ULS Student Vicar Rebecca West's Church Part of Unique Ministry Project

Daily American Dec. 30, 2019 by Rick Kazmer

West finds direction: Rockwood church part of unique ministry project

A 92-member congregation in rural Somerset County is playing a key role in the future of the Lutheran church.

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Rockwood is part of a seminary program that is helping Vicar Rebecca West complete her studies to become a pastor. It’s especially notable this year, as the Allegheny Synod is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Elizabeth Platz, the Lutheran Church in America’s first female pastor.

West and St. Luke’s are part of the chain, carrying Platz’s legacy into the new decade.

“It’s been a joy to build relationships and share in ministry at St. Luke’s,” West said of the congregation, which has a weekly worship attendance of 35.

Here’s how the program works.

It’s a three-way partnership between the synod, congregation and United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg. It allows students to complete their master’s of divinity program in three years. The congregation provides financial help — $24,000 a year to cover tuition and some housing and living expenses. The student works 20 hours per week at the church, creating an integrated learning experience.

“They become partners in ministry with raising up pastors in the church,” West said.

The Rev. Allison deForest is the director of the program at the seminary. She said that it allows students to complete seminary one year early, completing ministerial fieldwork and an internship in the process.

The strengths of this program are that it reduces the number of academic years that the students need for theological education and it can reduce the number of times the student has to relocate since they do not move to campus and then away again for a traditional internship,” deForest said in a written statement.

“I believe that our co-op students are very well prepared for parish work as soon as they graduate.”

In Rockwood, the congregation is glad to be raising up one of its own. Rebecca West and her husband, Jim West, both serve at St. Luke’s.

Church council secretary Marsha Hutzell said that women have a unique perspective to bring to the table.

“I personally think that women have a unique experience in the world that is a great benefit to the church and ministry. … I just find Vicar West a joy, so it is maybe who she is as a person, more so than her gender, that I am thankful for.”

As a teacher by trade, Hutzell said she finds it rewarding to help people achieve their goals. Watching Rebecca West fulfill a dream is such a case.

“Vicar is so excited about her learning that it breathes new life into the congregation and those around her as she shares what she learns with us,” Hutzell said.

Rebecca West is set to graduate in May and to be ordained in June. Perhaps no one can attest to the rewards and challenges of the journey better than her husband. The couple has been working as a team at St. Luke’s.

The Rev. Jim West noted the significance of the 50th anniversary of Platz’s ordination on Nov. 21, 1970. Rebecca West’s ordination in the summer will be another link in the chain created that day.

“There are many St. Luke’s members who will share my joy on the night of her ordination,” he said.

The Rev. Susan Winger has also been an asset along the way. She has served as Rebecca West’s off-site supervisor, meeting monthly to review progress and to provide advice.

“Guided by the Holy Spirit, Rebecca has grown in confidence and developed a sure sense of her call to public leadership,” Winger said. “Each sermon preached, each class taught, each worship led, each visit made have helped her discern God’s call.”

Winger takes particular enjoyment in helping another woman answer the call from God. She noted the women of the past.

“My sisters of the past who paved the way to this year are remarkable witnesses,” she said. “We are a better church because they dared to be first. To name her (Rebecca West) as my colleague and to have Rebecca added to that cloud of faithful witnesses is a gift to me and to the church as a whole.”

Assistant to the bishop, the Rev. Paula Schmitt, said the program also serves as a proving ground, allowing students to try new things and assess the receptivity of the congregation as well as to change, hone and improve upon ideas.

“Our office consistently looks for congregations that might be open to this program as well as benefit from having a student learner in their midst,” she said.

In a way it’s fitting that Rockwood, a railroad town, is helping to move the faith forward. It’s also proof that small-town congregations can make a big difference.

“They have nurtured and challenged me through this time of spiritual, theological and personal growth, and my time with them has strengthened my call to Word and Sacrament ministry,” Rebecca West said.

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