By Alice Gerard
The Rev. Adam Arends grew up in Minnesota as the son of a Lutheran pastor, James Arends, who retired as bishop of the LaCrosse, Wisconsin-area synod in 2020.
And now, Adam, who followed in his father’s footsteps, is the pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, 1453 Staley Road. He arrived on Feb. 3 and presided over his first service as pastor two days later.
According to Shari Miller, a member of the church, Arends fit in immediately.
“The first day, he arrived as a real human being in the middle of our congregation. He was wearing jeans and a sweater, as many of us do, and he put the stole around his neck, which is a symbol of his office. He presented himself as a follower of Christ and was happy to be in our midst. We had a glorious service of praise. He was real. There was laughter and applause, and a real sense of joy at being together and worshiping,” Miller said.
Arends was St. Timothy’s first permanent pastor since the Rev. Kris Bjerke-Ulliman left in November 2020 to return to her hometown of LaCrosse. She had been the church’s pastor since Aug. 7, 2016.
“We had two transition pastors during that time,” said Karen Rose, who recently stepped down as president of the church council after six years. She is transitioning to a volunteer position as Christian education coordinator for the church’s child care center.
Although Arends came across to the members of St. Timothy as someone born to serve as pastor of a church, he came to his calling later in life. It was not his first career choice.
“As a kid and as a young adult, I did not want to be a pastor,” he said.
“I grew up in Minnesota,” Arends said. “I went to college in a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Iowa. Wartburg College (Waverly). It’s named after the Wartburg Castle in Germany. It’s where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. I was part of the choir there. I’ve loved to sing my whole life. I was an English major and a religion major. My dad looked at me and said, ‘You know what that’s good for? English and religion. Pretty much pastor.’ ”
Arends said he had other plans.
“After college, I did something called the Lutheran Volunteer Corps for a few years,” he said. “It’s like AmeriCorps. You volunteer for a few years, and you get a stipend to live on. I was a year in Washington, D.C., and a year in Minneapolis. In D.C., I worked in a women’s homeless shelter. In Minneapolis, I worked for Habitat for Humanity as a volunteer coordinator. Then I moved back to D.C. and worked for Habitat for Humanity for a few years. I met my wife, Kristen, there.”
After the couple married, they moved to the Buffalo area. Kristen had grown up in Orchard Park and West Seneca. Arends volunteered for a few years with nonprofits and then went back to school, earning a master’s degree in English education.
“I was a teacher for about four years,” Arends said. “At the time (2007-08), the economy had taken a downturn. When teachers retired, school districts either didn’t replace them, or they hired people with a lot of experience. I got a part-time job teaching and then I did long-term subs. Now I could get a job. It was just bad timing there.
“I got a job at a private company here in Buffalo. I worked for about four years there. It was fine. They liked me there, but I felt like there was something missing. I felt the call to become a pastor through conversations with friends and other people encouraging me.
“Part of my call story is that my friend, who is a pastor, invited me to his yard one night and we were around a campfire, and he said, ‘You’ve been thinking about this for a long time.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know. I feel like I don’t know everything. I feel like I don’t always believe all of it, all the time.’ And he said, ‘These are the prophetic words in seminary: “You idiot.” Nobody does. We all rely on each other. We do church together. It’s not something we do alone.’ That really helped me reframe what my thinking of my idea of what a pastor was and what a pastor does. So, I took the jump, and I went to seminary.
“I went to seminary online through what was then the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. It became United Lutheran Seminary. They and (the Lutheran Theological Seminary in) Gettysburg joined together. They did that while I was attending online.”
Arends said he entered seminary in 2016 and completed the program in three years, graduating in 2019.
“I did what was called the co-op program,” he said. “I interned at a church part-time while I was doing seminary. I did that at Crossroads Lutheran Church, which has since closed. It was in Amherst. It’s now a Chinese Christian church.”
Not all the training was virtual.
“They had what they called intensives,” Arends said. “It’s a whole class in one week. You do that two or three times a year. I enjoyed those a lot because that’s when you get the chance to meet people in person. You talk about the joys and the challenges and the fears and the excitement (of life as a pastor). It’s good.”
After Arends graduated from seminary, he started looking for his first call from a church.
“So how it works is for the first call in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), you put in your paperwork, what you prefer, and some of the bishops – the area supervisor for a better term – form a committee and say, ‘Well, this region needs a pastor. In this region, I think we’ve got a church for them.’ They give you a couple of options. You’re assigned to a synod, an area that you’re willing to go, that really needs you, that could use your skills and gifts. Sometimes you get a choice between a few churches.”
Arends chose to begin his ministry in Wisconsin.
“I took my first call in a small rural congregation in western Wisconsin,” he said. “It was in the country, near a small town called Ettrick. That was closer to my family, my parents. It’s between LaCrosse and Eau Claire.
“Dad was a bishop at the time, and he was serving on that committee. They just looked at him and were like, ‘Can you use him?’ Clearly, I was assigned to his synod. His area. That’s kind of how that worked. It’s one of the smaller geographical synods. It’s the LaCrosse-area synod. So, Wisconsin and a little bit of Minnesota.”
After being offered two options, Arends interviewed with North Beaver Creek Lutheran Church in Ettrick, Wisconsin.
“This seemed like a welcoming congregation, and they were,” he said. “It was a good, positive experience. I was with them for about three-and-a-half years.
“It was a decent-sized congregation. Being out in the country, it’s different. People in a small town all know each other. They’d grown up together. The church really functioned like a family. They took care of each other. Even when there were disagreements, and people didn’t like each other, they came to church. That was their center. I kind of learned from them that church can be a family; church can be a place where you, even when you have disagreement, still show up and work it out together. It was a positive experience.”
