Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Changing circumstances propel Mindekirken into new era

Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church fills pastoral vacancy “in a new way”

Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, the ELCA congregation in south Minneapolis better known as Mindekirken, departed from two 87-year-old precedents when it installed its new pastor August 2. The Rev. Kristin Sundt is both the first woman to lead the parish and its first non-Lutheran pastor. Though baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran state church in Norway, she switched to the Norwegian branch of the United Methodist Church as a young adult and was ordained, and is on the clergy roster in, that denomination.

Two factors unique in 2009 played major roles in Mindekirken’s decision to reach outside the ranks of the Norwegian state church, the congregation’s traditional source for its pastors. The Norwegian church is experiencing a shortage of pastors, Mindekirken leaders said. They received only one application from a pastor of the Norwegian church and that candidate later withdrew for personal reasons, leaving Sundt as the lone applicant.

That situation didn’t dim the call committee’s enthusiasm in recommending her, however. “We believe Pastor Sundt is the answer to the congregation’s prayers for our next pastor in light of the shortage of pastors in Norway and the poor economic times,” Robert J. Hanson, chair of the committee wrote in a letter to the church council in March.

Equally important was the fact that a proposal for full communion with the United Methodist Church was on the agenda of the ELCA for its August assembly in Minneapolis and was expected at press time to pass. A similar agreement had previously been reached between the Lutheran state church in Norway and the Norwegian branch of the United Methodist Church. The anticipated action at the chruchwide assembly was cited by officials of the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod in indicating that a call to Pastor Sundt would not cause any problem, said Darlene Nordos, president of the Mindekirken congregation.

In her letter of application, Sundt called attention to the Lutheran-Methodist agreements in Norway and the United States as reasons she was seeking a call to Mindekirken.

The recent difficulty in getting clergy applicants from Norway is aggravated by the fact that a stay more than three years in the United States affects their pension, Nordos said. In addition, they are not guaranteed a return to their previous position. Most pastors who have come to Mindekirken from Norway stay from two to five years, usually around three years, according to the president. The church’s departing pastor, Per Inge Vik, and his wife, Karin, have returned to Norway after a three-year stay in Minneapolis.

“We want a Norwegian-speaking, Norwegian-born pastor,” Nordos said, referring to basic requirements for a pastor at Mindekirken. The congregation continues to offer regular worship services in both Norwegian and English.

Another qualification Mindekirken seeks in its pastors, Nordos said, is the ability to “keep our church in touch with how things are done in modern Norway.” Sundt, a 51-year-old widow and mother of two daughters, is a native of Vinstra, Norway, and easily meets Mindekirken’s preference for a Norwegian-born, Norwegian-speaking pastor.

Shortly after completing theological studies at Methodist seminaries in Bergen, Norway, and Delaware, Ohio, she married an American Presbyterian pastor from Baltimore, the Rev. J. David Espey. As newlyweds in 1983 they lived in Stavanger, Norway, where Espey served as an associate pastor of Stavanger International Church and Sundt as a youth pastor at the Methodist church in that city.

The family returned to the United States in 1986, and since then Sundt has served a Methodist congregation in Wisconsin and Presbyterian parishes in Florida, Utah, and Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to Mindekirken, she served for six years as pastoral assistant and director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, New York. Her husband died in 2002 from end-stage kidney disease.

Sundt told the call committee she has a solid knowledge of the Lutheran state church in Norway, both from her growing-up years and from attending worship services there during her annual visits to family and friends in Norway.

“I am in a unique position as a Norwegian based in America by having a working know-ledge and understanding of current church life in the U.S., while maintaining close ties and relationships to Norway,” she said.

When it became clear that the call committee was focusing on Sundt last spring, leaders decided to call a congregation meeting to gauge members’ reaction to the possibility of having a Methodist pastor, Nordos said. Some church members at the meeting voiced alarm, she said, but after a lot of discussion the issue didn’t seem like a total stumbling block.

Only then, Nordos said, did the committee announce that the leading candidate was also a woman — another first for Mindekirken. At that point Sundt came to Minneapolis and made a special effort to visit with members who were most concerned, the president said.

“I think that people were very favorably impressed with her,” Nordos said. The subsequent congregation vote to call Sundt was “quite overwhelming” in favor, according to the president. “I guess it went easier than I thought it might,” Nordos said, “but it generated lots of good discussion.”

At the time of Mindekirken’s founding in 1922, there was a turning inward by the American people in the wake of World War I. The emphasis was on everybody being 100 percent American, and many immigrant congregations responded by dropping their foreign-language services.

The founders of Mindekirken felt otherwise, believing that newcomers to the United States needed to preserve their heritage, especially in their places of worship. They also felt that cultural activities were a natural extension of the church.

The menu of cultural activities today is lengthy. Heading the list is the annual celebration of Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day, on the Sunday closest to May 17. It includes a packed worship service; a parade through the neighborhood; and food, entertainment, and craft demonstrations at the church.

“Yes, of course, there is something tasty served whenever anything happens at Mindekirken,” Pastor Vik remarked following the 2009 Syttende Mai celebration.

Other cultural events include the annual Leif Ericsson International Festival in October, celebrating the cultures of all Scandinavian countries, and the Lucia service in December. And then there are the periodic Norwegian movie nights and Norwegian language classes.

Mindekirken currently has 455 adult members, a figure that has remained quite stable since the congregation amended its constitution to accept associate members in 1985. The proportion of associate members, who retain membership in their home congregations and tend to focus more on the cultural activities at Mindekirken, has been rising, however, and associates now outnumber regular members 236 to 219.

There does not appear to be any diluting of the church’s mission as a center for spiritual life, however.

Writing in tribute to the departing Pastor Vik and his wife in a recent issue of the congregation newsletter, Nordos said: “I will especially miss Pastor’s insightful sermons and Bible studies. He has great skill in showing the face of God and revealing the essential and profound in the scripture in a deceptively clear and ‘simple’ way. He has been our strong but gentle shepherd.”

Vik, in a recent column in the newsletter, offered this: “Another thing I am very grateful for is that Mindekirken’s world-mission engagement through the Daniel Nelson China Study Group is established and will continue after I leave. … I want Mindekirken to be a mission-shaped church!”