Reverend Elizabeth “Elly” McHan never wanted to be a pastor. She is, however, now the latest addition to Concordia’s ministry. Her father was a pastor, and she remembers how hard he worked. So when it came time to choose a career, McHan said, “The only thing I knew was that I would not be a pastor.”
Instead, she chose music. Throughout her childhood in Canada she played violin in church–“rather screechingly,” she recalls. Her passion for music eventually took her to the University of Alberta, where she received her Bachelor of Music for violin and viola performance. It took her even further, to Austria, where she studied viola performance. But it was not long before she realized something was missing.
“The realization in Austria was that the part of music I really loved was the connection between music and church,” she said. “I love music, but I love it with church.”
And so, after slightly less than a year in Austria, McHan quit her music studies and enrolled in seminary at Wartburg College in Iowa, where she earned her Masters of Divinity. There, she realized her passion for teaching.
“I’m a liturgy geek,” she said. “I love teaching about worship, and I love including other people.”
In a complete turnaround from her original ideas, her plan now was to become a parish pastor like her father. But once again, her plans changed. Instead of staying local as she had originally wanted, she spent 2008-2009 serving the American Lutheran congregation through Horizontal International Internships in Oslo, Norway. There she worked at a church where nearly 30 different countries were represented within the congregation.
Following that year, she had the opportunity to work in Jerusalem as the communication assistant to the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land [ELCJHL] through the Global Mission unit of the ELCA. The church, she said, is “a church that was never meant to be a church.” This is because it grew out of the desire of the students who were part of the ELCJHL educational programs, McHan explained.
“I was working in the midst of a place that is always in the midst of interfaith conversation,” McHan said. “[The pastors] are an integral part of the Palestinian-Arab society. All people, Muslim and Christian alike, see that and know that.”
McHan described Jerusalem as a place in great need of service, and said that she quickly fell in love with the students, the church and the culture of her new home. Her plan was to spend three years serving there, but, once again, her plans changed. This time, it was due to the influence of Concordia alumnus Renee Sickel Larson, who was McHan’s close friend as well as the preacher at President Craft’s inaugural chapel.
While McHan was teaching in Jerusalem, a search committee of eight, headed by Provost Mark Krejci, had formed in light of former Concordia Pastor Tessa Moon Leiseth’s decision to serve in South Africa. Larson had read that Concordia was hiring a new Associate Pastor and recommended to McHan that she apply.
“There are people out there who see potential in me that I couldn’t ever dream of,” McHan said. “So when a mentor comes to me and says, ‘I read this call description and immediately thought of you, and every time I’ve thought of it since, I’ve thought of you, and it’s been two months so I at least have to tell you.’ I trust the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Among other things, the job description asked for someone with at least three years as an ordained pastor in ministry with the ELCA. Preferred qualifications included “gifts for worship planning,” “a sense of humor,” “a spirit of compassion acceptance and grace,” “interfaith insight and sensitivity to traditions beyond the ELCA” and “gifts for hospitality and community building.”
Larson, as well as McHan’s other friends and mentors, brought this description to her attention. As she began to take interest, she recalled the words of Larson: “Keep opening doors, and when the time comes to go through one, you’ll know which one.”
“It was a very long, hard decision,” she said. “Through all of it, it was, ‘Keep opening doors, keep opening doors.’”
In the summer of 2012, McHan came back to the United States on “home assignment” in order to travel and share her stories from service in Jerusalem. In July, she was part of the staff for an ELCA youth convention in New Orleans, where she worked with six other Palestinian youth. The team, which was called the “Wall Team,” brought people from ten countries at war to tell stories.
“Not just of war,” McHan said, “but of reconciliation and hope and tearing down walls.”
An unforeseen addition to her summer plans was meeting Reverend Tom Schlotterbeck, director of vocation and church leadership at Concordia.
At this point, the search committee had still been unsuccessful in choosing a candidate. Remembering the recommendations for McHan, Schlotterbeck told Krejci that he would seek her out at an upcoming conference. They were both attending the Western North Dakota Synod Assembly held in Minot on May 31-June 2, and it was there that they were able to converse about working at Concordia.
“It was quite humorous, actually,” said Schlotterbeck. “She and I were checking into the hotel, and as I was checking in at the front desk, so was she. So within five minutes of arriving, we met.”
Schlotterbeck recalled that they discussed the mission, culture and well-being of Concordia and that he inquired about her life journey.
“It was a rich conversation,” he said with a laugh. “My impression was that this was a pastor of great substance, who had already expanded global travels and cultural contexts beyond her years. Over the course of the conversation, it was clear to me this was someone the college should consider.”
After making the necessary contacts, the search committee met again. Schlotterbeck proceeded to invite McHan to visit Concordia on her way through Minnesota. She came to visit in late June, and began her process of getting to know Concordia right away.
That evening of the visit, McHan had a scary moment of realization.
“I realized, I really do feel called to this place,” she said. “By the end of the day, walking out those doors after interview day – it was call.”
Fortunately, the search committee also felt that McHan was the right fit for Concordia.
“It just felt like a great match,” said Campus Pastor Tim Megorden.
