Rev. Bridget Haefner, new pastor at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, spent the first 20 years of her working life as an attorney in the corporate world and then felt a calling to take a different path — the ministry.
“There are more people like me than you realize,” Haefner said, as she reflected on her life, both past and present. While attending classes at the seminary, she came across a lot of second career people like her. She even encountered a criminal defense attorney that she knew in passing from her previous career. The average age of the seminary students was in the early 40s.
Haefner’s career travels began when she graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in zoology. After completing law school in Michigan, she worked as an attorney for Kellogg and then Pillsbury. She attended the UCC seminary while working at Pillsbury and was ordained in March, 2005.
Haefner was licensed in her new calling before she was ordained. Her first pastorships were simultaneous ones at St. Matthews UCC in Forest City and Peace UCC in Eden Valley. Needing a mental break, she left the two churches and worked at Bachman’s and Super America. “I still loved the church, but I had no place in mind to go,” Haefner said.
“When the opportunity came up at St. Paul’s (in Delano), it was too good to be true,” she said. “It was just fortuitous.”
Last October, she filled in at St. Paul’s when the church was between pastors. She met people she already knew and she discovered similarities between the Delano church and her churches in Forest City and Eden Valley. For example, German immigrants and farmers founded all three churches, and they originally had services in German.
Haefner brings to Delano other life experiences as well. She has been married for 32 years and has four children in their 20s — two girls and two boys.
She was asked if it helps a person to have lived life for awhile before entering the ministry.
“There’s advantages both ways,” Haefner said. Someone entering the seminary right out of college “is not going to have the same experiences.”
Someone working in the corporate world will discover that “all corporations are going to have politics,” she said. “It’s hard to figure out what’s right.” Corporations are like people when it comes to making choices.”
“None of us are immune from making bad choices,” she said. As an example, she mentioned corporate layoffs. Sometimes corporations help people who are being laid off, sometimes corporations are “pretty brutal,” and some companies find ways to cut costs without laying people off. This third choice is a compassionate one.
“Being part of a church shows people that what we do in a community really does matter,” she said.
Haefner noted that St. Paul’s is a small church. When the church is packed for holiday services, perhaps 80 people are in attendance. This means that the congregation does not have ambitious ministries, such as a homeless shelter.
So she sees St. Paul’s as playing a different role. “When you are a little church, you can equip people to make a difference where they work,” she said. “Sometimes we underplay just making the world better.”
A person can be polite and show other people that he or she cares about them by opening the door at the gas station, Haefner said. Or when someone calls an insurance company about an unpaid claim, he or she can realize that the person on the other end of the phone is doing the best they can. They might have no role in determining how fast a claim gets paid.
UCC churches respond a lot to conversations they have with the communities in which they are located, she said. These churches have a wide variety of mission opportunities and worship practices. The UCC church in Anoka is working with Muslim youth and helping community members learn from each other.
UCC congregations look to see what’s needed and what they can provide for the rest of the community, Haefner said. She is still getting a feel for what St. Paul’s can provide for Delano.
So far she is excited about a new Bible study group that began meeting this spring on Tuesday evenings. The group has been discussing John Shelby Spong’s book “Reclaiming the Bible for a Non Religious World,” which explores how the Bible got written and woven together. Anyone can attend the study group.
Haefner likes St. Paul’s small size. “We are small, and because of that we are intimate,” she said. “If you don’t know people when you first come, you will know them in a week or two. You get a sense of being part of a family — sort of like a family reunion.”
“I am amazed at the stories people have,” Haefner said. “They don’t fit into a category. There is so much more to them.”