Final Reflection for Alternative Residency Formation Plan
Nicole M. Garcia
November 15, 2018
It was incredibly daunting to begin this last reflection for the Alternative Residency Formation Plan (ARFP). Over the past couple of months, I conducted 17 interviews and wrote approximately 29,000 words. Most interviews were completed in 80 to 90 minutes, but a few went past 2 hours. Every conversation was a true journey of exploration into the complexity of human experience as each interview was not asking a few questions and expecting a short answer, but an opportunity to hear how God creates so many different paths to ministry and how each individual is involved in a unique aspect of God’s creation.
Each person found God in a different way. Most were life-long Lutherans, but a few began life in other denominations and were somehow guided to ministry in the Rocky Mountain Synod. Not everyone I interviewed was ordained as ministry is not reserved for those who take a single path. God creates a unique path for each of us. God bestows upon us gifts and talents and it is up to us to get out of the way in order for God to work through us.
To give me a frame and consistency for each interview, I had a meeting with Pastor Sara Wirth and Pastor Dave Palma-Ruwe where the three of us discussed and pondered how the AFRP would be a learning experience. With the help of both of these pastors, whom I consider mentors; I conducted each interview utilizing these five questions. In this final reflection piece, I am going to address what I learned in each area.
What strengths did you bring to your ministry setting?
I approached this question with each person with the intent of finding out some biographical information. I also framed the question so the individual would talk about their religious upbringing and their motivation for going into ministry.
Everyone I spoke with grew up connected to a church. Some were more devoted to their church than others, but a foundation was set in their formative years. Looking back on my upbringing, I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, but I rarely went to church with any of the males in my family. I remember going to church every Sunday with my grandmother, mother, aunts, sisters, and cousins. All of the kids went to church because our mothers insisted we go with them to church, but our fathers only went to mass on Easter and Christmas. My experience was growing up in a large, extended family. My weekends and summers were spent playing and hanging out with my cousins. On our first communions, we got a prayer book and a Rosary. Unfortunately, most of my cousins fell away from the church after confirmation. I was one of the few who remained quite active in the Roman Catholic Church into my early 20s.
A few people I interviewed followed a path from college to seminary, but many of us took a longer path to ministry. In many ways, the long way around provided us with life experience that makes our individual journeys into ministry quite different. Pastor Liliana Stahlberg spent many years working in the church as a lay person because the Eastern Orthodox Church did not ordain women. I do believe if she was permitted to be ordained into the Eastern Orthodox Church, she would have been a priest at a young age. Due to circumstances, she had to wait until she came to the United States and become a member of the ELCA before she was ordained. Deacon Erin Power had a career as a server and caterer before she was consecrated. If she did not have the experience in the world of catering, she would not have developed the skills needed to plan and execute theological conferences and synod assemblies. Jim Barclay earned a degree in social work and has spent a lifetime living out what he learned in graduate school and in church—love and serve the neighbor.
I learned from each person I interviewed the need to trust the path God has set for us. My path has been convoluted and there were times I really wondered why I was where I was, but I needed to experience each aspect of my life in order to arrive where I am today. I am amazed how Deacon Ro Fesser started out in Chicago and ended up in Brush Colorado. She did not come to Colorado because of a call but rather she ended up in Ft. Collins because a friend told her to come to this state because a call to diaconal ministry did not appear in Chicago. Deacon Ro said it was out of frustration she ended up in Ft. Collins and she happened to be at the right place at the right time when she stumbled across an open position for a chaplain in the Eben Ezer Lutheran Care Center in Brush. I remember her distinctly saying when she completed her unit of CPE in St. Louis, chaplaincy was never going to be part of her ministry. She had a big grin on her face when she told me, “God must have heard me say never!”
