My first career was working as a Christian Education director [as a lay person]. That brought the experience of working with volunteers, other leaders in the congregation, and as part of a staff.  It also helped me explore learning and teaching styles, and how to choose curriculum and recruiting and training volunteers.”

Pastor Ruth Overdier: “In the years before seminary my focus centered on being an active mother for our children, and ‘assistant pastor’ to husband, Fred.  I worked as a substitute teacher in the Kalamazoo and Traverse City public schools. I worked for a year as Library Director for the Interlochen Public Library. I’ve served as organist both regularly and part time, beginning in high school and continuing through the years. My background in music is helpful in worship planning, and I guess I’ve always been attentive to detail.  I think my family background—the faith and witness of my parents has been perhaps the most significant influence in my ministry.”

Pastor Jessica Rivera-Walker: “No, I was a ‘pipe-liner’ – college to seminary to ministry.”

Pastor Rebecca Ebb-Speese: “This is my first and only career. I went to seminary from college and to my first call.”

Pastor Julie Bailey: “I suppose this is my second career, the first being a nurse. I served as both a floor nurse and in management, both of which bring a wealth of knowledge and insight. As a nurse, I worked with people in the most difficult times and learned to listen – and be vulnerable – not everything I experienced with my patients was medical in nature – they shared their lives with us. Nursing also gave me a confidence to work with all people.”

Pastor Jane Mountain: “I’ve had several careers. I was a professional violinist in college and later I took voice lessons. My experience as a musician helps me in leading worship and also gave me listening skills. Then I became a family physician and a physician owner of a multicultural practice. This gave me an understanding of different cultures and skills for interpersonal communications. There was also a strong element of spiritual healing in the type of practice I had. As a civil surgeon doing immigration physicals, I became comfortable with a variety of people from all over the world. 

“After I sold my practice, I did disability physicals, and that introduced me to the disabilities community with whom I worked with later on when I became a wellness educator in the field of mental health. I worked as an author, publisher, consultant, and speaker. It was during this time that I participated in community and political activism as a board member of the Mental Health Association of Colorado (now Mental Health America of Colorado) and Founding President of the Mental Health Ombudsman Program of Colorado. In these roles, I learned skills to help me in my role as a Redevelopment/Vitality pastor. I learned how to meet and grow community relationships, and I learned business skills that are often applicable to ministry.”  

Pastor Kjersten Sullivan“Having taken three years between college and seminary, I am technically not a pipe-liner, though just barely. I think three years is considered the cut-off. Anyway, before seminary I managed the volunteer and in-kind donations office at a District of Columbia homeless shelter. The shelter was founded by an ELCA congregation, and the pastors were still very involved in the ministry. It was from there that I learned how congregations can be involved in reshaping entire communities. It gave me an entirely new perspective on what being church in the world could look like, and started me on the path to the work I get to now at Trinity [Lutheran Church, Battle Creek].”

Pastor Megan Crouch: “I am a pipe-liner… right from high school, to college, to seminary… so I am not second career. But I did spend a year on the Michigan Civilian Conservation Crew in college, and worked many jobs throughout school including after school programs, state park ranger, working in a movie theater, cooking assistant in college, security team, archivist, and janitor – lots of great life experiences that have helped me become the pastor I am today.”

Pastor Pauline (Polly) Stadley: “If you go back far enough, my first job was as a dog minder for my mother’s friend for a whole quarter.  F.Y.I.:  I was four years old.  In addition, I have been a baby minder; house sitter; house cleaner, cook, baker; toy factory assembler; retail clerk; secretary; seamstress; reader; public and private school teacher; and counselor. All of these have given me the ability to work well with people.  They have helped me live up to my mother’s teaching that I could be and do anything that I wanted if I was willing to work hard and pay the price. However, she was not always aware of the prices I had to pay.”

Pastor Karen Niemeyer: “Actually, this is my fifth career, and the perfect one to cap off the other four that I delighted in throughout my earlier life. First, for about 15 years I was a stay-at-home mom. And I loved it, as my family moved around the Midwest six times and my kids grew to be 11, 10 and 1. This was a time filled with moving vans, new neighborhoods, new schools, and new churches where I’d always find, or begin, a mom’s home bible study.

“My second career came along as my two older kids were approaching college age, which necessitated my getting ‘a paying job’ so I could help with college finances; but doing so was a challenge with a three-year-old still at home. God answered my prayers when one day ‘out of the blue’, my new Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod pastor asked if I’d consider taking on a part time lay position as Spiritual Gifts Director… during a time in the 1980s when discovering, developing and using one’s spiritual gifts was a hot topic and more and more churches were hiring and educating lay staff. I was fortunate to attend many seminars on spiritual gifts and grow in learning how to encourage congregation members in the joys of using their gifts in church ministries.

“After helping put my two oldest children through college, my husband gifted me with the opportunity to finish my degree, so I quit my lay staff job to go to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids full time and graduated a year later with a bachelor’s degree in business. (Prior to that time, I had attended Valparaiso University for two years, and the University of Michigan for a year.) It was while I was at Aquinas that I took on an internship at a marketing communications firm, and where, after graduation, I went to work full time. Thus began my third career: marketing project manager. It was during this career that I also pursued and earned a Masters in Organizational Communication.

“During my ten-year career in marketing, my husband and I joined an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church: Trinity in Grand Rapids. After hearing from some other congregants (who had also transferred to Trinity from my former LC-MS church)  about my prior spiritual gifts work, the pastor asked me to join Trinity’s lay staff. So once again I changed careers, quitting my marketing job and becoming Trinity’s volunteer coordinator. There I found that my communications classes on small groups, listening, and conflict management came in very handy. It was also then that, combining my spiritual gifts knowledge with my marketing background, I was able to develop Tapestry, which was a congregation-wide program designed to encourage participation in church ministries. 

“After ten years in that position, at the age of 67, I decided it was time to join my husband in retirement. However, I love going to school. And having graduated from the ELCA’s lay ministry program, I had always wondered about the possibility of attending seminary. So I decided to take some classes at the Reformed Church in America’s Western Seminary in Holland, ‘just to see how I’d do.’ I took Greek and Hebrew first, because I figured if I was too old to learn the languages, I might as well go no further in pursuing a divinity degree. Whereas I loved Greek, I survived Hebrew. So from there I just kept on going, taking a two-year internship and graduating from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago some seven years later. I was ordained at Trinity Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids in February 2017.

“Now I wake up every day amazed and ever so thankful that at my age I am able to be assisting pastor at Trinity. And looking back on my five careers, while I loved each of them when I was in them, I can see God’s hand in continually leading me into the ordained ministry in the later years of my life. Even now, after my husband has passed away…..and even now during this time of COVID-19…..I am blessed with a rich, and meaningful life.”