MANKATO — Mankato’s oldest congregation has a young pastor with bold ideas on how to lead the church into the future.
The Rev. Lindsay Conrad, 30, began leading worship at the First Presbyterian Church in January after arriving from North Carolina.
In the six months since, she’s taken on the challenge of expanding the church’s mission beyond its historic walls.
“It’s so important as a church to be able to clearly define what that role is, that key role we’re playing in the community,” she said. “I think it’s there, and I think it’s just a matter of rediscovering it and letting it be known.”
First Presbyterian was founded in 1855 and has been in its current, 220 E. Hickory St., building since 1896. Recent years were tough on the aging congregation. Conrad’s arrival came after about six years of interim leadership.
Rick Kramlinger, who serves on the church governing body known as the “Session,” said membership dropped during the lengthy search for a full-time senior pastor. Shrinking church membership is a reality across faiths, so selecting a community-minded, young pastor was First Presbyterian’s strategy to buck the trend.
“With Lindsay there’s a kind of a breath of new life in the church,” Kramlinger said. “ … Churches need to reinvent themselves every so many years, and I believe we’re in that phase now.”
The Session, composed of elected church elders, oversees financial matters for the congregation. This democratic process frees up the pastor to visit the sick, pursue the church’s community mission and focus on the ministry.
Conrad quickly set out to build relationships within the nonprofit community. She described her role, her first as a senior pastor, as being in part a “community developer.”
The Lynchburg, Virginia, native wants the church to be more involved in community projects, both within downtown and the community at large. She invited nonprofit representatives to come speak about their work at Sunday services, starting with Bukata Hayes from the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. Those community development conversations also include earnest discussions on how to best use currently unused space. Conrad mentioned possibly opening up space to a nonprofit in need in the future.
Kramlinger has children near Conrad’s age. He thinks her approach is what younger generations look for in a church.
“They say we just don’t want to come to church and sit and listen to dogma,” he said. “We want to see what you’re doing out in the community. We want to be involved in social justice issues.”
Conrad remembers the first question she was asked by the church’s pastor nominating committee, or PNC, was whether she’d be comfortable officiating a gay wedding. She responded by saying she’d do a wedding for any loving couple, but was interested in why they asked that first.
She found out several committee members had family who identified as LGBTQ. They didn’t just want a pastor who aligned with their welcoming values, they needed one.
“They weren’t just going to tolerate anything less than a loving pastor,” Conrad said. “I said ‘We’re going to be OK, guys.’”
Conrad’s millennial status also opened up new ministry opportunities at the parish. After her initial weeks in Mankato were marred by blizzardy weather, she decided to deliver a sermon one Sunday via Facebook Live so members didn’t have to brave the dangerous conditions.
“It turns out most of the aging congregation is very good at Facebook,” she said.
The church is now exploring more ways to incorporate modern technology into services. Nancy Zallek, a fifth generation member of the church, said Conrad’s enthusiasm was what resonated with the committee during her interview.
“I think the first word when you think of Lindsay is ‘energy,’” she said. “She just brings a vibrancy to the church that is so much fun.”
Conrad credited her congregation for being ready to try her new approaches. She said the community development, and healing the wounds created by so many years without a full-time pastor, will take time.
But after six months at the helm, she said she’s confident her congregation is up for the task.
“The people that are here are hearty,” she said. “They love this church, they are unbelievably generous and they’re ready for a new chapter.”