As for me, I remember sitting in Father Bob’s office in the rectory of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Boulder Colorado. I was 18 years old and was convinced I should be a priest. We had a long talk about the life of a priest and the dedication and education needed to become a priest. I was ready and willing to enter the priesthood at 18, but my mother and her mother were adamant I not become a priest. I was the oldest son and it was my duty to get married and have kids. I was also told I was to go to college rather than going into the military as all my other male cousins did. Grandma had a plan for me and I could not defy my grandmother’s will. Looking back, I am so glad I did not enter the priesthood at 18. I didn’t know anything. I would have ended up teaching Pre-Cana classes to couples while having absolutely no idea what marriage was like. When I did get married in the Roman Catholic Church, our Pre-Cana instruction was led by an 80-year-old retired priest who read to us from a book on how to be happy in marriage. I give thanks for eight years of marriage, but I realized I was living a lie and was divorced. The divorce and subsequent gender transition were incredibly difficult events to endure. Part of me wishes I didn’t have to go through the experiences I had through my life, but each experience prepared me for a life as a Licensed Professional Counselor and as a pastoral care provider.
What were your areas of growth?
Pastor Terry Schjang and I had a meaningful conversation because she was able to talk about what it was like for her to enter a prison the first time and hear the doors shut behind you. I completely understood what she was talking about for I worked for the Department of Corrections for sixteen years. The sound of steel doors slamming shut is incredibly daunting. It is a grim reminder you will not be able to leave that facility unless someone else lets you out. It is quite disconcerting the first time and frankly, each time, you hear those doors shut. Pastor Terry didn’t have to explain to me what it is like to sit in a room filled with convicted felons and know if they took a dislike to you, the corrections officers would not be able to move fast enough to save you. Ministry in a state prison isn’t like ministry in a neighborhood church. Pastor Terry and I talked at length about what it is like to learn the culture and work within the system in a prison setting.
After speaking to these 17 people of incredible faith, I have learned each day is an opportunity for growth. From the youngest to the oldest person, each approached ministry with awe and wonder for they conveyed to me a desire to open their hearts and minds to the possibilities God creates. Out of respect, I did not include all the hopes and dreams I heard uttered during conversations. I was gratified to hear people who have been in ministry for decades talk about projects and ministries they still want to make come true. I loved hearing Deacon Erin talk about the different ways she approaches each conference or assembly so each person who enters a ballroom for a plenary or worship service can find God in a way they have never encountered God before. I learned I have to continue to grow and find new ways to express who I am as a one of God’s creatures and part of my ministry is to help others find God in their lives.
Do justice issues impact how you do ministry? (e.g., housing, poverty, LGBTQ)
The most passionate answers I heard in this section were from Ruth Hoffman and Jim Barclay. I also remember Pastor Andrea Doeden telling me, “I don’t preach politics, but I preach justice.” I heard time after time from person after person that justice is a part of our life as Lutherans. We are commanded by Jesus to love the Lord, our God, and to love the neighbor as ourselves. As Lutherans, we are called to be servants of all. Mr. Barclay was passionate about dedicating his life to the service of others. Ms. Hoffman was passionate about advocating on behalf of those whose voice is not heard.
Soon after I discovered St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Denver and fell in love with Lutheran theology, I was invited to become a member of the Reconciling in Christ (RIC) task-force. St. Paul had become an open and welcoming congregation many years before and the congregation was dedicated to helping other congregations in the synod become RIC as well. I became a frequent speaker in congregations in the RIC discernment process. I spoke at the microphone at 2007 Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I made an impassioned two-minute speech about why the assembly should support the Human Sexuality Statement. Later that day, I had the opportunity to speak for an hour with the Region 2 coordinator of Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA). A few weeks later, I was sitting in a room in Chicago as one of the “leaders” of the RIC program from the Rocky Mountain Synod. I had no idea I was a leader, but there I sat. A month later I was in another room in San Francisco talking about what it is like to be a person of color in the ELCA and in LC/NA. In July of 2008, I was elected as the Transgender Representative to the board of directors of LC/NA. The executive director, Emily Eastwood, took me under her wing and made sure I was provided with training and experience to become a leader in LC/NA. Eventually, I was elected as one of the co-chairs of the board and was part of the rebranding effort which changed the name of LC/NA to ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation. When I started on the board of LC/NA, I had no idea how much work it would take to be a member of the board. The dedication to the mission and vision of the organization taught me so much about non-profit management. The experience of being a member of the board of ReconcilingWorks for six years is invaluable.
