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Walking the Years with God - A Reflection from Rev. Nina Merkle Nestlerode



After I graduated from Pacific School of Religion in June 2003, I was nearing ordination and search and call. That summer, I completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Alta Bates/Summit Medical Center in Berkeley/Oakland, CA and explored college chaplaincy as well as congregational ministry opportunities. With prayerful delight, I was called to serve in Southern California at First Christian Church, Orange as Associate Pastor, where I joyfully served for four years. I was ordained in January 2004 at Lafayette Christian Church (after serving there for two years for field ed and two years prior as a youth leader discovering my call). 


In mid 2007, I moved to Seattle, WA, when I married Rev. Dr. Glenn Nestlerode, a DSF graduate (Claremont) and a former DSF board member. I was called to serve a DOC/UCC congregation in the urban Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, All Pilgrims Christian Church, as Interim Senior Pastor for two and a half years, helping to unite a prominent O&A congregation that had merged from two historic congregations just five years earlier.


In 2010, Glenn and I left the West Coast in search of serving together. We were called as Co-Senior Pastors in central Illinois at First Christian Church, Canton, IL for eight years. In 2018, we were called again as Co-Senior Pastors to northern Oklahoma at First Christian Church, Ponca City, just to the west outside the Osage Reservation. We served there for slightly less than two years.  


I was called to the Greater Cleveland Area, as Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Christian Church in Macedonia/Twinsburg, OH (midpoint suburbs of Akron and Cleveland) in the height of the COVID pandemic in the summer of 2020. (Glenn went into hospice chaplaincy in the area.) I initially served with a UCC colleague who had been serving part-time for several years. She served as a gracious bridge during COVID, and after stepping away has grown into a dear friend.


In the first two years, my ministry, like most other congregational pastors, was to keep them afloat through the pandemic as a spiritual body, establishing connection, hope, and vision. It also meant cleaning house and restoring ministries over time when and where appropriate. What a wild ride.


My role as Lead Pastor also includes regular preaching, teaching, pastoral care, inviting [the congregation] into deeper contemplative prayer practices, leading our staff, and listening for the creative leading of the Holy Spirit. We are a smaller congregation but with an energetic multigenerational team.


One of the joys of serving in congregational ministry is the people we are privileged to come alongside. Special Spirit-filled holy connection with people in each congregation I have served, which I remain grateful for. Additionally, the incredibly authentic and gifted clergy colleagues who I have had the privilege to serve within regions, districts, cities, and nationally. 


Congregational ministry also comes with challenges. I remember my seminary mentor, Rev. Faye Orton Snyder, stressing to me “Congregational ministry will be the hardest vocation that you will ever love.” Being true to modeling Christ’s love to all people and providing invitations to reflect on areas to grow means comforting the people and prophetically challenging them. This includes studying congregational dynamics, history, and identity. Sometimes the ministry will be wildly fruitful. Sometimes the ministry offered will be rejected and met with conflict. 


Congregational ministry can at times also be dulled by the ongoing routines of budget, bylaws, building needs, and weekly worship bulletins that have a propensity to diminish creativity and vibrancy. 


For many pastors, including myself, if we are serving away from our location of origin, congregational ministry can be lonely. Congregational ministry can be filled with many, many dynamic people but few deep authentic friendships.


These challenges stress the importance of stepping away in prayer, retreat, rich conversation with mentors/colleagues and ministry leaders, seeking community in interests and passions, and easing up on the ever-pressing needs to allow space for the Divine to renew the flame of passionate ministry and connection. 


Just as DSF was a blessing like this for me in seminary, Bethany Fellows has been this place for me as I have served all over the United States. I first became a part of Bethany Fellows as a new pastor in my call, with mentoring, spiritual retreats, prayerful community, and wise practice continuing education that lasts for about four to five years. Then I served as a board member for six years, and then on the Disciples Leadership Team for the past five years. They offer incredibly supportive small-group and large-group communities. (For more information, go to https://bethanyfellows.org) for Disciples and Ecumenical groups.)  


I highly encourage all pastors to find their prayerful communities of connection and ongoing learning where there is room to rest, play, and be renewed in the Spirit. For this is oxygen to a warming centering flame within us and our congregations.



 

Rev. Nina Merkle Nestlerode is Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Macedonia, OH. Nina is the joyful mother of both a high-school son, Gabriel, and an adult daughter, Elizabeth. She is also a second-career pastor, having worked for Chevron Corporation in San Francisco for eight years as a Senior Financial Analyst. She holds a degree in Business from the University of Oregon and a Master of Divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion. She is a former student trustee of the board for PSR, a former board member and graduate of both Disciples Seminary Foundation and Bethany Fellows, and is currently serving on her last retreat on the Disciples Leadership Team for the Bethany Fellows. Nina has also served on several Disciples Regional Finance Committees.

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