The Rev. Erin Nelson is the new pastor at Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Hudson.
It’s practically a homecoming for Nelson, who grew up in River Falls and whose father, David Wilhelm, is still a doctor there.
But familiarity with the area isn’t the only reason Nelson is looking forward to her ministry in Hudson.
“I’ve learned that this congregation is very passionate about outreach and social justice issues. The amount of different charities and organizations that they volunteer for and are involved with is just staggering,” she said in an interview at the church last Thursday.
“They’re a really energetic and passionate group of people. Pretty much every single person in this congregation is doing some type of outreach work, which is really exciting.”
That kind of passion for service matches Nelson’s own view of ministry.
“Certainly, social justice issues have always been a passion of mine, as well,” she said. “So it’s really fun to be in a congregation that is so vital and excited.”
Another emphasis of the church is on youth work, and again, that’s something right up Nelson’s alley.
As a young person, she attended Luther Point Bible Camp near Grantsburg and later worked there for five summers as a junior counselor, counselor and head lifeguard.
Mount Zion has started a Kids Club for children in grades K-5 that meets Wednesdays after school. With E.P. Rock Elementary School across the street from the church, the plan is to do outreach to the students there.
Kids Club workers meet the students at the school and walk with them across 13th Street to the church, where they play games, make crafts, sing, listen to Bible stories and eat snacks. Parents then pick up the children when the program is over.
The church also has hired a faith formation minister, Joshua McMath-Dorman, to lead the Kids Club and other youth activities.
Nelson’s own faith was formed when she was a girl attending Ezekiel Lutheran and then Hope Lutheran churches in River Falls. Both are Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations, as is Mount Zion.
Her parents are Dr. David and Lisa Wilhelm. Her father practices family and emergency medicine at the River Falls and Spring Valley clinics, and at River Falls Area Hospital.
Her mother used to be the director of Jacob’s Ladder Preschool in River Falls. She gave up the position when her grandchildren were born.
Nelson has two younger sisters, Aubrey and Claire.
“It was great. I have a very close-knit family,” she said of her childhood.
Nelson first thought of becoming a pastor when she was in junior high. But when she talked to her pastor about it during her confirmation interview, he impressed on her that it is a difficult job.
“So I kind of gave up that idea and thought I was going to be a doctor like my dad,” she said. “Then I went to college and got a rather bad grade in freshman biology, and realized I probably didn’t have the scientific aptitude I needed to go into medicine.”
She switched her major a few times before graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., with a major in religion and a minor in studio art.
While attending college and working summers at Luther Point, Nelson received more encouragement about going into the ministry from the pastors she talked to than she had from her confirmation pastor.
With that support, she entered Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
An internship at a nursing home for people with special needs during her first year as a seminarian confirmed for her that she wanted to be a pastor.
“I worked there as a chaplain and just really fell in love with ministry,” Nelson said.
She also fell in love with her husband, Mitch, while in seminary. They were introduced by friends, and have been married for seven years. They have a daughter, Rosemary, who will be one year old this month.
Mitch works at 3M Co. in Maplewood, Minn.
Nelson comes to Mount Zion Lutheran from St. John’s Lutheran in Spring Valley, where she was the pastor for five years.
With the birth of Rosemary, she and Mitch were looking to move closer to his work.
The bishop’s assistant thought she would be a good fit for Mount Zion and encouraged her to consider filling the pulpit vacated close to a year ago by the Rev. Brian Ferguson. Interim pastors have served the congregation since then.
A cancer survivor
Six months into her ministry at St. John’s, Nelson was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
She went through six rounds of chemotherapy, “which, of course, is awful,” she said, but she was able to continue her pastoral work full-time.
“I was lucky. I couldn’t drive, but I had lots of people drive me around to places,” she recalled.
Nelson has been free of any detectable cancer for four years. She’ll be considered cured after five years of being cancer-free.
“It was a very difficult thing to go through. I think it helped me in my profession, however. I deal every day with people who are dealing with difficult illnesses or difficult diagnoses. And I know what they are going through in a way I never would if I didn’t have cancer myself,” she said.
“It’s something that is hard to understand unless you’ve been through it. It’s certainly helped me with my ministry. It’s certainly helped me become a more understanding and supportive pastor to people who are ill.”
A woman pastor
The ELCA has had women pastors long enough that she doesn’t expect it to be an issue with the congregation of Mount Zion. It hasn’t been a big deal so far, she said with a laugh.
Occasionally, her relative youth combined with her gender is confusing for people.
She frequently has to show her clergy card to get her parking validated at Twin Cities hospitals. Once, a grocery store clerk mistook her clergy shirt and collar for a Halloween costume.
“There’s a lot of positives to being a male in the role of a pastor, and a lot of positives to being a female,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to be defined as a pastor by my gender, and I don’t want to be defined as a pastor as having cancer … I want to be defined as a pastor by my ability to perform the job - the work I put into it and the skills that I have.”
Asked what she enjoys most about being a pastor, Nelson named preaching and teaching confirmation classes.
“I love the time studying Bible passages and finding a way to express the message of the Bible in a way that relates to our everyday lives,” she said. “I also love being creative in worship - instead of just listening to the word, finding ways that we can make it part of our lives and ourselves.”
And the most difficult part of being a pastor?
“It’s such a privilege to be invited into people’s lives. You celebrate their greatest joys with baptisms, weddings,” Nelson replied. “But you’re also there when they go through their worst times. You suffer alongside them often times. It’s a very emotional job - both the highs and lows. It can be hard watching people you love go through tough things.”
Her hope for Mount Zion, Nelson said, is for the congregation to continue to grow and find new ways to reach out to the community.