The Rev. Judy Converse leads you into the large, empty nave of First Lutheran Church, a place she is still learning about since assuming her position here Dec. 1.
“It is beautiful isn’t it?” she asked, surveying the rows of wooden pews, stained-glass windows, high timbered ceilings and red carpeted chancel, or altar area.
Lutheran churches in Iowa are much larger than the one she attended in Massachusetts, where she formerly lived, Converse said.
“My sense here, at least, is the church is still very much the center of the community,” she said in her friendly down-to-earth manner.
“It’s where relationships are formed. It is a busy place. I didn’t sense that as much in New England.”
A native of Edina, Minn., Converse, 55, is new to the clergy.
She is also quite new to the Lutheran Church.
Raised in a church-going family in the Evangelical Covenant Church, she and her husband, Steve, discovered the Lutheran Church while living in Chicago.
After first attending the churches they each had grown up in, they found they felt more at home in a Lutheran church they discovered in Evanston, Ill.
“It was wonderfully welcoming,” Converse said.
Then working with a master’s degree as a social worker in Cook County Hospital, Converse had found fulfillment providing social and psychological care for neurology patients at that stage in her life.
Steve changed jobs and, in 1996, the family moved to Groton, Mass. Converse became a stay-at-home mother for their daughters, Maggie, Lizzie and Christie.
It was when her daughters were looking at colleges that Converse started re-evaluating what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“I came back to the realization that I really would like to work for the church,” she said.
She consulted a Lutheran candidacy committee that steered her into the ministry.
Her basic theological training began at Andover Newton Theological School near Boston.
From there she entered 10 months of intense study at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
“That’s where I really got immersed in the Lutheran doctrine,” she reflected.
Lutheranism was not so different from the religious doctrine she had grown up with, Converse said.
“I think there are some Lutheran emphases that I really treasure and which I’ve found helpful for my own faith and life,” she said. “I like Luther’s emphasis on grace. Grace is God’s invitation and gift to us all the time.
“I really cherish the idea of God’s word as both law and gospel. We hear the word and it has its effect on the heart of the listener through the Holy Spirit.”
She believes her decision to enter the ministry later in life — she was in her mid-40s — allowed her to gain a life experience that enables her “to understand the needs of families, the desires of parents, the needs of older people,” Converse said.
Having experienced fairly traumatic conflict issues at other churches, she has come to believe in the importance of addressing problems openly. She plans to take training as a mediator to better serve the needs of her parishioners.
Her immediate goal at First Lutheran, however, is to listen to the members of her congregation and get to know them better.
“I want to help them see what they can be and do in this world.”
Hal Johnson, a lifetime member of First Lutheran and chairman of the church Call Committee, said the eight members of the committee were unanimous in their selection of Converse over many other candidates.
“She’s very approachable and very easy to talk to,” he said. “She had a very good background of working with children and adults. She exemplifies open communication, which was very important to us.”
Johnson said the Call Committee was also impressed with the support she has from Steve, who is self-employed.
“Her view of the ministry and her approach to it are entirely positive for us,” Johnson said. “We haven’t been disappointed.”