Several factors caused Arends and his wife to make the decision to return to Western New York.
“Living in rural Wisconsin, we were in a parsonage, so we were out in the country,” he said. “It had its joys. It’s beautiful, but it’s also challenging to meet people our own age and connect.
“I am 44 years old. We have two kids, a girl and a boy. They went to a local school, which was fine. But we continued to maintain our connections out here. We lived in Buffalo for 13 years before we moved out there. We had friends, and we were missing them. Family is here. So, both of us were feeling that it was time to come back. We had an opportunity at a church here. Kristen is also attending seminary now.”
Kristen, who has 13 years’ experience at a youth director in churches, “is studying at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, because it was closer to where I worked,” Arends said. “Now we’re farther away. She has a year-and-a-half done. So, she’ll have about two-and-a-half more years.”
Kristen currently is employed at St. Paul’s in Eggertsville.
“The pastor that we know there knows her skills and has worked with her before,” Arends said. “She’s working there now before being ordained, and the plan is to call her there after she’s a pastor.”
Arends described the process of moving from one church to the next as a pastor.
“The process after you’re a pastor is that you submit your paperwork,” he said. “You write about who you are as a pastor, what your goals are, what your hopes are, what your gifts are. You can submit that nationwide to the ELCA. We put our preferences here. And then, you talk with different bishops. The bishop’s offices, the synod office will send you paperwork from different places.
“We were thinking about coming back (to Western New York). We looked at the available churches here. St. Tim’s stood out. It’s got a day care center. It’s an opportunity for connecting with the community. When we interviewed with them, they were very excited. There was good energy. We’re looking to do God’s work here on Grand Island. We thought it would be a good match.”
For St. Timothy, the process of calling a new pastor involves working with the Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA. The church provides a ministry site profile to the synod.
“The synod tries to find pastors whose profiles match our profile,” Rose said. “They are trying to match our strength with their strength. We looked at him and saw that his wife has ties to the area. The synod says this would be a good fit.”
Rose explained that, because St. Timothy has a child care center that requires an involved pastor with a higher energy level, St. Timothy was looking for someone who was young and “not about to retire.”
“Our goal in calling Pastor Adam to us is to bring Christ to the children and to bring the families back to Christ and to their own churches. If you don’t have a church, we would love to have you,” Rose said. “He is wonderful with children. The kids were so excited to make a sign for him.”
St. Timothy is the only church on Grand Island to have a “Christ-centered child care program,” Rose explained. It is one of two Island preschools to offer religious instruction as part of its educational program. The other school is St. Stephen School. All religious instruction is done outside of hours dedicated to the universal prekindergarten program.
As a pastor, Arends said he continues to use his teaching skills.
“I still enjoy teaching classes like confirmation, adult education and Bible study,” he said.
Arends noted there are many things about the ministry that he enjoys.
“I love preaching,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to see what the scripture says to our lives today. Not just for me, but for a particular place at a particular time. What is it speaking to and how do you connect? I always hesitate to speak for God, but what do we see God saying to us now today in this place?
“I really like home visits, hospital visits, and being able to be in places where people are hurting or grieving. It is a privilege and, in some ways, a joy to be in the moments of grief. To be able to be there to say, ‘You’re not alone.’
“As a pastor, you are often seen as the representative of Jesus and God. That’s part of the mantle of being a pastor. I’m not either of those. To be the representative to say, ‘God loves you. The church loves you. You’re not alone. God is with you.’ We believe that God, through grace, brings us peace, love and comfort. To be part of that is one of the joys and ways that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel is important for today.”
Arends described his hopes for St. Timothy Lutheran Church.
“So, my thing lately has been I really think what God wants out of church, if anything,” he said. “Worship is great. It says in the Bible that we should give God praise. But I really feel that, if a church is going to continue in our day and age, it’s got to be a community. It’s got to be a community center, a place for people to come and be known and to share their own hopes and dreams, gifts and talents with one another. So, to me, I hope that St. Tim’s can be, not just a day care center, not just a place where people see it and say, ‘Oh, this is where we can come and use the fellowship hall,’ but a welcoming place, where we know that they are doing what Jesus told us to do, which is to love God and to love neighbor. It’s generally the church’s mission, but you hope this can be a place where connections are made, and community happens.”
According to Rose and Miller, the connections have been made.
“Pastor Adam is just amazing, so soft spoken, and he is so dynamic with both adults and children,” Rose said. “I just find him to have such a quiet, listening nature to him.”
“I am delighted, thankful, hope-filled. Already, I feel Pastor Adam is a collaborative leader. He is full of fresh energy and has already begun meeting with all parishioners, either in small groups or privately, as they wish,” Miller said.
She added, “We are a comfortable congregation, and often informal. And you should hear him chant and sing. His sermons are filled with love and the Spirit, uplifting and easy to understand, and even, at times, filled with laughter. He doesn’t use the pulpit, but meets us all face to face from the front of the church. His children’s sermons are wonderful, at their level without intimidation at all. The kids are engaged. The Spirit in the congregation is one of community. I love the ‘beautiful noise’ of conversation and laughter before and after service.”
Arends said he is happy to be on Grand Island.
“Everyone’s very excited and there’s good, positive energy for the future, and hopes for good things on Grand Island,” he said. “I just hope that St. Tim’s can be seen as a positive place. What I hope for St. Tim’s is to be a place of welcome, a place where we love God, and we love neighbors.”
Miller said, “Our goal right now is discerning how we can best share God’s love while serving our neighbors. We invite all to come join us.”