Alumni pastors use innovation to engage their new communities.
As parish nurse for First Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota, Katie Kringstad ’21 M.Div. did home and hospital visits, foot clinics, grief work, and nursing home check-ins.
That job was followed by a move to director of the church’s children’s ministry. During that time, Kringstad’s pastor encouraged her to start writing devotionals and later asked her to preach on Good Friday.
“I was really being pushed out of my comfort zone, but in a good way,” she said.
Soon, parishioners wanted to know if Kringstad had ever thought about going to seminary. She made excuses for why it wouldn’t work until all those excuses were gone.
Kringstad completed her Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary in 2021 and was called to be the pastor of Norman and Davenport Lutheran Parish in rural North Dakota, making it the first time in two years that they had had a permanent pastor.
“My biggest learning from Luther was to be flexible,” she said. “You think that you have all these plans perfectly set out and then things happen, and plans change. You must go with the flow and be flexible, and things will still work out.”
Kringstad is one of many Luther Seminary graduates who have helped fill the need for pastors in congregations that have struggled to find permanent clergy leadership in recent years. As they step into new pastoral roles, these graduates are living out the seminary’s vision to lead faithful innovation in a rapidly changing world.
“We became very innovative during the pandemic,” Kringstad said. “While I was an intern, we got this amazing technology system so we can be live every Sunday on Facebook. It’s also recorded, and you can go back and watch it whenever you want. We were pushed to do things that we might not have done otherwise.”
Kringstad said this new technology benefits the congregation and has helped people stay connected to what’s going on. They can hear the sermon and not feel as if they’re missing out.
“We have so many who go south for the winter, so they can still feel that connection when they’re out of town,” she said. “And then we have those who are homebound or in the nursing home, but they can still watch it on their iPad. Even those people who don’t feel safe driving in the winter, or the people who spend Sunday at the lake―they want to stay home and just watch it.”
Another seemingly small addition to the church that has made a big impact is a new sign that lights up. It replaces a small metal sign at the end of their gravel road that was easy to miss.
“I’ve been putting up jokes on the sign,” Kringstad said. “That always gets people’s attention. I figured, well, if they know we have a sense of humor, they’ll be more apt to come to church.”
People are busy and sometimes it’s hard to make church a priority, Kringstad said. It’s all about getting their attention with “fun and fresh ideas,” she said.
“Our area is growing and so are our churches, which is huge here because a lot of the churches are dwindling and closing,” she said. “We’re blessed to be one that is growing.”
Small changes make a big impact
When Lynn Melchior ’22 M.Div. joined the congregation at First Lutheran Church in Battle Lake, Minnesota, in November 2022, she was excited about the possibilities. She knew interim pastors had led the church during the middle of the pandemic. She knew that the pandemic had been hard on the church, which was one of the last in town to open back up to in-person worship. And she knew that instead of attendance going down in the summer, it goes up thanks to an influx of tourists and those who spend their summers in the area.
“I remember being told repeatedly: When you start your first year, don’t make any changes,” Melchior said. “That stuck with me, but I knew I really needed to make a change because COVID had been hard on the church. It was losing money and didn’t have a good handle on its finances. It lost a lot of people, and it seemed stuck. How could I not make changes?”
Instead of a major shakeup, Melchior made small but effective tweaks. She instituted “congregational voices” during worship services, where she asked the congregation for input on matters that involved them before the closing hymn. She also gave them permission to dress more casually for services. That proved to be a popular move.
“This is a more traditional church,” she said. “I asked them to raise their hands if they wanted a casual summer, which meant wearing jeans or shorts to church was fine. If they really wanted to dress up, totally go for it. I have had so many comments from people saying, ‘Really? I can do that?’ I had parents saying it was easier to get their kids ready for church. I had one woman who was a health care provider who lives in the area. She said she was supposed to come to church with a client but didn’t have any dress pants. She asked me what she should do. I told her, ‘These jeans I’m wearing are the ones I wore to lead worship on Sunday. As long as you’re not in your bathing suit, you’re welcome on Sunday morning.’”
Melchior also started adding variety to her services. Instead of simply standing at the pulpit reading the Gospel and then following it up with a sermon, she often invites members of the congregation to read parts of the Gospel while she serves as narrator, so people are hearing multiple voices. She likes to add images to the readings, too, since an estimated 65% of the population are visual learners, she said.
“These are small but innovative changes,” she said. “The most impactful to the congregation was giving permission to wear jeans. It is giving permission to step outside of the box that they grew up in, which means you only hear the Gospel verbally. OK, if this is the only time they’re going to hear the Bible, let’s make sure that they hear and see it. If I could figure out a way for them to touch it, I would, so we could get all the senses involved.”