Every person I interviewed stressed the need to grow with the congregation or organization you are serving. Each person wanted me to know growth is a part of life and we need to continually be open to the gifts and talents of the people we are serving for the best leaders walk with the community rather than dictate what the community should be doing.
How does the geographical setting of your ministry impact how you do ministry?
I wonder how some of the pastors, deacons, and lay people ended up where they ended up. Pastor Alison George is a relatively young woman with an infant, yet she was called to serve a congregation in Cheyenne Wyoming. She told me two men were interviewed as well, but she was offered the call. My conception of Wyoming was changed dramatically when Pastor Alison told me about the process that brought her to Cheyenne and the incredible outreach her congregation does in Cheyenne. Pastor Liliana Stahlberg said Dillon Colorado has a transient population. There are members of her congregation who live year-round, but there are many seasonal visitors who come to church on Sunday. New Beginnings Worshiping Community is located inside a state prison. The members of the congregation do not have the financial resources to pay the bills, so Pastor Terry has to spend a significant amount of time working with members of the community to raise the funds to support the ministry behind prison walls.
Brad Abbott, the executive director of Sky Ranch, has an office in Ft. Collins because his office at Sky Ranch does not have internet or cell phone access. Mr. Abbott has to ensure Sky Ranch is completely self sufficient and have the resources needed on site because it is a two-hour drive to the nearest store. I had a wonderful conversation with Mr. Abbott and the program director, Hannah Anderson. During our chat, Hannah said the two-week training for staff often raised personal issues for the counselors and both Brad and Hannah had tried to find a licensed therapist to come spend a couple days at the camp to provide pastoral counseling to the members of the staff during training. I am happy to say I may be spending several days next summer at Sky Ranch as a volunteer to provide counseling services to members of staff as I am a Licensed Professional Counselor.
Pastor Christine said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) dominates every aspect of life in Utah. She told me Lutherans are a minority and Lutherans must be well versed in Lutheran theology. What struck me the most was Pastor Christine’s statement that the LDS church only serves members of that denomination, so those who need help and are not members of LDS must find help from other churches. That is where Pastor Christine has found a niche.
I take my responsibility as a primary care provider for my mother who is 84 years of age. Mom has arthritis in her back, hips, and knees so she uses a walker all the time. As her oldest child, I made the conscious decision in 2006 to live with my mother so she does not have to move into a care facility. With her help, I have been able to complete a master degree in counseling and a master of divinity. I entered candidacy with the understanding I will ask to be restricted to the Denver metro area as long as my mother is alive. I realize the possibilities for a call are greatly reduced because of my desire to care for my mother, but I have faith the Lord will find a place to me to serve the church and proclaim the gospel.
What advice do you have for a new pastor?
One piece of advice I heard many times was to learn about the members of your congregation. Pastor Andrea Doeden stressed to me the importance of listening and being open to what members of the congregation say and what they need from you, their pastor. Pastor Liliana said talking to members of the congregation and learning who they are and what gifts they possess has helped her identify who she needs to approach in any situation.
What have I learned from talking with 17 different people from 17 different experiences in ministry? I learned I have to get out of the way and let God work through me. My own preconceived notions about people and locations are often misleading. I need to be open and listen intently to what people want me to know because when they talk to me, they really want me to know who they are as one of God’s precious children. I have also learned I must pay attention to self-care. I must attend to my personal prayer life and keep God at the center of my life.