Wednesday, November 28, 2012

from A Nun Becomes a Methodist Pastor and Lights up the Big Sky of Montana

by John Shelby Spong

Try to imagine, if you can, a woman who was a Roman Catholic nun for 18 years, working during those years on a Native American reservation and later taking the level of academic training required of those who wish to become Roman Catholic priests. Next try to imagine this same women wondering just why it was that she was not able to consider a priestly vocation solely because she was a woman. Then try to imagine this woman seeking to follow what she believed was her vocation to be a pastor, leaving her convent and seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. Then, try to imagine this same woman now for the last nineteen years serving as the senior pastor of one of Montana’s largest Methodist congregations, located in the heart of the state capital of Helena, a church that sits literally in the shadow, less than half a block from the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena. Finally try to envision her now not only happily married to a retired Methodist district superintendent, but also widely respected as one of Montana’s leading citizens. If you can put all of these things together you will have, at least, the external lines that characterize the Rev. Marianne Niesen, the senior pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Helena, Montana. The internal lines of her story are just as impressive.

She succeeded in this position a man named the Rev. George Harper, who moved to Montana with his wife and five children about 50 years ago to be the Methodist youth minister for the state of Montana, and in time became the pastor of St. Paul’s Church, imprinting his large and open personality on that congregation for 25 years. He then lived 25 more years as a retired man about town, deeply loved and admired by all, while his wife taught drama at a local college and their children became business, social and political leaders in Montana. One of their daughters was even chosen to be “Miss Montana” in the Miss America beauty pageant. George worked all of his life with the young people in the local high school, actually coaching the track team officially and unofficially until just shortly before his death.

When he died, about a year ago, the problem his former church faced was where to find a building big enough to accommodate the crowds that were determined to attend his funeral. The auditorium in Helena’s Carroll College was offered and accepted, and three thousand plus citizens attended this Methodist ceremony led by former nun, Marianne Niesen, held on the campus of a Roman Catholic school. Among those who attended that service were the Democratic Governor of the state, Brian Schweitzer, the Republican Lt. Governor, John Bohlinger, the two United States Democratic Senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and the single Montana member of the House of Representatives, Republican Danny Rehburg.

Several years ago, as part of her commitment to adult education and of her desire to build a theologically trained congregation, the Reverend Marianne Niesen began an annual lecture series in St. Paul’s entitled “Expanding Faith,” which now draws people from as far away as Olympia, Washington; Salt Lake City, Utah; Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Arizona. I was their “Expanding Faith” lecturer two years ago and had the pleasure not only of meeting George Harper, but of tasting the life of this incredible congregation, built as it was on George Harper’s love of music, his open and accepting personality and his theological learning. Marianne Niesen’s equally broad experience and sensitive leadership have now further expanded its life. Since his death the lectureship has been renamed “The George Harper Expanding Faith Lecture Series.”

Close to three hundred people attended this lecture series this year giving us all a vision of what a church can actually be. The members of the congregation are open theologically, liturgically and socially. They are welcoming to all, including those the world likes to marginalize: minorities, women, and gay, lesbian and transgender people, just to name a few. They are unafraid of “disturbing the faithful” with new knowledge, whether that knowledge be the effects that learning something of the size of the universe has had on our definition of God, the way natural law has forced us to reorder our understanding of prayer. This church under the skillful, loving and creative leadership of Marianne Niesen reflects none of the fear that drives some church people into mindless fundamentalism at the same time that others are dropping out of a church life that has become meaningless to them to take up citizenship in “the secular city.” This congregation tackles all issues, welcomes all people and assists all of its members in the task of walking as citizens of the 21st century into the wonder of the mystery of God.

I loved being part of this church’s life for a weekend. I loved experiencing the beauty, the openness and the wonder of life in the west under the “big sky.” I loved seeing a church that understands its role in life to be not that of seeking converts, but of enhancing our humanity, of being the leavening yeast in life, the seasoning in the soup of life and the light in the dark corners of life. The biblical image of being a “saving remnant” that exists for the sake and well-being of the whole society is the vocation that the people of this congregation have adopted as their vocation, one they live out boldly in Helena, Montana, where one of their major streets is named “Last Chance Gulch.”

For two days prior to my lectures at St. Paul’s, Marianne, her husband Lyle, Christine and I hiked for ten miles or so in the Glacier National Park of Montana, a protected expanse of over one million acres. This protected area was set aside by the farsightedness of the most environmentally sensitive president this nation has ever had, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and was designated a national park in 1910 by another Republican President, William Howard Taft. On our hikes in that exquisite setting we were not surprised to discover that the only forest ranger we met on the trails greeted Marianne by name! We were also interested to note the concern in this politically conservative western state about what climate change is doing to the natural beauty of our nation.

There was no silly talk or uninformed debate in Montana about the reality of climate change, nor any doubt that it is the product of human behavior patterns, primarily the use of fossil fuels. A direct correlation can be demonstrated between the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the rise of the use of both the automobile and air travel in the 20th century and the environmental crisis of today. No one that I heard in Montana, no matter how conservative they were politically, referred to environmentalists as “eco-fascists” or “tree huggers,” as Tea Party types do in other parts of our nation.

Of the almost 200 glaciers in this park in the 1800’s there are only about 20 today, and scientists believe that at the current rate of melting all of this park’s glaciers will be gone by 2020. Some species of trout that require a very cold water temperature to survive are today viewed as an endangered species headed toward the possibility of extinction. The larger animals in Glacier Park are migrating northward toward the climate that they once knew here.

On our hikes we saw bears, moose, elk, mountain goats and big-horned sheep. In fact our encounter with a large bull moose with full antlers was at a distance of no more than 15 yards. The nasal snort of this agitated creature was quite clear to our ears. We retreated to safety behind a tree and stood still and silent until the moose finally continued on its journey toward the lake presumably for water, but we became aware of how fragile the park’s life is for many of its inhabitants. That moose is a part of our world, and its life and its future are intimately bound up with our life and future.

I thought of the present political debate between business leaders who do not want their bottom lines to be affected by environmental concerns and recalled the biblical story of Esau and Jacob in the book of Genesis. Esau represents those human beings who want their needs to be gratified immediately, and so he was willing to sell his birthright, and thus his future, to his brother Jacob for a bowl of red lentil soup. That is just the kind of biblical connection that Marianne Niesen, the nun turned Methodist pastor, would call her congregation to consider.

I returned to New Jersey grateful that in the Christian Church there are people like Pastor George Harper and Pastor Marianne Niesen. I invite my readers to take a moment and send a message to Marianne at Thank her for her witness and her ministry. People ought not to have to wait until their funerals to hear “well done thou good and faithful servant.”


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