by Tracy Behrendt, Correspondent
As a congregation of nearly 11,000 baptized members, Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo, N.D., has made a
great impact through its mission and outreach programs. So, when Pastors Chuck Olmstead, '84, and Mike
Toomey, '01, began to talk about a new way to partner with rural churches, extending Hope's ministry outward seemed like the perfect fit.
What developed was a new type of internship program, one that would partner Hope with area rural churches looking for pastoral leadership. Interns would have what Olmstead calls "dual citizenship." Though Hope would mentor the interns and provide some large-church experiences, the interns would serve the majority of their time in two different rural congregations.
"This is a win-win all around," said Olmstead, senior pastor at Hope. "Rural congregations have the
opportunity to see themselves as teaching congregations. Interns have an opportunity to not only experience rural ministry, but also ministry from the perspective of a very large congregation."
Rural churches, particularly those that cannot afford an intern, were immediately drawn to the idea. But, with a shortage of interns at Luther Seminary in 2008, the program was pushed back to last year. Even with that delay, Rick Foss, director of Contextual Learning at Luther, is sure that there is no program like this in the country.
"When we first started, I checked around. I'm not aware of anything like it," said Foss, who was bishop
of the Eastern North Dakota Synod when Hope first discussed the program. "I hope that other very large
congregations would take a look at doing it. It's worth emulating."
The unique program has given Hope the chance to connect with congregations that would otherwise feel isolated from such a large church. It has also revitalized rural churches that are struggling with their missions and identities, Olmstead said.
But this experience isn't just for interns called to rural settings.
"This internship opens doors to possibilities rather than defining what will happen in the future," said Toomey, who serves as Hope's associate pastor and internship supervisor. "This internship isn't to
develop rural pastors. It's to develop good leaders."
Intern Jacqui Thone, now a senior in the Master of Divinity program, agrees. After 13 years in Children, Youth and Family ministry, Thone needed pastoral experience. Hope's program provided her time as a solo pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church and as a chaplain at the Good Samaritan Center, both in Arthur, N.D.
"One of the challenges was seeing myself as a pastor as opposed to a Christian educator," said Thone, who hopes to receive a call in the Twin Cities. "Being at a site where I was the only pastor forced me to do this."
So far, finding enough interns has been the only challenge for Hope, said Toomey. But with more rural
congregations eager to participate, Hope is looking to expand the program. This includes not only adding more sites but also possibly working with another synod and ELCA seminary. And, in this way, Olmstead views Hope's program as truly innovative.
"I believe Lutheranism is all about innovation," he said. "That's what Reformation was all about. This
(program) is as Lutheran as it gets in terms of mission, innovation and who we should be in our call to be Lutheran people."