Rev. Elaine: New minister connects with congregation, community
MOORHEAD - The Rev. Elaine Sveet steps out of the pulpit for the Sunday sermon.
The First Presbyterian Church of Moorhead minister prefers to move as she talks and preaches from the space in front of the pews.
Without notes, Sveet starts her sermon with a personal anecdote, gradually weaving in the day’s message. She asks questions and laughs with the congregation.
Laughter is common on Sundays among the 80-ish church members in attendance – and that’s the way it should be, Sveet says.
“I think if you’re filled with faith, there’s a joy that should be in us as the people of God, and we should not be all frowny-faced and act like the weight of the world is on us,” she says.
Bringing joy to worship is one of the 39-year-old minister’s goals since she started at the 195-member Presbyterian church here last December. Her other ambitions include more community interaction and helping the church find its unique identity.
Sveet, who church members call “Rev. Elaine,” is passionate about revitalizing church.
“I think we have a lot of people who are very skeptical about church and cautious about institution, and I think we have a culture that’s very individualistic,” Sveet says.
“To me, church revitalization is about not just growing numbers, but about growing people who see their lives as more than themselves. That’s incredibly important because we have a lot to offer – any size of church has a lot to offer.”
Growing up in Oshawa, Ontario, Sveet always knew she wanted to be a pastor, but she kept it a secret until she graduated from high school.
The signs were there – she wrote prayers as a child, spoke in front of her church congregation of 500 people at age 14, and missed her senior prom to lead a youth retreat.
Although her family was very involved with their church, Sveet’s parents assumed she’d work in the corporate world and follow the footsteps of her father, a successful businessman with General Motors.
“I was surprised that my parents were horrified. Now they’re extremely proud, but at the time they were really worried. My father especially was very worried,” she says.
Sveet was the youngest person in seminary at Emmanuel College in Toronto and the first female and youngest head pastor at a church in Ontario by age 30. She’s also been the first female head pastor at several other churches, and for one congregation in Savannah, Ga., she was the first female church members had ever heard preach.
About 10 percent of American congregations have a female as their senior or sole ordained leader, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
MOM THE MINISTER
Sveet’s job as a pastor has made a significant impression on her three children, ages 7, 5 and 4.
She recalls a rare Sunday morning when she was able to sit with her children while congregation members handed out recognition to church volunteers.
During the presentation her son whispered, “Mom, is this the day they make you queen?”
She replied, “No, not today.”
Another time, the family was at an event and the children met a male minister. One of Sveet’s children remarked, “A minister can be a man?”
“That’s their reality, that Mom is the minister and Mom’s a mom, and so that’s kind of neat,” Sveet says.
Her husband, Erik Sveet, the principal of Towner (N.D.) High School, says the children are used to seeing their mom speak publicly, and they know that people have a high regard for her and what she does, even if they don’t fully understand it.
But at home, she’s just Mom.
“We as a family view it as that’s her job, and I don’t think it shapes or changes our opinion of her, whether she’s a minister or teacher or anything like that,” he says. “For us, it’s good to balance that part out, too, and make sure we treat her the same as any other person in the community.”
A balanced home and work life is essential to being an effective minister, regardless of your gender, Elaine Sveet says.
“If I try to live as normal of a life as possible, I’m more relatable,” she says. “If I only live within the bubble of church and I work a thousand hours a week, then I can’t necessarily relate and I think offer the best ministry I can.”
Outside of her church life, she creates scrapbooks, runs regularly, entertains friends, vacations with her family and lives what she calls “a pretty normal life.”
Moments from that life make their way into the Sunday worship service.
Gerald Van Amburg, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Moorhead since 1970, says personal stories define Elaine’s preaching style.
“It’s biblically based, but it’s also made relevant to the lives of people right now, and particularly the younger people because she’s young,” the Moorhead man says. “Our church is an old church – most of us are old. It’s good to see youth and the vitality, the vigor of youth. I think people appreciate that and how she goes about it.”
When Bethany Cromwell and her young family moved here from Washington more than a year ago, they were seeking a small church with a friendly congregation and minister.
“I feel very comfortable there,” she says. “I think she (Sveet) holds herself to a high standard like any good pastor.”
But Sveet doesn’t just want to serve her congregation. She wants to help the congregation serve its surrounding community, a desire she discovered after congregation members submitted “dreams” to the “dream box” she set out when she first came to the church.
She wanted members to feel comfortable sharing their hopes for the congregation’s future.
“To me, one of the important pieces of being a pastor is listening to a congregation and helping them move toward the direction God’s leading them,” she says.
In the past year, the church has become a new site for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Red River Valley, and they’re hoping to secure funding to build a park in their green space for neighborhood children.
“It’s another example of trying to be in touch with other people,” Van Amburg says. “We want them to know we’re not just the church over there in the corner that other members from other parts of Moorhead come to once a week for a service. We are, in reality, a real community place that would like to be a part of their lives if they choose so.”
She’s also working with her congregation to be more than “polite strangers” with community members. A Sunday service with the Korean congregation that shares the church building was one way the church started working toward more interaction.
Although the congregations have co-existed for 14 years, they’d never shared a church service.
“We were experiencing this beautiful sense of diversity, worshipping the same God in different languages, and yet we had just been strangers before,” Sveet says. “When you don’t know one another, you can’t pray for one another, you can’t work for justice for one another. I guess it’s my vision that that’s not the way God wants us to live. We’re supposed to truly love and help one another, but we can’t do that if we don’t know one another. We’re trying to be the church outside of our walls.”
If you go What: First Presbyterian Church of Moorhead
When: Worship starts at 10:30 a.m. Sundays, and church school for adults, young adults and children is held from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. Fellowship and coffee follows.
Where: 2900 5th St. S.
Info: (218) 233-1192