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Joe Natwick, '15

Mountain man: M.Div. student experiences transformative internship

Joe currently serves as Associate Pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Dickinson, ND.


Although M.Div. senior Joe Natwick, 25, spent his childhood on the flat, wind-swept North Dakota prairie, he feels particularly at peace in the mountains. In fact, Natwick says he first felt God's call while camping in the mountains with his church youth group.

"That was when my faith really took hold," Natwick says of that trip away from his hometown of Fargo. "I had a youth director tell me that the same God who created mountains loved me and knows me by name. I was really immersed in God's amazing creation and feeling humbled, but also having somebody preaching good news to me."

"Nothing is off limits in terms of theological identities. That’s what I love about Luther."

For the past year, Natwick interned at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Wash., which lies directly across the river from Portland, Ore. The region, with its rugged, mountainous terrain, offers ample opportunity for Natwick to take part in the outdoor activities he loves, and has capped what he calls a truly spectacular year.

"This has been the best year for me in terms of growth, in terms of theological formation and in terms of vocational challenge and excitement," Natwick says. "It's just been incredible."

Natwick says the past 12 months have been a whirlwind, and he's had an opportunity to plunge into every facet of pastoral care.

"This week, my chief duty has been as a photographer, and this is the only week I've done that," he says. "It just kind of happens that way. Things come up and exciting opportunities take place. Far and away the thing I've done most is preached very, very often. I've also planned special worship services, and since I'm a musician, I've had tons of opportunities to play my guitar, my trumpet and my mandolin, and to sing."

Natwick says he was drawn to Messiah for a number of reasons, including the opportunity to be part of a growing church.

"Some of the things about Messiah that attracted me are, first and foremost, it's next to mountains," Natwick says with a laugh. "Second, the pastors here--Luther grads Peter and Kathleen Braafladt--are a couple who have been here 20 years. They have a lot of trust in the congregation and they've been doing a lot of incredible things. This church started a second site, a satellite congregation, about 10 miles north of the main site in a spot that's growing and that has no Lutheran churches currently. On any given weekend, we have around 400 people worshipping here, and for the Northwest, that's humongous."

One unique program Natwick has taken part in is something called Theology on Tap, which brings together groups of up to 80 people to discuss their faith in a relaxed setting.

"Once a month we rent out an entire brewery and we talk about cool questions," he says. "My favorite one was titled, Space Aliens and Jesus Christ. In seminary, I had read a few things in which a theologian pondered what it would mean to our faith and our Christian identity if we found out that there was life on other planets. Even though it's kind of a bizarre topic, I'd never heard church people speak so clearly about some of the most basic tenets of faith, about Christology, about salvation and about original sin. They were these big Christian topics that really came out clearly in this."

Although Natwick admits the opportunity to go backpacking every weekend has been a treasured aspect of his internship, the best part has been the opportunity to grow in his faith.

"It's been such a blessing to me to be part of a congregation that's thinking creatively," he says. "Sometimes in this current season of the church where there have been declines, there's wariness about the future. At seminary I lived into some of that and was starting to think, 'Oh wow, this is going to be such a hard job. I don't know if it's worth it.' But then to come out here reminded me why I love the church. That's really the beauty of internships. They get you back into that place that started it all." 

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