Southwest Spotlight: Answering the call: Husband and wife lead St. John’s Lutheran in Killdeer
KILLDEER - Pastoring to a rural community in the Oil Patch was the last thing Rachel and John Simonson wanted for their first church out of seminary, but after coming to Killdeer and seeing the community and meeting the people, they knew St. John’s Lutheran was for them.
“We were just so drawn to the people and it just felt like a call. It’s hard to describe it, but it felt right,” Rachel said. “We just sort of trusted that feeling and that instinct and that call.”
It was more perfect that there were two pastoral positions — one full-time and one part-time — which is exactly what the Simonsons were hoping to have but didn’t think would happen right out of the gate.
“We wanted to work together one day,” John said, “we just didn’t know it was going to happen right away.”
The Simonsons knew they wanted to start a family and knew it would be easiest if they weren’t both working full time.
Finding each other
Rachel and John met at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., the summer before Rachel’s first year and after John’s first year.
Rachel was taking an early summer class in Greek and John was one of the few other students on campus that summer.
“About a month after school started, we were dating,” Rachel said.
Rachel is from Moorhead, Minn., and John is from Minot, so their extended family is nearby. John, 33, attended Concordia College in Moorhead for his undergrad during the same time that Rachel, 30, was in high school. Rachel attended college at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“We didn’t know each other when I lived in Moorhead and John was at Concordia in Moorhead,” Rachel said. “We probably saw each other from time to time. ... I went to the Christmas concerts, saw him sing, but didn’t know him.”
Rachel didn’t set out to date another pastor-in-training.
“I thought two pastors in the family would be too intense,” Rachel said. “But when I saw him, right away I thought he was pretty cute.”
Before he met Rachel, John was pretty sure he would never get married.
“When I would tell (dates) what I was going to do with my life, it was usually the end of the conversation,” John said. “You know how cliche it is to say, ‘It’s when you’re not looking ... but I was really — before I met Rachel — ready to give up and was planning on being single for the rest of my life.”
But it wasn’t long before they each knew they had found the one.
“When Rachel and I started dating it occurred to me that I had never been in a relationship before where someone cared as much about me as I did about them, which was such a wonderful new change of pace,” John said. “At a very early time, very shortly after we started dating I knew that Rachel was the one. We became best friends almost immediately.”
John slowed down his courses to align with Rachel’s and the two were married in May of 2010. The third year of Lutheran seminary is an internship year. The Simonsons moved to the Seattle area for their first year of marriage.
“Otherwise he would be gone for one year and then come back and then I would go the year that he would come back,” Rachel said. “We would have been long distance for two years, otherwise. He just kind of got on my schedule and we went on internship together and it worked out really well.”
The two returned to the Twin Cities for their final year of seminary before becoming full-fledged pastors.
New pastors are assigned a region when they leave the seminary and interview with different churches to find the right match.
“When we moved out to Seattle for the year, it was really fun but we really realized that we did want to live closer to family and the importance of just being able to drive home or have parents and family drive to us,” Rachel said.
Starting a career
When listing preferences, the Simonsons asked for no rural or Oil Patch communities but decided to visit Killdeer anyway.
“We drove out here very, very, very unsure,” John said. “We did one of their old-school interviews that lasts the whole day, from 9:30 in the morning to like 10 at night. We just fell in love with the people here.”
Their bishop told them that if the interview didn’t feel like a call, they could look for something else.
“It was just such an incredible experience to be drawn to a place that you didn’t think that you would be drawn to,” John said.
“So powerfully drawn to it,” Rachel added.
“We both knew in a very short time that this was it, and we very much wanted to come out here,” John said.
Their ministry is based at St. John’s Lutheran in Killdeer, but they also pastor Our Savior’s Lutheran in Halliday and Normanna Lutheran Church in Dunn Center. They take turns traveling each Sunday and head out to the smaller churches as needed throughout the week.
This summer, John and Rachel welcomed baby Anna into the world. She will celebrate her first Christmas at six months old on Wednesday.
“I was not expecting it to be as much fun as it is,” John said of parenting. “It’s awesome. We can’t imagine a day before her and I think she’s the best thing that could have ever happened to us.”
Because Rachel works part time, she has the flexibility to run to Dickinson for pediatric appointments and do work while Anna sleeps.
“I think it’s been working pretty well,” Rachel said. “We’re starting to figure it out — how to have baby integrated into our life and how do we integrate our life into baby’s schedule.”
The balancing act of work and life as pastors can be tricky, but the Simonsons said it can also make parenting easier.
“Harder in the sense that we can’t just sort of leave our job behind at the end of the day and really just come home and focus on our family like some other jobs,” Rachel said. “We have more flexibility too.”
Answering the call
The Simonsons plan to stay in Killdeer for the foreseeable future, but pastors are semi-nomadic by nature.
“When it feels like it’s time,” Rachel said of leaving. “When it feels like we’ve done what we’ve been called here to do — kind of moving them to a certain point.”
But the Simonsons are years from that point.
“We’re pretty focused on where we’re at right now and not really thinking about the next thing,” Rachel said.