Greeters handed plastic Easter eggs to people walking into the Christmas Eve service at First Lutheran Church. Inside the plastic spheres were a battery-operated candle, a headband and a Christmas bell.

Mixing Easter themes with Christmas is one of the ways senior pastor Dianne Loufman drove home their holiday theme. “Life is filled with unexpected things, and a lot of them aren’t things we welcome, but there’s unexpected grace amidst all of it,” she said.

Loufman and the church’s creative services are what drew in Laura Stahl of Two Harbors. Stahl and her husband were looking for a church where they could “grow spiritually.”

First Lutheran Church Pastor Dianne Loufman talks to children during a Christmas Eve service. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
First Lutheran Church Pastor Dianne Loufman talks to children during a Christmas Eve service. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

During their first Sunday there, Loufman made scripture “come alive,” reciting it from memory and telling it in a dramatic way. She threw in places for movement and songs, and she included all ages, Stahl said.

She and her husband have been attending for a year and a half.

Stahl doesn’t see First Lutheran as a church that’s going to tell people how to respond to scripture, but instead, how to be open to questions and personal experiences.

Loufman plays a big part in that because she encourages curiosity, added Stahl.

“People have been taught not to question,” Loufman said. “The asking of questions is how we grow in faith, and it’s not always that we get the answers, but we get a deeper question.”

Loufman has been at First Lutheran for nearly three years. Before moving to Duluth, she pastored mostly African-American, Guyanese and Hindu communities on the East Coast.

“Ministry, for the most part, is relationships. ”

Her Endion neighborhood office speaks to her journey to the Twin Ports.

A discarded palm tree she fished out of the trash on Lexington Avenue in New York City.

A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall, along with a painting by He Qi and Horace Pippin, icons of Jesus Christ Liberator and Mother of God: Mother of the Streets.

“We see Jesus as we are, right? So, there are African ones, Japanese ones…”

Loufman referred to James McBride’s book, where a boy asks his mother about the color of God, and she answers: “The color of water,” referring to your reflection.

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Loufman remembers being confirmed and giving offerings at an early age, but: “I really wasn’t a church person.”

In college, she had to take two religion courses, which was “annoying,” but a reading from that first class worked as a confirmation. “I always thought there was something there,” she said.

First Lutheran Church Pastor Dianne Loufman reaches to shake hands with a congregation member during a Christmas Eve service. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
First Lutheran Church Pastor Dianne Loufman reaches to shake hands with a congregation member during a Christmas Eve service. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Loufman went to seminary to gain a deeper background for a doctorate in theology and literature. After designing her own internship and working in the Bronx — one of the best years of her life — she leaned into pastoring.

Loufman wants young people to have an experience of God in a world that’s becoming more secular, and she wants to help church-goers grow past “Sunday-school faith.”

“People are taught to believe things their intellectual mind doesn’t agree with, and so we wrestle with … what do these stories mean? What is truth?”

Young people will ask: “Why should I believe in God? Why should I believe in Jesus?” And it’s important for those who have wrestled with faith to be able to answer those questions, she said.

Faith is a personal journey, and hers came by being open to scripture and exploring spiritual curiosities.

While she never struggled with her faith, she said she has walked through hardship.

Her 3-year-old son died in 2004.

“(It's) frightening to enter into the pain of that, which, to me, in Christian language, is entering into the cross where God meets us, and we’re carried through.”

“Dianne’s really sensitive to the ways that grief works, especially for somebody who’s leading and presiding in ministry,” said Daniel Grainger.

The pastoral intern’s mother died before he started working with Loufman in August, and she has been very supportive, he said.

Loufman is also honest and direct, and “helping me come out of my shell in that way.”

He’s learning from her about different ways of pastoring, and she is challenging Grainger to think differently in terms of what ministry should be, he said.

As churches may struggle with membership, Grainger sees Loufman’s emphasis on relationship with community as a value that “will really revive us” — moving from faith as an institutional building to faith as people rallying around what they sense God is doing.

Added Loufman: “Ministry, for the most part, is relationships.”

Standing in her office before she went to pick up her son from the airport, Loufman said a challenge to this work is she doesn’t like getting up in front of a congregation, but she loves hearing people’s stories, and making the Bible come alive.

Christianity has been a resource for people for a long time, but not all people have the same understanding of Christianity. “It’s a radical love and a radical forgiveness.," she said. "There’s no room in it for hate.”

Pastor Dianne Loufman talks to the congregation at First Lutheran Church at a service on Christmas Eve. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Pastor Dianne Loufman talks to the congregation at First Lutheran Church at a service on Christmas Eve. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

If you go

What: First Lutheran Church Sunday services

When: 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sundays

Where: 1100 E. Superior St.

More info: flcduluth.org