FACES OF FAITH
The Rev. Emily Munger is pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ, 123 N. Highland, Pierre. She lives on the Eagle Pass Ranch east of Highmore with her husband, A.J. Munger and their son, Briggs, and daughter, Blair.
She talked with Capital Journal Reporter Stephen Lee about her faith and work. This is an edited version of the interview.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: In Arlington, South Dakota, on a hobby farm, next to my grandparents’ farm, who were farmers. My parents didn’t farm, but just had animals and stuff. My family is still there.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I received my bachelor’s degree in Christian education and youth ministry from Northwestern College, in Orange City, Iowa. I volunteered for two years with the Red Cloud Indian School at Pine Ridge.
Q: You went to seminary?
A: I got my master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. I also got my master of social work degree from Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work in New Jersey.
Q: So you were planning on being a pastor in South Dakota?
A: I was still thinking about it. My husband was with me out in New Jersey and he got a little homesick and we moved back to South Dakota.
Q: Your husband, A.J., is out moving hay and cattle today getting ready for more snow and cold. Do you work out on the ranch?
A: No, not really. I’m here occasionally for sales. We market cattle to both small farmers as well as commercial guys. Bulls. It’s a genetic seed stock type of ranch, which means a lot of high-tech stuff going on behind the scenes.
Q: How did you decide to go into the ministry? Did you grow up going to church?
A: Yes. My first call to ministry started when I was very young. We were part of a holiness church, the First Church of God, Anderson, Indiana. It was part of a youth event, a national church convention, that kind of sparked my interest, one when I was 14, in Orlando, and one when I was 16, in Denver.
The one in Orlando when I was 14, was the first time I had this sense that, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in my life, but whatever it is, it will be 100 percent for Jesus.
Then my youth pastor began calling me “Pastor Emily.” I was 15 and thought he was kind of ridiculous. But he ended up asking me to preach a couple of times, when I was 15.
Q: Wow, that’s unusual. Who was that pastor?
A: That would be Pastor T. J. Carlson. For a longtime now he’s been a chaplain with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at SDSU in Brookings.
Q: And he called you “Pastor Emily,” when you were 15?
A: Yes. And it just sort of stuck. And when I was 16 at this youth convention in Denver and the theme was “The Time is Now,” and they had a kind of altar call and I went forward and there were tears and everything, all sorts of emotions. It was a very moving moment in my life. Then I came back and realized, “Hey, maybe I’m going to be a pastor.”
Q: That’s pretty rare, isn’t it?
A: I do think people are kind of surprised it happened at that age.For me at the time, it wasn’t too young. But it was just not a thing I had grown up with, of women in ministry. So that (Denver event) was very much my call, “I’m in it for the long haul and not sure what it means. But here I am, God.”
Q: And you do still look back at that time as part of your call into the ministry?
A: I’ve called it a defining moment for sure. Absolutely a spiritual moment of calling that continues to inform me. So whenever I get into the trenches, that sense of call really grounds me.
Q: You were ordained into the ministry in the Congregational/UCC in September 2014 while serving a congregation in Columbia, South Dakota. You have been the pastor here in Pierre about a year and a half. What do you think?
A:This last fall we had a series of “cottage meetings,” that were really good. About 60 people who participated; we held nine of the cottage meetings, we talked about our mission statement, who we are and whoe was want to become. I felt it paired nicely with my beginning in the pastorate, to see what the congregation sees as their purpose and sense of identity.
Q: You didn’t grow up in the Congregational Church and went to a Presbyterian seminary. Most people in this community don’t go to a Congregational Church. Do you find people asking you about it?
A: (With a laugh) No one knows about us. It’s an interesting conversation because . . . when I say Congregational, people don’t really know what that means.
It’s different than Catholic, or Lutheran, Episcopal or Methodist churches. We don’t have a “top-down” governing system. It’s very much “bottom-up.” That surprises people who are so used to the way most other mainline churches do things. In our church polity, we are called from the local congregation, so the process of being authorized for ministry will not occur unless someone receives a call from a local congregation. And it is a requirement in the UCC that pastors have to have membership in the local congregation. That’s one of the things I value. Then I am tithing to the church I am serving. I’m fully invested here, there’s a sense of real commitment, a personal investment as well as a professional one.
Q: Do you mark the church seasons and holidays in the UCC?
This year we are starting a new program this year for Lent that includes the kids doing Bible theater on Wednesdays. I’m really looking forward to that. We start with a meal and the confirmation students lead us in a brief, what I call ‘artful,’ worship. Then adults go into small groups and the kids will be doing some Bible theater about Jesus’ miracles. And they will present that for the parents in the last week of Lent, April 10.
Q: So, now as a pastor yourself, have you asked a 15-year-old to preach?
A: On Feb. 3, we had our confirmands lead the worship services and, yes, I had a 14-year-old preach in the services. I absolutely think that is part of it. I am inspired that my pastor chose to trust me and think my words were enough for that moment. And that is so important for young people to be up front in church and in general, in life. It’s discipling.
Q: Your pastor seemed to see your calling before you did when you were 15?
A: Yes. It is rare. Maybe I should call my young people as pastors. It’s a powerful thing, identity.
Faces of Faith appears in the Friday Capital Journal, featuring people from the community sharing about their faith and life. Please send any comments or suggestions for Faces of Faith to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (605-224-7301, ext. 130.