By Kendra Whittle
Standing at the front of the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus, Concordia Seminary’s Director of Placement Dr. Wallace Becker began announcing the list of students and their placements as pastors at congregations around the country. He read the first two names on the list and then, “Dustin Atkinson, Northwest District, pastor, Star of the North Lutheran Church, Kenai, Alaska.”
A spattering of applause and an audible “ooh” could be heard throughout the chapel on the evening of April 26, 2017, Call Day, as Atkinson stepped forward to receive his first call into ministry. Standing 6-foot-8, Atkinson towered over Becker as he shook his hand.
But this evening he stood out not for his height; this time it was because he received the farthest U.S. call for the 2017 concluding class at Concordia Seminary, 3,873 miles away from St. Louis.
His call to a small community in Alaska has attracted much curiosity and questions from other seminarians as well as family and friends. “I’ve had some people ask, ‘Did you even want to go there?’ or ‘How did you feel about the call?’ wondering if I was upset about it,” Atkinson said. “But I’m happy about it.”
Happy, true. But also nervous. “I don’t know a lot about the congregation or the people of Kenai,” Atkinson admitted. “I don’t have a lot of information. But I have more than Abraham had! This is definitely God telling me to go and trust Him, that this is the ministry for me.”
Atkinson first felt the nudge to go into ministry during confirmation classes at Rock of Ages Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. He said his pastor and youth leader told congregation members about him, “We’re getting another one ready for the Seminary!” Initially, Atkinson laughed it off. But God was working in his heart, and he began to take their comments seriously. He eventually went on to Concordia University Nebraska, Seward, enrolling in the pre-seminary program. It was a seamless transition to Concordia Seminary.
When it came to the call process four years later, Atkinson said he was hoping to move west of the Mississippi River, but he admits he was still a little taken aback when Becker asked him how he would feel about serving a congregation in Alaska. “I told him, ‘Let me ask my wife,’” Atkinson said. “And Ashley said, ‘I feel like this is God asking us, Do you trust Me?’” The couple prayed about it, and told Becker they were ready with open hearts and open minds.
“I felt strongly about this call,” Becker said. “When I saw the call from Star of the North, I immediately thought of Dustin.” Becker said Atkinson’s willingness to serve in the LCMS Northwest District, his preference for a sole pastor call and his excitement at the idea of ministering in a new type of community set the seminarian apart.
Atkinson said it wasn’t a complete surprise when he received the call to Kenai, but learned quickly that while a move to Alaska would be an adventure, it also would be a challenge.
Star of the North Interim Pastor Noel Koss said he has had several phone conversations with Atkinson about the church and the community that he will soon call home. “Kenai was once part of an oil-rich area of Alaska, but in recent years it has seen an economic downturn,” Koss said. “It’s left 40 empty business buildings in its wake. The congregation also has suffered.”
The congregation, which has about 90 confirmed members, wants to engage younger families in Kenai with the church.
“We are grateful God would give us such an enthusiastic, Christ-centered young man as Dustin to be our pastor,” Koss said via telephone.
Atkinson says he understands ministry and culture in Alaska will be different from what he experienced during his vicarage assignment in Everett, Wash. He said in his experience, churches are smaller and the population is less likely to be churched, but the people are open to talking about faith and religion.
When he arrives in Kenai, he plans to get involved in the community and with the people. He wants to go to coffee shops, visit parishioners at work and home, and make a real life in Alaska and with its people.
Atkinson said he has a feeling he’s going to stand out naturally, but not because of his height. “I imagine people will react strangely to me being a pastor in a church because of my age,” said Atkinson, who is 26. “I don’t think they have had many young pastors.”
The couple is once again in a position of trusting God. They will soon make the 65-hour drive to their new home, their new ministry and their new life. Atkinson said there will be a lot to learn.
“But God is telling me to go,” he said. “And so I am!”
Kendra Whittle is a communications specialist at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.