On a snowy Sunday in December, the Rev. Kathy Nelson scurried around the sanctuary. Eleven masked teens sat distanced in the pews, awaiting their live-streamed confirmation.
“It’s like producing a live TV show,” Nelson said before go-time.
This would be the last confirmation Sunday for Nelson, who is retiring on Jan. 10 after 30 years leading Peace United Church of Christ.
It’s unusual for a pastor to stay three decades — most leave after six to eight years — but Nelson and her family fell in love with the congregation.
She still loves what she does and has gratitude for it, but she’s also tired, she said.
“My kids will always joke, ‘You don’t have a job; you have a lifestyle,’ and I think that’s true. I pretty much work 50-55 hours per week.
“It might be time for a lifestyle change, and there’ll be other ways to serve that won’t be quite as intense,” Nelson said.
It’s going to be a challenge for the congregation going forward as Nelson has been an integral part of who they are as Peace Church, said Doug Bowen-Bailey, Peace Church moderator. But now is a time to figure out what it means to be a congregation without her as their leader.
“Kathy has provided a firm foundation and a strong community that isn’t reliant on her, so she’ll be able to step away and find new outlets for her talent in ministry,” he added.
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Nelson and Peace Church are known for social justice work and pastoral care in the Northland.
“Anything related to the African heritage, Native heritage communities of color, Rev. Nelson and her congregation were with us in partnership. Not because she or they had to be there, but it was because of their love of God and love of God’s people,” said Duluth activist and community elder Henry Banks.
Both Peace and Nelson have been heavily involved in Duluth’s annual commemoration of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations as well as recent events for slain Black men George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Banks also frequently observes Nelson and members of Peace making sure people are fed at the Damiano Center and participating at CHUM’s annual vigil remembering those who have lost their lives.
“She is one of the most incredible, faith-based, interfaith leaders that I’ve ever met.
“She is a gift to the community,” Banks said.
It’s a sentiment mirrored by Mary Roling.
(Pre-COVID) Nelson has been bringing a weekly Bible study to the St. Louis County jail for more than two decades.
“She wants to figure out where each individual is at and because of that, I think they share on a pretty deep level when they’re in her group,” said the jail program coordinator.
“In deep listening to each other, God is present. In the moments where we hear each other’s stories and make space to hear where God is moving in that,” Nelson said.
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Nelson grew up in the United Church of Christ, where she learned to love community and the woods.
She had many examples of pastoral care at home and through the church.
Nelson’s mother was a chemotherapy nurse. “Watching her was really watching someone do ministry. … Trying to listen to each other’s stories can help each other heal,” she recalled.
When her father was diagnosed with lung cancer, the congregation rallied, scheduling coffee visits in the hospital for her father and feeding her family.
She attended seminary and worked as a youth pastor in New Brighton and St. Anthony Park, Minnesota, before moving to the Northland.
When Nelson began in 1991, there was a period of adjustment.
She is Peace Church’s first female settled pastor, and people would comment on her clothing in the beginning. “It’s a surreal thing to say, ‘I like your dress,’ or comments about your clothes rather than about the content,” she recalled. Soon after, Nelson started wearing a robe over her clothes.
“I think you had to earn their respect maybe in a way a man had been given it,” she added.
The church grew. They added youth programming and a dynamic worship team.
They launched their Dismantling Racism team about 25 years ago. Around that time, Nelson started conducting holy unions for LGBTQIA couples.
And, Peace became a sanctuary church with a living space for people who may be facing deportation. Nelson said the church has received pushback for this and its other social justice work. “But I don’t really care. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
The drive for this is rooted in Jesus, who challenged systems. “When I look at the scripture, he got crucified for cleansing the temple, and he was attacking a system that was oppressing the poor.
“Our scriptures have a compelling call to love thy neighbor, and that’s not just acts of kindness, but works of justice,” Nelson said.
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Nelson and the congregation have been through a lot.
Nineteens years ago, she had stage 3 breast cancer. “Literally, the church fed my family for a year. I would say we ate their prayers,” she said.
Nelson also recalled a church-hosted event where 35 people shaved their heads and donated the hair to Locks for Love in solidarity.
More than a year ago, Nelson was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Its removal affected her hearing and balance. Through it all, the congregation supported her and her family.
During Nelson’s last service at the helm, she and the congregation will make pledges to each other, in gratitude and in release of further responsibility. She will remove her stoll and sit in the pews. It will be really nice and really difficult, she said.
The Rev. Greg Briggs will work as interim pastor for at least a year, and Peace will form a search committee and begin the process of seeking a settled pastor.
Banks hopes the next pastor continues to support people of color and other disenfranchised or ostracized communities.
Nelson and her husband plan on staying in Duluth, and she plans to camp, read, fish, bring more Bible studies into jail and figure out where to volunteer next.
Nelson said she’s glad she was able to get her congregation through a major part of the pandemic before retiring.
After the recent Sunday service, Andre Good, 16, said it meant a lot that he could be confirmed by Nelson. He has been going to Peace for more than 10 years.
“She taught us to love everyone no matter what,” he said.
And: “It doesn’t matter who I think God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, just that I’m connected with them,” added Mary Karstens, 16.
“She is a huge beam of light in my life,” added Ellie Evenson, 16. “She changed my view on God, how he can live everywhere.”
Their hopes for Nelson’s retirement are for her to do all she desires, to still come to church and “to know she is loved,” Karstens said.