He said he was impressed by McHan’s “amazing musical background,” as well as her work in interfaith ministry. He laughed at the appropriateness of her internship in Oslo and joked, “So she’s used to hanging around with a bunch of Norwegians.”
Both he and the rest of the committee, Megorden said, were excited about her youthfulness and “her ability to see through the eyes and heart of a young adult.”
Schlotterbeck was equally impressed by what he saw in McHan, and the feedback he received from her peers, mentors, former professors and bishops she had worked under.
“Each of her references echoed this theme of theological integrity in her own Christian tradition, and deep appreciation for other religious traditions,” he said. “I asked them, ‘Would Elly be a fit? Would such a context for service be wholesome for Elly, and wholesome for Concordia?’ and each of them responded with a deep, resounding ‘yes.’”
She received news that she was hired in early July, with a start date in early August. The hardest part, she said, was the ten days she spent in Jerusalem saying her goodbyes and packing up her belongings.
“It was a very sad ten days,” she said.
With the help of her family and Schlotterbeck, she moved into her new home in West Fargo on Friday, August 10. That Monday, she began her work at Concordia. One week earlier, she had been in Jerusalem.
“There is lots of reverse culture shock,” she said.
There is a different pace of life here, she said. She spoke of the 30-foot wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank, through which her only access was by flashing her blue American passport. Today, every morning she drives as far as Jerusalem is from Bethlehem, crossing state lines by crossing a bridge.
“[I am] more aware of the massive amounts of freedom that I have,” she said. “I hope I don’t forget that again.”
As a pastor at Concordia, she plans to spend this first year “listening and learning,” with a concentration on helping students with vocational discernment.
“Anyone at any time has the ability to ask these questions. Vocational discernment goes on throughout life,” she said. “I am really excited to be a part of those questions with the students here.”
She and Adam Copeland, who is also a new addition to the religion department, will be working towards combining faith and life to offer students more vocational opportunities within ministry.
In her sermons, she says she is a very contextual preacher, drawing on her many stories of travel to illustrate what they have taught her about God and God’s creation.
“When the stories fit, they come out,” she said.
All of these stories, she said, have shaped who she has become. Some are funny, some are beautiful. And some, she remembers, are tragic.
On the wrist of her right hand, McHan wears two blue bracelets that never come off. They serve as a reminder of her best friend who died in the earthquake in Haiti, as well as the friends who came back. They had been a group of four. The two men and two women–close friends that had gone through seminary together, played music together, and discussed theology together. Three of the friends were in Haiti while McHan was in Egypt. One, her friend Ben, was killed in the earthquake.
“It begs deep questions,” McHan said, her voice growing quiet. “And I think it calls me to live deeply, to grapple with the big questions whether or not there is a concrete answer. Sometimes it’s enough to jump in the deep end.”
Megorden recognized this depth in McHan, and commented that the combination of her youthful positivity and her understanding of grief are admirable characteristics.
“There is a part of Elly that has so much youth, but also a maturity that was seasoned by the tragedy of Ben’s death,” he said.
Perhaps it is true that greater sorrow brings greater joy, for McHan is now well known for her joyful spirit.
“She’s got a twinkle in her eye that is just great fun,” said Megorden.
Schlotterbeck agreed, saying, “The light in her eyes, the gleam, her facial smile as students engage with her, confirms she wants to be present with them and for them.”
Students have also noticed these admirable characteristics.
“She is both incredibly kind and helpful, with a unique youthful spirit,” said sophomore Rachel Cammarn, who has been a student worker for the religion department since last October. “And she’s always, always, always in a good mood. She sparkles.”
The ‘Elly Sparkle’ is evident when she speaks about Concordia. Back when she was in college, she recalls mercilessly teasing Larson about the fact that the school’s mascot was Kernel Cobb, asking, “How ferocious can a cob of corn be?” She could not help but laugh when she realized that she too was now a Cobber.
Her sparkle is evident through the passion she has for her house as well, according to Megorden.
“She cares about that house primarily because she wants it to be an intersection for her to meet and become related to people,” he said. “She’s turning the bedroom into a dining room so that when she has people over, they can engage in conversation as the food is being prepared. That’s the way she does ministry, she creates room for friendships and music-making.”
Her sparkle can be seen in the halls of the Office of Ministry, where Schlotterbeck sees that she has become a valued colleague.
“For all of us, when you come in through the door and walk up and down the hall, we are grateful for her here, and we rejoice in her presence,” he said.
During Installation Chapel, President Craft had similar things to say.
“Elly, we are changed because you are here,” Craft said during his sermon. “You come to us from Canada, from Oslo, from Jerusalem, bringing great gifts. Not the least of which is the reminder that God is everywhere, and in every time, making all things new.”
In reflection on the journey that has brought her here, and all of its twists and turns, McHan speaks with certainty that, for her, Concordia is the next step in that process of “making all things new.”
“I have long ago stopped trying to make five-year plans. They always change, and the things that come out of it are always more rich,” she said. “I know very much that I am called to be a pastor, and that I am called to be here at Concordia.”