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Leader of a lighthouse: Recovering from alcohol abuse, pastor starts nondenominational church

FNS Photo by Dave Wallis The Rev. Dale Wolf leads worship at a Lighthouse Church service Sunday, Dec. 15, inside Scheels Arena in Fargo.

FARGO — The Rev. Dale Wolf led workshops on burnout for medical professionals but didn’t recognize it in himself.

The longtime pastor of Fargo’s Atonement Lutheran Church says his burnout led to depression, which led to alcohol use.

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“It can alter your sense of values unintentionally,” Wolf said.

Wolf, 52, said he entered recovery in October 2012. He took off six months beginning in February. He officially resigned from Atonement in July, he said.

In September, he started a new church, one with a message of hope for people in recovery.

Lighthouse Church is a nondenominational, come-as-you-are church that offers children’s Sunday school and a 12-step group Sunday mornings.

An average of 80 to 90 worshippers gather inside Scheels Arena, either in the building’s upper lobby or the adjacent space that is a bar during Fargo Force hockey games.

Wolf, a pastor for 24 years, said as he began his leave of absence, he prayed to not lose his faith.

“A lot of pastors who experience burnout don’t just leave their church, they leave the faith,” he said.

He read the Bible, prayed, meditated and journaled even when he didn’t feel spiritually connected.

Through his recovery, he developed a new community of friends, and increasingly felt a strong calling from God to minister to them, Wolf said.

Lighthouse Church is biblically based without judgment, he said. Wolf wants people to know they are accepted where they are, regardless of their struggles or doubts.

“We have really tried to create a faith community where people can come and feel like they don’t have to have it all put together,” he said.

Wolf hopes he can be a living testament to the hope of transformation. He describes himself as the least anonymous member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“My story begins quite different than anybody else’s, but the end tends to be quite alike,” he said, noting the isolation, despair and sense of shame and avoidance common in addiction.

“I’m certainly seeing how God has wanted to use my struggles for good,” Wolf said. “I don’t think God wants us to waste our experiences. He wants us to redeem them.”

In October, Wolf spoke about burnout to the leadership team at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen, S.D. In May, he will speak to its 1,500 employees.

CEO Todd Forkel was an Atonement member when he lived in Fargo for about four years, and was familiar with Wolf’s struggles.

“He was someone who always was moving the church forward and had many goals and was always obtaining those,” Forkel said. “If burnout can happen to Pastor Dale, it can happen to anybody.”

While Lighthouse is not a recovery church, Wolf explains how his weekly message applies to people in recovery. He leads a recovery Bible study on Sunday evenings, which includes people recovering from divorce, depression, eating disorders and other struggles. He does not lead the Sunday morning 12-step group.

Anne Buchanan of Fargo said she has been attending Lighthouse since its first service. She said the church fits with her recovery. She attends Al-Anon meetings for family members of alcoholics.

Buchanan said Wolf’s personal struggles make him an understanding pastor.

“I have a very strong faith. He teaches how that can be applied in everyday living,” she said. “It’s preaching the Bible but referring it back to day-to-day practice.”

Buchanan says she was a parishioner at Atonement when she started attending Lighthouse. She said she hasn’t made a commitment and is keeping an open mind about both congregations.

Wolf declined to comment on how many of Lighthouse’s members were Atonement parishioners. He also would not comment on the circumstances surrounding his departure from the south Fargo church.

“I will say I love Atonement. I want what’s best for them,” Wolf said. “I believe their ministry is going to flourish in the future.

“They’ve been very gracious with me in this journey,” he said.

Wolf was named pastor of Atonement Lutheran Church in 1994. He was senior pastor when the congregation voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2004 over issues related to the church body’s structure, agreements with other denominations and discussions relating to sexuality.

Atonement had joined the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

Wolf is still listed on the LCMC online roster of pastors, but Wolf said he considers himself a nondenominational pastor.

The Rev. Randy Freund became interim senior pastor of Atonement in June, according to its website. The LCMC website lists Atonement’s attendance as 673.

This fall, Atonement completed a church assessment, conducted by Metanoia Ministries. The results were distributed before Thanksgiving.

“Whenever churches face major transitions, it’s wise and preferable to take a hard look at where we’ve been and where we are going as a church,” Atonement’s website said.

The findings will be discussed again Jan. 5, and affirmed Jan. 12.

Pastoral staff at Atonement referred questions to the church’s board chairman, Eric Winge.

Winge said the church “would prefer not to discuss” the assessment or Wolf’s exit.

“We wish him well in his new church,” Winge said.

Wolf said he imagines the second half of his ministry life will be much different than the first. No more 60-plus-hour weeks. He’ll meet people in coffee shops or AA meetings instead of sanctuaries.

Wolf said some have expressed concern he is re-entering ministry too soon.

He said at this point, the ministry is part time.

“I’ve been able to continue to focus on my recovery and health, and yet work to develop the church,” he said.

Don Krabbenhoft, a disabled military veteran, said he was searching for a church when he heard about Lighthouse.

As an “old sailor,” Krabbenhoft said to him, a lighthouse is not only a beacon of safety at night but a symbol of salvation.

Krabbenhoft met Wolf at an AA meeting, he said. Krabbenhoft said he’s been sober 22 years.

He described Wolf as a powerful minister, and credits Wolf’s prayers for healing his back pain.

“Every Sunday morning I’m filled with joy and happiness because I can go to church,” he said.

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