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Intern pastor for Peace Lutheran Church in north Fargo gets real-life experience

FARGO - Kimberly Belken says God is pushing her toward the ministry, and that her latest job will be a blessing when it comes to making a final decision. The 34-year-old seminarian is in the midst of a yearlong stint as an intern pastor for Peace...

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Kimberly Belken, an intern pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in north Fargo, works in her office writing some prayers. Dave Wallis / The Forum


FARGO – Kimberly Belken says God is pushing her toward the ministry, and that her latest job will be a blessing when it comes to making a final decision.

The 34-year-old seminarian is in the midst of a yearlong stint as an intern pastor for Peace Lutheran Church in north Fargo.

Belken said test driving her leadership and organizational skills is bolstering her decision to dedicate her life to the ministry.


“I love it!” Belken said Friday. “I see God’s fingerprints all over it. It feels very natural, what I’m doing.”

Serving as an intern pastor is part of the normal progression to being ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The ELCA has seminarians do two years of studies, then a year in the field before finishing their coursework and getting ordained, said the Rev. Josh Schunk, Peace Lutheran’s senior pastor.

Belken is Peace Lutheran’s first intern pastor, Schunk said. She gets hands-on experience and he gets an extra hand to help with the ministry.

“It provides an excellent learning opportunity for them (seminarians),” he said. “You (the lead pastor) share your experiences, but they help cover our bases. It makes my job a lot easier.”

Getting an intern is a competitive process, because fewer students look to the ministry as a vocation, Schunk said. Peace Lutheran won’t have an intern next year.

That’s too bad, Schunk said, because the pastors-in-training bring energy and a fresh perspective.

“She brings ideas that I wouldn’t think about.”


Other area denominations require similar training.

The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church has vicars, said Dave Wagner, pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in south Fargo.

Wagner was a vicar in South Florida 30 years ago.

“It was always nice when you did your vicarage to see how a congregation works. I thought it was a good experience,” he said.

Vicars learn their strengths and weaknesses, so when they return to the seminary they can adjust their coursework, he said.

Some vicars get an extra measure of responsibility by working with congregations that may not be able to afford a full-time pastor, Wagner said.

In the Catholic Church, seminarians in graduate school spend two summers taking on parish assignments, said the Rev. Kurtis Gunwall, vocations director for the Catholic Diocese of Fargo.

Aspiring priests also may do a summer of service work, such as holding summer Bible camps at parishes, Gunwall said.


“They will travel to eight to 10 different parishes offering these camps,” getting a view of many different parishes, he said.

A few people also request a pastoral year at a parish to see “what that life is really like,” Gunwall said.

Marilyn Spurrell, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Fargo, said Methodist seminaries require students to work at a church or in another ministry situation, perhaps at a hospital or shelter.

When the seminarians graduate, they have a three-year period working with a mentor, she said.

“They’ve got a lot of learning left to do and we take it seriously,” Spurrell said.

Belken said she’s always been drawn to the church, but shied away from the idea of leading a congregation after battles with depression and anxiety.

She tried the business world after earning an undergraduate degree in English and religion, working first as a grant writer, then later in accounting for Nebraska Engineering in Omaha.

She was one year into a master of business administration program at Creighton University when she toured Civil War battlefields with her father. That’s where she got her first look at her future: Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa.


When she got back from the tour, she learned her MBA program had been canceled.

The closing of that door opened the door to the seminary in Gettysburg. She began her studies in 2011.

Belken said she’s growing more confident with her preaching.

She looks out over the sanctuary at Peace Lutheran, with its tall stained-glass windows and pews lined up in orderly rows, and talks about how nervous she was the first time she got up to deliver a sermon.

“There are times I look out and I can’t believe how many people are listening. It’s such a privilege. I feel in awe and I feel humbled,” Belken said.

“I can see people praying and it’s beautiful,” she said.

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Kimberly Belken is an intern pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in north Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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