Pastor Craig Simenson has been serving as pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in Darlington for a little less than a year now, but said he is still learning about the community of the congregation as well as the wider community of Darlington.
After several years of interim ministers and focusing on internal maintenance and structure at the Grace Lutheran Church, before Simenson arrived as a permanent minister, the congregation is now beginning to turn outwards and develop a plan and outreach in regards to the greater community.
One result of that shift in focus has been the formation of a free community Thanksgiving meal event that will be held at Grace Lutheran Church on Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, beginning at 11 a.m. The meal is open to all, particularly those that may not have family to celebrate the holiday with or cannot afford a big meal for their family.
The event will include the traditional Thanksgiving menu of turkey, ham, potatoes, dressing, corn, salads, rolls, pies & desserts, and will be held in the basement of the church, and although reservations are not necessary, they would be appreciated. Reservations can be left as a message with number of kids and adults attending the meal at 608-776-4462.
Simenson noted that the idea for a community Thanksgiving dinner was first suggested by a congregation member who then connected with a few other members, who have since taken on the major planning of the event.
“I’m not really the one organizing it,” said Simenson. “I’m helping with the marketing mostly, but it’s really been the brainchild of the congregation members, which I think is great, because the minister shouldn’t always be the one spearheading things like this. It’s my job to help facilitate these things and equip congregation members, so that’s really exciting.”
Simenson, who originally grew up in Dodgeville, feels that as someone who is still learning about the community and environment, ideas like this should come from community members themselves, who know more about what will connect with the community, rather than him alone.
Simenson started at Grace Lutheran Church around Jan. 20 this year after being ordained in Grace Lutheran Church in Dodgeville, his home church, just a few days before on Jan. 17.
His path to the ministry is an interesting tale. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 2004, he left the area and traveled to the east coast, where he stayed in North Carolina, then Boston, Mass. for approximately seven years doing volunteer management work for children’s charities.
Then in 2008 he decided to attend Harvard Divinity School, but not originally with the intention of becoming a minister.
“When I moved to Boston I wasn’t really interested in the Lutheran Church,” he said. “I was raised Lutheran, but had gotten away from that and was trying to find my way I guess.”
Then during his first term at divinity school he felt that he was being called back to his roots, and even though he wasn’t really a part of that world anymore, the calling he felt was specifically towards the Lutheran faith.
He began to look into what it would mean to become a Lutheran minister, and proceeded with the three-year program at Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 2011.
From there he took an internship doing a hospital chaplaincy at Meriter Hospital in Madison for the summer, as completing a chaplaincy for a unit is part of the process to becoming a minister with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). That internship then developed into a 15-month experience, after which Simenson completed another year of study at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He then participated in a required year-long internship with a congregation at the United Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Neb., completing that last August and moving back to Chicago to complete his Master of Theology and wait for his assignment, which would eventually bring him to Darlington.
Since then he has been learning the community and the congregation and working with the congregation to develop a current mission and identity for the church and building on the energy of the congregation.
“Coming into a new community means finding a balance between honoring who I am and my ideas, and what the values of the community are,” he explained. “I don’t want to just come in with a bunch of ideas that will throw people off.”
Simenson said that he has also been working with the congregation to understand that the church is bigger than just a local congregation or community.
“We’re working on building the community of churches and seeing what that can become, as well as looking at ways to connect with the wider Lutheran Church,” said Simenson.
Simenson said he is also excited about the opportunity to work on faith formation for the youth and children of the congregation.
“I want to get as many kids involved as possible,” he said. “Kids are very important to a congregation’s values and we are lucky enough to have a healthy population of youth in our congregation, so it’s exciting to think about ways to get kids more involved or having the kids help lead us.”
Simenson was recently married in August to Hannah Campbell Gustafson.