Listening to lead
The journey to becoming a Lutheran was a long one for Emillie Binja ’22 M.Div.—nearly 8,000 miles.
A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Binja and her family had to flee to Uganda when she was young for safety reasons. When Binja was 23, she immigrated to the United States, landing in Tacoma, Washington, in 2017. Her family was sponsored by the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services and Lutheran Services Northwest.
Years later, Binja graduated from Luther Seminary. As she was discerning what she wanted to do next, she talked to Laurie Larson Caesar, bishop of the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who had a church for her in mind—Creator Lutheran Church in Clackamas, Oregon. Creator Lutheran’s pastor had passed away right before the pandemic. After three years without a permanent leader, Binja’s arrival in July was a welcome one.
“I had a conversation with them, and I felt like if I was ever to start a congregation call it would have to be with this church,” Binja said. “I wanted to be part of their ministry.”
“It felt like it was the right timing for them, too,” she continued. “This congregation had endured so much during the pandemic. What really got me excited was amid all of that, they created these small groups in their church. They have a group that supports veterans and a group connected to the Hispanic community. They are helping those people in need.
“I thought, if a congregation can do this without a pastor, that’s so amazing. There are all these people who have a drive to be in community with others learning and doing God’s work together, and they do that. I wanted to be a part of that.”
She remembers being nervous and a bit shaky during her first Sunday sermon to her new congregation. But the congregation made her feel welcomed and right at home.
“Most people are just excited to have a pastor,” she said. “Most people will say, ‘We’re glad you’re here, and we hope that you’ll feel at home. We enjoy having you and enjoy having a pastor who’s walking alongside us.’ I really love hearing that because I try to emphasize that every day—I’m walking alongside you.”
For now, instead of making any big changes to the church, Binja is opening her heart and her ears. She is setting a foundation as she gets to know her congregation and they get to know her.
“Faithful innovation is us listening,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any way of innovating if I’m not listening—listening to the people in my church, listening to the people of my community, listening to where God is calling us to lean in more. We’re so quick to want to get things done, especially in our culture of achieving, that we sometimes move before we are sure why exactly we are moving.
“The key word is faithful. You must faithfully watch and listen—listen to ourselves, to each other—and watch how God is moving in and through that. Do that as much as you possibly can for as long as is needed. Because it is only from that, that you can produce the gift that God is planting in people’s hearts every day.”
Gregory Isaacson ’91 M.Div. became a pastor more than three decades ago after leaving a career in banking. Over the years, he’s served primarily at rural churches in Minnesota. Trinity Lutheran Church in Crookston had been relying on interim pastors and looking for a permanent leader when Isaacson joined them in 2011.
“One of the first things I did was lead them through a visioning mission exercise to determine where they felt their goals as a congregation were and to help articulate that,” he said. “Then we wanted to come up with some ideas that they could see pursuing as they continued as a fairly strong congregation here in Crookston.”
Along with leading Trinity, Isaacson serves as the executive pastor for the Northern Lights Ministry Collaborative, which includes Crookston’s First Presbyterian Church. In 2018, the two churches were both looking for a half-time pastor, so they came up with a solution to fill and share the position by hiring Associate Pastor Michael Ozaki. And the creative problem-solving didn’t stop there. During the pandemic, the churches added streaming on Facebook to their already existing TV and radio broadcasts and started hosting services and doing baptisms at Maple Lake.
“It’s exhausting,” Isaacson said about keeping up with the changing world, especially during a pandemic. “When the pandemic happened, I knew people were going to get into a different pattern of worship. It’s a lot easier to sit and have a coffee in their living room while watching worship.”
Now, it’s about reengaging the congregation to be more active participants in services. While watching at home worked during the pandemic, gathering in person is important for the community, said Isaacson.
“If you want people to connect, we have to give them a reason,” he said. “Here’s the purpose of this Sunday’s worship. Here’s the value of worship. But then also, what can we ask our people who come into worship to expect? And what is expected from them?”
Isaacson and Ozaki have asked their parishioners to consider these questions when coming to worship: How can I make worship great for others? How can I share my true self? How can I be open to what is being given?
“With those three questions,” Isaacson said, “if they’re going into worship reflecting on what their part of it is, then hopefully they will not only experience God in the midst of that, but they’ll be more engaged to see how that benefits them.”
Featured Image: Katie Kringstad ’21 M.Div. (courtesy photo)
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