Pastor Caitlyn Stenerson reflects on her journey back to Bethel and the moments that shaped her along the way.
By Hannah Hunhoff
Caitlyn Stenerson sat in Ken Reynhout’s Systematic Theology I as a first-year seminary student in 2015, penning her dreams about the possibilities of what the local church could be in a class paper.
What if the church was actually a place where we could come broken?
What if the church was filled with people who were open to the messiness of real relationships?
What if the church was a place where we were willing to engage in hard and difficult topics with one another?
She will never forget Reynhout’s affirming words: “I would love to be in a church like this someday.”
“[Reading Reynhout’s note] made me realize that it’s more than just going to seminary to be a pastor,” Stenerson said. “I’m going to seminary to ask the questions of the church and to ask what it would be like if the church lived up to Jesus’ ideals and more.”
Stenerson’s pathway to unpacking biblical truths began in the lunchroom of Roseville’s Concordia Academy, where she could be found having theological debates at the lunch table. Stenerson took her theological questions to her Bible teacher and received scripture references in response, opening her eyes to the complexity of God. It wasn’t as popular to be after the pursuit of Christ in middle school, but Stenerson pressed beyond her parents’ faith, no longer relying upon “felt board stories and children’s bibles.”
At 14, Stenerson found herself in a front-row seat among hundreds of teens at a North Heights Lutheran Church youth group night. She was serving in student leadership at the time, wrestling with what she now would call a “leadership gifting.” Watching her youth pastor on stage, Stenerson had an epiphany.
“I remember looking at our youth pastor and having this moment when I realized that is what I was made to do,” Stenerson said.
There was no booming voice in the midst of the crowd, just a “gentle whisper in her spirit” that made Stenerson feel like she was created for a pastoral position of this kind.
Stenerson shared that every pastor she knew or admired in ministry received their education at Bethel University. Desiring a similar path, Stenerson attended Bethel for Post Secondary Enrollment Options, an alternative program for her senior year of high school, but chose to major in political science.
Toward the end of her first year of PSEO at Bethel, Stenerson entered a “rebellious stage in her faith” that made her feel like she didn’t want to attend a faith-focused school any longer. Her sophomore year, she transferred to Carthage College, a Christian college in Kenosha, Wisconsin with less of an emphasis on religious involvement, and soon recognized that her faith would be dead by the time she graduated if she chose to stay.
After completing her fall semester sophomore year at Carthage, Stenerson drove into the familiar town of Arden Hills and transferred back to Bethel five days before Bethel’s spring semester started. She chose to return to an institution where her faith was nurtured and fostered.
“It was the best decision I ever made in my entire life,” Stenerson said.
After receiving her B.A. in Political Science, Stenerson pursued a career in political and public relations.
While working as a communications specialist at the House of Representatives in 2015, Stenerson unexpectedly received a phone call from the former seminary Director of Admissions Jen Niska, who encouraged Stenerson to apply to Bethel Seminary. She applied, praying God’s will would be done. Navigating her seminary journey with no Bible undergraduate degree felt intimidating, but Stenerson says she was committed to being faithful to her calling.
“I always say that my four years in seminary were the four best years of my life,” Stenerson said.
Some defining moments of Stenerson’s seminary journey consisted of being a teaching assistant for Dr. David Howard’s Old Testament classes, writing challenging papers and winning first place in the Edwin J. Omark preaching competition in both 2017 and 2018.
After graduating from Bethel Seminary with her Master of Divinity in May 2019, Stenerson served as Professor of Biblical Studies at Solid Rock School of Discipleship and eventually went on to become Connections Pastor at Emmanuel Covenant Church.
“We especially appreciate the humility that she came into her new role with, her advocacy for our online community in the midst of COVID and her investments in our emerging female leaders,” Lead Pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church Chris Studenski said.
At the end of August 2021, Stenerson received a call from Bethel University informing her that a pastoral position had recently opened up: Interim Assistant Pastor and Director of Chapel Programming. At the time, Stenerson was interviewing to be a teaching pastor in Michigan and realized that “God just blew up her plans.”
When Laurel Bunker concluded her role as Campus Pastor and Vice President and Dean for Christian Formation and Church Relations Aug. 6, Stenerson knew that she was stepping onto a campus that was grieving Bunker’s absence.
Stenerson was shocked by the opportunity, being encouraged by Pastor Matt Runion to talk to a few mentors about it.
“Everyone in my life kept saying to me that ‘I’ve always said going back to Bethel was a dream,’” Stenerson said.
She felt at peace about stepping into the position at the beginning of September.
“I wanted to be sensitive to the grief and I wanted people to know that I wasn’t here to replace [Bunker], but here to be present,” Stenerson said. “This is the specific role that Jesus has called me to in this season.”
Sternerson’s greatest hope is that her office will become a place where students can “engage and encounter real life” and experience Jesus.
“In addition to her very public chapel presence, Caitlyn is also quietly providing much-needed pastoral care to students,” Runion said. “I think it’s important to recognize that she is really helping students emotionally and spiritually.”
Stenerson stood on the stage in Benson Great Hall Nov. 20 preaching a sermon about finding joy in the midst of suffering.
She wants chapel to be a place much like the type of church she dreamed and wrote about in seminary.
“I want to foster a place that incorporates new and old practices, engages deeply, honestly and in an informed way in the issues of our time through a theological lens, and allows each person to show up honestly,” Stenerson said.
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