- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - At least two Bismarck-Mandan churches that have gone more than a decade without an official leader recently found someone for the job.

Karen Van Fossan, a 10-year member of the Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Church and Fellowship, can pinpoint the moment one Sunday that led her to attend seminary and return as minister this year.

“As I was moving from the front of the sanctuary to the middle, I had this sense of all this love passing through me,” she said. “I wondered is it possible I am being called to the ministry?”

Five years later, she delivered her first sermon as minister on Sept. 27. The church hadn’t had an official minister since the 1980s.

Likewise, the congregation at American Lutheran Church in Mandan went 13 years without a full-time pastor. That changed in July, when the Rev. Dean Johansen moved to town from Arizona.

He worked previously as a Navy Reserve chaplain, but his day job as a truck driver was wearing on him.

“In the middle of the night, it was getting difficult to stay awake, and I decided it was time for a change,” he told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1VGMdbE ).

He contacted the American Association of Lutheran Churches to inquire about serving as an interim pastor and accepted a one-year position at the Mandan church not too far from where he grew up in Fargo-Moorhead.

Van Fossan comes from a family of ministers. Her dad served as minister of a United Methodist Church, as did her mother’s father.

Still, she never felt pressured to pursue that path until she came to the realization five years ago it might be right for her. At that time, she had been a member of Bismarck’s UU church for several years.

“Once I found my footing at seminary, I felt so relieved,” she said. “I found a path to life I didn’t understand before.”

She had spent her career working in various fields, including social justice, therapy and playwriting.

“I could now understand all those things as ministry,” she said.

Van Fossan, 45, supported herself through three years of seminary in Minnesota by working various jobs. She also completed two internships, including a stint at a hospital in Grand Forks.

There, she worked alongside other interns and chaplains of various faiths. Patients she met with came from different religious backgrounds. Hers, Unitarian Universalism, celebrates a diversity of religious traditions with the view that many beliefs are necessary to honor life’s magnificence, she said.

One night when Van Fossan was on call, she got word a family with a 6-month-old infant in the emergency room wanted a chaplain. In the 15 minutes it took her to get to the hospital, the baby died.

That moment changed her life, she said.

“I had never met them before, but I loved them as if this was my child,” she said. “And yet, it wasn’t. They had a right to their own grieving. I was there to be a witness and a support.”

That’s part of her job in Bismarck, where she guides a congregation of 88 people. Van Fossan started working quarter-time at the church in August and maintains another job as communications director for Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota.

She will deliver sermons once a month. Other lay speakers, mainly from within the congregation, will take over on Sundays when Van Fossan is not leading, as was the case when the church was without a minister.

Marnie Piehl, president of the church’s board, said Van Fossan possesses a deep emotional and spiritual intelligence.

“When you have someone who serves in that spiritual leader role, you rally around that more,” she said.

Johansen, who started in August, said he hopes he can stay as pastor at the American Lutheran Church beyond one year. He spent years moving from place to place as a Navy chaplain on active duty.

Increasing the size of the congregation beyond its 25 members will be crucial to keep him as pastor.

“We need to double that for starters,” he said.

Johansen plans to reach out to people through letters and word of mouth. The church will host events, too, including a study of Islam that will be held at 9:30 Sunday mornings before worship.

He said a clergy shortage has plagued the American Association of Lutheran Churches just as it has in other denominations. The AALC includes roughly 100 churches nationwide and set a goal to call 10 men per year to seminary for each of the next five years.

For Johansen, the decision to become a faith leader hinged on job prospects. He graduated college in Minnesota with a criminal justice degree and applied for numerous jobs with the state.

Each time, he received a piece of mail informing him he didn’t make the cut. He began thinking about entering the seminary during his job search.

One day, he had enough.

“I said, ‘Lord, if this is another rejection letter, I will go and talk to the president of the seminary,’” he recalled.

Sure enough, that’s what he did.

Johansen, 56, said he’s happy to be in Mandan where he feels a sense of community. His wife and two of his children still live in Arizona, though he’s hopeful they can join him soon.

During the 13 years before he arrived, the church had several part-time or semi-retired pastors. They delivered sermons on Sundays and visited members of the congregation.

Johansen said it’s hard for people to commit to church without a full-time pastor. Nevertheless, the members of today’s congregation remained resilient.

“Thirteen years: That is a long time to be tested,” said Johansen, adding that is not necessarily a bad thing. “I think it helps you appreciate more what you have. It helps you pull together.”


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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