When local pastors were asked who among them should be featured in the newspaper, the name that most often came back was Rev. James Neubauer, senior pastor at St. Johns Lutheran Church in Park Rapids.
Asked why this might be, Neubauer suggested, “I’ve just been here long enough that people know my name.”
They’ve had plenty of time to learn it. Called as an associate pastor in 1994, fresh out of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., Neubauer has served the congregation for 26 years.
He moved into the senior role in 2000, when Rev. Donald Fondow became president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s Minnesota North District.
Neubauer’s long stay is far from unusual for the congregation. Organized in 1908, it has had at least three pastors who served for more than 20 years – including Fondow (21 years).
Other staff members tend to stick around, too, including office manager Ginny Ranisate, now in her 28th year, and preschool teacher and director Kim Neubauer, in her 25th.
Married since 1997, Kim and James met on the job at St. Johns and now have four children, ranging from a third grader to a freshman at M State. If they hadn’t worked together, he said, “I would have never gotten to know her well enough to cross that pastor-parishioner line.”
Asked why longevity seems to be the rule at St. Johns, Pastor Neubauer said it’s “an excellent congregation” that has very little internal conflict, and whose members respect their pastoral and lay leadership. He also cited the beauty of the area and all the nearby conveniences.
Neubauer has also had plenty of help. Three associate pastors have worked with him, each serving St. Johns for an average of seven years. Currently sharing pastoral duties with Neubauer is Rev. Joel Newton.
In addition, they’ve had a succession of retired ministers serving as visitation pastors, whom Neubauer called “some really great guys” and a “great blessing for us.” Most recent among them is Rev. Bill Knaack, a son of the congregation, who calls on elderly and homebound members and brings communion to those who can’t make it to church.
Redeeming the time
Neubauer said sermon preparation takes up a big part of his routine – approximately 10 hours a week, when it’s his turn to preach.
“Sunday is a pretty hard deadline,” he laughed. “People expect you to be preaching at the service, not after it.”
This process includes choosing the text, studying, developing ideas and planning the whole service. It goes to the reason the pastor’s office is traditionally called a study, he said.
“One of the things that pastors are called to do is study and to work at understanding Scripture as well as being able to apply that Scripture to life,” said Neubauer. “It’s one of the great blessings, here, of having two pastors, as the deadline is not quite as often.”
He said he and Newton split the preaching schedule 50/50 and take turns in the pulpit on major holidays. Besides Sunday services, they also have midweek worship during Advent and Lent as well as special times like Christmas.
COVID-19 has made Neubauer more aware than usual of the amount of time he spends talking with people, making phone calls and doing home visits.
“One of the things, this year, that’s taken up a lot more time than it has in the past is trying to work with the technology,” he added. “Trying to get out live streams, support people that can’t be coming in for worship and the like.”
The congregation also has several weekly Bible classes. Neubauer leads one on Sunday mornings, between worship services, as well as a Tuesday morning class that has been going since before he came to town.
“We just get into a book (of the Bible) and go through the whole book, drawing connections to other parts of Scripture and whatnot,” he said of the Tuesday class, while describing the Sunday morning class as “more of a topical type of Bible study.”
Meetings can also be a big part of a pastor’s life, but Neubauer said St. Johns has all its board and committee meetings on one night and oversight of them is divided between the pastors. Neubauer is responsible for the boards of elders, evangelism, education and stewardship.
Speaking of education, Neubauer also provides catechism instruction for students seeking confirmation, as well as youth religion classes during the week – most years.
“I’m sad that we aren’t having release time from the public school this year because of COVID-19,” he said, adding that he fills in occasionally as a substitute teacher at the Park Rapids schools.
A secondary education major in college, Neubauer taught for two years at a now-defunct Lutheran high school in Detroit, Mich. before attending seminary.
Another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, is being able to visit parishioners in hospitals and long-term care. “The restrictions have made that very difficult this year, and that’s sad for everybody involved,” he said. “You want to go, and you’re not allowed in. Hopefully, that will be changing in the next six months or so.”
Joys and sorrows
“While I’ve been here, we’ve had the joy of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the congregation as well as the 50th anniversary of moving to our present building,” said Neubauer. “It’s always a joy, just to remember and to reflect on how God has been at work in our congregation, and through our congregation in the community.”
On a more personal level, he said, “I always enjoy being able to celebrate with people their weddings, their anniversaries, and be with them in their times of grief as well. That’s one of the great things in ministry: You get to be with people in the whole experiences of their life.”
Births, baptisms, confirmations and graduations included, he said.
Sometimes, tragedies strike close together and test pastors’ ability to comfort the grieving. Neubauer recalled one week, early in his ministry, when an older lady in the congregation died suddenly, a young man committed suicide and a couple had stillborn twins.
“Our main focus,” he said, “is to continue to constantly point people to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. One of the things that I enjoy about our liturgical style of worship is that, every time we have service, we’re running through the full gamut of ancient Christianity, starting with the recognition of our sin, our failure, our shortcomings, and receiving the blessing of God’s grace of forgiveness in Christ.”
He added that the historic liturgy calls to mind Christmas in one song (“Glory to God in the highest”), Palm Sunday in another (“Hosanna”) and Easter throughout. “We give people the constancy of the faith,” he said, “to encourage them through daily life and to prepare them for difficult times, because they will come.
“It gives them that rock-solid hope that we have in Christ, and (continues) to direct them to the promises of God, especially that greatest promise that there’s nothing in life, in death, that can separate us from the love of God, demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.”
He said this promise keeps him going through life’s ups and downs. “When things are tough, it’s the thing that keeps righting me and strengthening me,” he said. “Always the forward look to the resurrection.”
Emotion filled Neubauer’s voice as he quoted one his favorite hymn stanzas: “And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, alleluia.”
At home, he enjoys walking, hiking and playing cards and board games with his family. “I used to enjoy doing stained glass, and I used to enjoy pleasure reading,” he added. “Both of those seem to have fallen by the wayside as the family grew, and those time commitments.”
He hinted that many people would be surprised to learn how many pastors are really introverts.
“We have a very public-facing job, and we put ourselves out there, standing in front of people, proclaiming the word to them,” said Neubauer. “There’s a lot of us that are a little more contemplative and lead a quieter life than what it would seem, having to stand in front of people and preach.”
Asked what he would tell someone thinking about becoming a pastor, he said, “Let’s be honest, it actually is a very difficult job, especially at times. But the rewards are great. Again, being able to walk with people and to celebrate the good things and to give them comfort in the tough times – that’s just something you have to experience, and when you do, you find the joy of it all.”