Unique gifts: Luther alums send church staff to seminary
by Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent
An act of kindness extended to Matt Valan during his seminary days has led him to pay that generosity forward three times so far.
Valan, ‘93, has served as senior pastor at Christ the King Lutheran in Moorhead, Minn., since 1997. During that time, he and his wife, Kathy, ‘96, have found a way to support three church staff members in pursuing their own seminary education with a combination of flexible work schedules and encouragement to study during traditional work hours.
Valan traces the idea back to his own experiences as a student, when another church he worked with offered him a similar arrangement.
"Where this came from is that I was once in a similar situation,” Valan says of the unique arrangement between the church and some of its staff. “I didn’t go through seminary until I was in my late 30s. A church called me up and said they were aware of the youth ministry gifts I had. They said, ‘If you come and work for us during your four years of school, we will pay you a modest salary and you give us Wednesday nights and Sundays and summer trips and whatever else works. The rest of the time, you shut your door and be a seminary student.’ I was just so thankful for that gift. As a young father, there was no way I could have done it otherwise. So I’ve tried to do that here.”
Valan says he is constantly looking for individuals who display gifts that indicate that seminary might be an option for them.
“If I see someone that truly loves people and loves God, and essentially, keeps those two precepts of Jesus: Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself … I will approach that person and say, ‘Have you ever considered following your call into seminary?’ And then we basically say, ‘We’ll hire you and you can do your job for us, but we’ll give you as much time as you need to get your degree.’ And that’s worked wonderfully.”
The first Christ the King staff person to benefit from this arrangement was Laurie Neill, ’12, who has since gone on to become the pastor of First Lutheran Church in Fargo, N.D.
“With Laurie, she came to our church as a single mom, and the only reason she came here was that we were the only church offering a Wednesday night service,” Valan says. “All of a sudden, we noticed this woman had amazing gifts. We asked her to work for us five hours a week, and the next year, it became 10 hours and for a couple of years, that’s what she did. At about year five, we said, ‘Would you like to go down to [Luther Seminary] and explore the possibilities they have?’”
A second staff member, Michele Jenson, is currently in her first year of the M.Div. program. Jenson has been a longtime staff member at the church, serving as “everything from council president to director of hospitality to children’s ministry director to contemporary bandleader,” Valan says. “A year ago, she and I went out to lunch and I said, ‘Look, you’re in your 40s, now’s the time. If you want to be a pastor, let’s make this happen.’ And now she’s finishing up her first year.”
In addition, the church’s director of children’s ministry and office manager, Jessica Thielke, graduated from Luther in May.
“Jessica had been a student intern here during her years at Concordia,” Valan says. “We called her up two years ago and said, ‘Would you like to come work for us in Moorhead?’ She said, ‘Not really. I’m happy [where I’m at].’ And I said, ‘I remember you’ve always wanted to do some advanced education. If you come to work for us here in Moorhead, we’ll give you all the time that you need to study. Do your job, but whenever it’s quiet, shut your door, write your papers and study.’”
With that inducement, Thielke accepted the job.
“I have been blessed with a supportive congregation and staff while I’ve been pursuing my degree,” says Thielke, who received her Master of Arts in children, youth and family ministry. “The staff has been very generous in gifting me time. Pastor Matt has also given me the freedom to try out what I am actively learning, which has been a great way to get a ‘hands-on’ piece with what I am learning in the classroom.”
Valan insists that this somewhat unusual arrangement benefits both sides of the equation.
“What we receive as a congregation, and we’ve seen it in all three situations, are the fresh ideas that emerge from the seminary, whether in preaching or administration or youth and family ministry,” he says. “They’ll come back from spending time at the seminary and they just inspire us.”