October 25, 2014

Elyria
Partly sunny with showers
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Her true calling is found: Former journalist moves to ministry

ELYRIA — The new pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Elyria has a unique background.After all, how many other pastors can say they served in the trenches of a Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper before heading to the pulpit? But that’s exactly what the Rev. Christina Kukuk, 28, did.

The transition from journalist to senior pastor, she said, was not simple. It required “a lot of journeying and discernment, questioning and testing things out, listening and taking leaps of faith,” she said.

CARL SULLENBERGER/CHRONICLE
The Rev. Christina Kukuk stands at the lecturn at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elyria, where she became senior pastor in July.

“I did not grow up in an environment where (ministry) was even the remotest possibility for a woman,” Kukuk said.

Kukuk, who grew up in the Ashland area, attended a church of former Presbyterians who had left the denomination due to disagreements about the ordination of women with her family. They also attended a nondenominational conservative Evangelical church, she said.

A call in college

When Kukuk enrolled at Kent State University, she became a member of a Christian Reformed Church, which is the Dutch version of Presbyterianism. It was at this church that she first heard God calling her into ministry, through the voice of the church pastor.

“The minister said to me, ‘Promise me you’ll consider seminary.’ And I laughed at him and said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Kukuk said. “I was certain I was supposed to be a journalist.”

But she did become involved in ministry during college — serving as the volunteer coordinator of a weekly prayer service for the Christian Reformed Church. She was responsible for both planning and leading the service, and through that leadership role developed pastoral relationships with several people who attended.

“I was hearing the call of God, but I didn’t recognize exactly where that call was to,’’ Kukuk said. “I’m not sure I knew where that call was leading.”

Kukuk graduated in 2000 from Kent State with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. She was offered a position with the Akron Beacon Journal as a business reporter.

“I got this plum job, and I thought that was sort of a sign from God that I was on the right path,” she said.

However, nine months later, she and several colleagues were laid off. Kukuk took a temporary writing job with a nonprofit organization and began to reflect on her life.

“I liked working hard to bring information to people and also helping to articulate its relevance. But with journalism, I felt that our work stopped short at exposing the problems, and I wanted to be part of the healing,” she said.

She said she was “listening to what people (were) saying about how they (saw) me … and God at work in me, and listening myself to the nudgings of the Spirit,” she said. “I had to reconcile in my mind how in the world it could be possible that God was calling me into ministry. I heard the call first, and then I had to figure it out — it went against a lot of what I had believed.”

A spiritual journey

Finally, she decided to enroll in the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and, for two years, commuted from Akron to Pittsburgh. She’d leave Tuesday mornings to make the two-hour drive, spend 2½ days attending classes, and make the drive home Thursday evenings.

Kukuk said her husband, Adam, supported her decision. He was not surprised, she said, because he had seen the call on her life long before she did.

She said her experience at the seminary let her develop a comfort with her own skin. She learned, she said, that she is far more liberal and progressive than she realized.

“Because I am a woman who’s answered a call to ordained ministry, most people would out-of-hand say I’m a liberal, because that goes against our gender stereotypes in this culture,” Kukuk said.

Searching for a home

At the end of her first year of seminary, Kukuk began searching for a new spiritual home, which she found in First Grace United Church of Christ in Akron. At this church, she “encountered some part of the gospel being lived out that I had not encountered before. They believed in God’s extravagant welcome to all people.”

First Grace, she said, was “an open and affirming congregation, and they had a very intentional ministry to the neighborhood around the church,” and she said that those two things were important to her and were things she had not found elsewhere.

She spent nine months at the church as a student assistant pastor, and then remained at the church as a student lay minister.

Finally, after receiving her master’s of divinity and ordination in 2005, she accepted an associate minister’s job with the First Congregational Church of Minnesota —United Church of Christ in Minneapolis.

The position was made possible by a grant through the Lily Endowment Religion Division, which offers a transition into ministry program that is modeled on a medical residency. It basically accelerates a minister’s learning curve, she said.

As her appointed term in Minneapolis came to a close, Kukuk started looking for a post. Her husband’s career as a pianist and composer helped them determine where they needed to be — a medium-size metro area or college town gained favor, she said.

Elyria arrival

In addition to Elyria, Kukak interviewed for and considered positions in Philadelphia, Chicago, Madison and Akron.

“As the process kept going, I just kept getting the farthest with this church in Elyria.” Kukuk said. “Through the conversations with the search committee and through visits to Elyria, it seemed to be that Elyria was going to be the best fit.”

A search committee that represented a large cross-section of the church population — from a 16-year-old teen to a 95-year-old woman — chose Kukuk for the position. The committee met on a weekly basis for 18 months, during which they looked at nearly 100 profiles and conducted numerous interviews. The search committee then made recommendations to a church cabinet comprised of leadership boards and committees.

CARL SULLENBERGER / CHRONICLE
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elyria is on Second Street.

Lynda Schmidt, who is the head of the board of trustees, was a member of both the search committee and the church cabinet. She said that when the committee and cabinet reviewed Kukuk’s profile, it was a ‘wow’ moment.

They were impressed with Kukuk — her references were outstanding, her statement of ministry was profound and her faith journey was very strong, Schmidt said. She also explained that Kukuk’s involvement with the Lily Foundation was “phenomenal” because annually only 30 seminary students are chosen nationwide to participate in the program. The search committee and the church cabinet voted unanimously to pursue Kukuk for hire.

Kukuk was the only potential candidate who was invited to the church to present a sermon. The congregation voted with a 98.5 percent approval rating, which Schmidt said is “almost unheard of based on a single sermon.”

New challenge

On July 2, Kukuk assumed her role as senior pastor of First Congregational. She and her husband now live in Elyria.

Since Kukuk began at the church, Schmidt commented that it is quite apparent that Kukuk “has a deep commitment to ministry and our church” and that she “still has those wow moments” concerning Kukuk’s potential

The church, with a membership of approximately 200, has a venerable history. Established in 1824, it was the first organized church in Elyria, built on land donated by the city’s founder, Heman Ely.

Kukuk said that the three things that she is uniquely equipped to bring to the church are integrity, passion and vision.

“The hallmark of my ministry is that I’m genuine,’’ she said. “That’s the way God made me, and something I bring into a community.  I [also] bring a real passion for worship and ministry [and] I feel it’s my call to create a space where we can all encounter God.”

She said that vision is the most important aspect of her ministry as she begins her new position.

“I have a gift for listening closely and then articulating together with others a vision for what God is calling us to do,” she said, adding that she has committed in the first six months to listen to what is going on in people’s lives and in the life of the church before altering anything.

First Congregational offers the community not only a strong service commitment but also a welcoming atmosphere, she said.

“[We] offer folks who may not have considered church their thing a place where they can explore a more progressive part of the family of God,’’ she said. “You can come in with your questions and doubts, and the congregation will welcome you where you are at.”

Contact Dale Sheffield at 329-7000 or metro@chroniclet.com.