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November 29, 2014

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Pastor-in-training wiser after year-long Vegas experience

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Steve Marcus

Intern Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson listens to a discussion on the Book of Revelation at New Song Church in Henderson on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Ferguson will soon complete her one-year internship.

Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson

Intern Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson poses in the sanctuary at New Song Church in Henderson on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Ferguson will soon complete her one-year internship. Launch slideshow »

Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson's Going Away Party

Intern Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson, left, with the Rev. Marta Poling-Goldenne, co-pastor of New Song Church in Henderson, shows a gift she received at a farewell party at the church on Saturday, July 27, 2013. Ferguson will soon complete her one-year internship at the church. Launch slideshow »

Kaitlyn Ferguson Preaching

Intern Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson poses with Pastor Marta Poling-Goldenne before her first morning of preaching at New Song Church in Henderson Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. Launch slideshow »

It was an experiment of sorts, this idea of inviting a young woman from the Midwest to live in Las Vegas — Sin City, as they say — so she could develop skills to become a church pastor.

And by all accounts, Kaitlyn Ferguson’s year-long internship at New Song Church in Henderson has been a huge success — for the 26-year-old Minnesotan who had never been to Las Vegas, for New Song Pastor Marta Poling-Goldenne and for the 1,000 congregants who watched Ferguson blossom into a spiritual leader.

Along the way, Ferguson saw Strip shows, preached about Jesus as a party animal, hiked through Red Rock Canyon, took spiritual walks with troubled parishioners, became an activist for new state legislation and even did what most tourists do: gamble.

“She’s ready,” said Poling-Goldenne, who coordinated the internship and prepared reports on Ferguson’s progress to leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synod.

“A few weeks ago, I watched her lead the congregation in communion and praying. She looked so confident. Her worship presence was so strong. I got very weepy, just thinking about how neat it was to see her thrive,” Poling-Goldenne said. “One of the comments I made in the final evaluation was that whatever congregation is blessed to call her for her first call out of seminary is going to be receiving a pastor who will function as if she has been in ministry for 10 years.”

Poling-Goldenne was out of town and didn’t get to hear the sermon about Jesus’ party days — an exploration of the parable of pouring new wine into old wineskins that illustrates God’s desire to open people’s minds to life’s miracles.

Ferguson likes writing sermons using experiences from modern life that make biblical stories come alive. She said she spends about an hour in research for every minute of a delivered sermon, and most of hers run between 12 and 15 minutes. She preached once or twice a month at all four services during her stay at New Song.

Her most challenging moments in the church came when she delivered pastoral care to people battered by life’s troubles.

“You can never fully prepare for the complexities of human life, so some of the pastoral care concerns were issues that I had not even thought about,” she said. “It’s walking with people, so I had the framework of learning how to listen empathetically and how to walk alongside somebody in their joys and struggles. But sometimes, you just can’t prepare for what people are going to tell you.”

Her responsibilities to confidentiality prevented her from getting into specifics.

“One of my professors for pastoral care said the most important thing you need to remember is to listen, listen, listen, shut up and then listen,” she said. “That held extremely true because people need a safe place to talk and to pray.”

In addition to taking spiritual walks with her church family, Ferguson literally walked a lot around the community.

She walked several miles a day in the winter months — something she could never do in Minneapolis. The experience has heightened her desire to be assigned to a congregation in the Southwest.

“I’ll take this (weather) over winter any day,” she said. “In Minnesota, I can endure the winter months, but I won’t do it quietly.”

She hiked with church friends and took a Lake Mead boat cruise, but it took her awhile to revisit the Las Vegas Strip after sightseeing there in the first week she arrived.

“It took a long time to build friendships and to say, ‘Hey, can we go play tourist?’” she said. “It’s like Disneyland for adults. It definitely caters to anything and everything you could ever imagine, and at times, it is quite intimidating.”

She went to some shows and concerts on the Strip, finding the Boulevard Pool at the Cosmopolitan to be her favorite event venue. She also loved the “Tournament of Kings” show at Excalibur.

Did a woman of the cloth gamble?

“Sure. I played slot machines mostly. Sometimes, I played a little blackjack.”

Did she win?

“No, I lost everything,” she said. “But I budgeted an amount I was willing to spend for entertainment and never went over that. And I still don’t understand craps. I heard that it has the best probability for winning, but I just don’t get it.”

Like long-time residents, she got used to welcoming friends who would visit her but want to spend their time playing, particularly on weekends when she was committed to church activities.

“I felt kind of like a fun-suck at times because I would have to be in bed by midnight at the latest, even though it was way later than I normally go to sleep,” she said.

Ferguson communicated some of her Las Vegas experiences with other interns on a Facebook page and discovered another classmate had taken an internship at Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas. His signature Las Vegas church experience was participating in a young adult group’s poker tournament.

One of Ferguson’s most fulfilling experiences at New Song was assisting the church’s advocacy role in the passage of Assembly Bill 67, legislation strengthening the state’s sex trafficking laws.

While Ferguson didn’t do any front-line lobbying — she felt as an out-of-state resident that it was inappropriate for her to attempt to persuade lawmakers to take a stand on pending state legislation — she worked with Poling-Goldenne and Nevadans for the Common Good in their efforts.

The church hosted Andrea Swanson, the mother of a sex-trafficking victim, who made public appearances in Southern Nevada in support of AB 67.

Today, Ferguson is days away from leaving New Song. The congregation already had a going-away event in her honor, giving her two stoles that she’ll need as part of her pastoral attire and a traveling communion set to offer the sacrament to shut-ins or hospitalized members.

Soon, her dad — a former bus driver who relishes cross-country journeys — will arrive to help her load 60 pounds of books into her car to return to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, where she’ll attend her final year of classes and reflect on her experiences in Las Vegas.

But before classes resume, she’ll begin a series of interviews to determine whether she’s ready. In February, church bishops will gather and review which churches need first-year pastors.

She’d love to be called to a big city in, say, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico or California.

“I can list my preferences,” she said. “But in the end, the bishops will decide my region, and I’m willing to let the Holy Spirit move them.”

As for New Song, a miracle of sorts occurred as the congregation considered whether to continue the internship program because of the costs involved. At a time when the congregation was considering other needs and retiring debt, funding a new intern was left out of the budget.

“But at our annual meeting in January, the congregation said, ‘We need to do this,’” Poling-Goldenne said. “In 10 minutes, members of the congregation pledged $28,000 to continue the internship program.”

Poling-Goldenne’s husband, David, the co-pastor at New Song, will be the internship coordinator next year, setting the stage for alternating years to guide the program in the future.

The church’s welcoming committee that coordinated Ferguson’s arrival a year ago renewed the lease on the apartment it had secured for her when she came. On Sept. 1, New Song will welcome Sara Suginaka, the church’s next intern.

“Kaitlyn set the bar really high for those who will come after her,” Poling-Goldenne said. “It gave the congregation a terrific experience of having its first full-time intern. I think we’ve decided that we’re going to take the role of being a training congregation for pastors.”

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