Highlighting Inspiring Women: She helps community members connect with God

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Pastor Deb Parkison

Pastor Erika Kielstrup

Throughout March, which is Women’s History Month, the North Iowa Times is again publishing a series of article highlighting local women. Whether it’s through their careers, hobbies, volunteer efforts or unique personalities, these women have become an inspiration to others.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“It is a call.”

Pastor Erika Kielstrup was a kid when she first heard God beckoning her to ministry. At 14, the Wisconsin native read scripture at one of her cousin’s weddings, and throughout high school, she became heavily involved in her home church, doing everything from reading to singing in the choir. She also enjoyed attending synod activities. Something held her back, though.

“I just thought it was uncool,” she admitted, “that pastors were stuffy.”

So, she went to college and majored in history. But without a job following graduation, Kielstrup was drawn back to her church, taking a part-time position as a project coordinator. Watching her “cool pastor,” she realized she could still wear blue jeans and socialize—she could still be a normal person.

A few years after college, she went to seminary. 

“I took a little time to listen to God’s call,” Kielstrup said, “but it was where I was meant to be.”

Pastor Deb Parkison had a similar experience. Born in southwest Iowa, she was first drawn to music ministry, singing a solo as early as age 3, then organizing music at both her home church and nearby Presbyterian church. She also had a gospel quartet called Sweet Harmony.

She was in high school when she was called to pastoral ministry, “but I didn’t really answer,” Parkison shared. “I tried again in my 20s, but it was hard for women to get into it at that time.”

Instead, she chose nursing, a profession she enjoyed for 24 years. 

But God kept calling. In 2005, Parkison finally became a pastor.

“This was the best thing I ever did,” she said.

Becoming a pastor is no simple task.

“A lot of people go online and get this fake ‘I’m a pastor,’” Parkison noted, “but that’s not how it really is.”

Both women went through several years of extensive training that prepared them with both the theological and practical knowledge they’d need to lead their own churches. They were evaluated by countless committees, as well as background checked and psychologically tested.

“Being a pastor is very emotional and high stress,” said Kielstrup, “so you need to be ready.”

Kielstrup’s first church was St. Paul Lutheran, in Monona, where she’s now served for six years. She was the church’s first “first call,” or newly-minted pastor, as well as its first full-time woman pastor.

Although, at age 30, she was considered mature for a new pastor, Kielstrup said her age was often commented upon.

“It was a challenge the first couple years,” she remarked, feeling the weight of having to prove herself. “But people have to take into account my story.”

Having gone through the loss of a parent, “I get what people are going through because I’ve had to go through it,” Kielstrup said. She hasn’t always been a pastor or an academic; she’s spent time punching a clock and working long hours in customer service. “That’s part of my experience.”

Parkison came to the Living Faith United Methodist Parish, which has churches in Giard, McGregor and Monona, in July 2017, just a few weeks before the tornado hit McGregor. 

“It was trial by fire,” she said. “Father Nils [from the Catholic church] and I spent the day trucking food and water all over town. I really got to know the people of McGregor and Marquette, and it was a good way to let them know we care for them.”

Parkison admits there’s no typical week for a pastor. Aside from worship on Sundays, the two ladies spend time throughout the week writing sermons and planning services, organizing confirmation classes and children’s programs, helping with the church bulletins and newsletters, attending meetings and visiting nursing homes, hospitals and community members who may be unable to attend church.

They’re also active in the community. 

“What I love about my position is my schedule is flexible,” said Kielstrup, who is on the library board in Monona and also volunteers with the Women’s Club and at the school. “The pastor goes out among the people and meets them where they are—at sporting events, at the play, at the grocery store and even at the bar or a wedding dance. I want them to know I’m approachable.”

“It’s fun to see the connection outside church,” she continued. “I see my call as being a pastor to the whole community. I’m called to care for all God’s people.”

 Parkison agreed: “I like to be out about. I do as much as I possibly can.”

“That’s when people learn to relate to you best,” she added. “They see you not just as a pastor, but as a person. I have the same trials and tribulations other people do.”

Community members are responding well to the pastors’ positivity and relatability. Both parishes have seen growth, especially in the amount of children participating in activities. 

Although it can sometimes be difficult, Kielstrup and Parkison said, as women, they also bring something unique to the position. 

“There are some things women can deal with in ministry that maybe a man can’t because he hasn’t been through it—like a mother going through pregnancy and struggling with birth, a woman who’s been abused or a mother struggling with children who are struggling,” Parkison said. “It’s not that a great man can’t do those things. It’s just that we have different outlooks on things. That’s why it’s good to have both men and women.”

For her, Kielstrup said there’s never been a question as to whether women can be pastors.

“Women can do anything,” she explained. “Women are strong and compassionate, and that’s what you need to be a pastor. We don’t need to be men. You can do it all and do it in the way you want to do it and bring out your attributes for your profession.”

Parkison said the church can be an empowering career option for women.

“People need to see empowered women who are able to stand up and fight for what they believe in, and ministry is a great way to do it,” she stated. “You get to touch people’s lives in ways you never thought you could.”

Being a pastor can be emotional, especially when they lose church members and friends, but Kielstrup and Parkison enjoy being part of so many different people’s journeys. 

“I love the people—watching their faith and seeing it grow and connect, especially with the kids,” Kielstrup noted. “There’s this innocence of childhood. They just say what’s on their minds.”

Parkison said ministry, and sharing her love of the Lord with others, brings her peace—a calm she’d never felt before. 

“I’ve helped families deal with death and loss. I’ve found joy at baptisms and weddings. I don’t know of any other career that can bring as much fulfillment,” she shared. “So many people have made me a better person and pastor for having known them. I love God, and I want them to see Christ working through me, so they can find that light.”

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