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Seminarian works in Spokane while in a distance-learning seminary program

Barb Gwynn fits seminary studies into her life, ministry and work in Spokane.

Grounded in work in a local congregation, she is a member of the first class of students seeking a master’s in divinity degree as distance learners with Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.  The students connect their practical ministries with academic study of ministry, theology and the Bible.

Barb Gwynn
Barb Gwynn connects with neighborhood of church she serves.

Barb recently shared her journey of discerning her call and choosing this form of seminary study.  After 20 years as a member at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, she began a part-time ministry at Bethlehem Lutheran on Spokane’s South Hill in September.

Barb grew up in the Lutheran Church in Minnesota and completed studies in occupational therapy in 1977 at St. Catherine’s College, a Catholic school in St. Paul.  She moved to Fargo, N. Dak., accepting a job where she had done an internship.  She met and married her husband, Cary, during her eight years there.  They moved to Spokane when he accepted a job in engineering. 

Although she comes from a Norwegian Lutheran heritage, she and Cary attended nondenominational churches, where she felt awakened to Scriptures. 

“As my husband struggled with prolonged depression, I had many difficult life questions not satisfied in those settings,” she said.  “We began taking our two children to Lutheran churches, drawn by our roots and the message of God’s grace.”

Before he took his life seven years ago, she was “replanted” in the Lutheran tradition, active in doing Sunday school, the church newsletter, lay ministry, liturgical art, visitation and confirmation classes.  In teaching confirmation for five years, Barb rediscovered the Lutheran catechism, faith and doctrine.

“I found stability,” she said.

Using the Faith InKubators confirmation program that combines music, art, drama and tenets of faith in an energized style to catch teens’ attention and invites them to reflect in small groups, she found the “liveliness of God’s Spirit in our tradition,” she said. 

A retired pastor at Good Shepherd, seeing her zeal and learning she was in her 40s, encouraged her to go to seminary.

“At the time, it seemed impossible with my children in school and my husband’s battle with depression,” she said.  “I tucked the idea away, finding it intriguing but feeling I couldn’t act on it.”

While grieving her husband’s death and figuring what to do next, she realized she needed to re-enter the work force.

In a Hospice group on “Life After Loss,” she shared her fear of going back to work.  The leader suggested she go to the Community Colleges of Spokane Change Point program for displaced homemakers. 

Sorting out her vocation in that six-week program, her call to ministry re-emerged.  She gained computer skills and realized she could work in occupational therapy while discerning her path.

Barb has worked four years at Manor Care, seeing patients a few days a week and spending the rest of her time on seminary studies.

With the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she began more formally discerning her call through retreats, meeting with the bishop’s assistant and the candidacy committee.

Visiting Luther Seminary in St. Paul in 2006, she learned of the new Distributed Learning Program that would combine the seminary’s online classes and campus classes, so people could learn while engaged in ministry.

In the fall of 2007, she started classes.  Online, she is learning Greek and Hebrew, taking classes in Old Testament and New Testament, Lutheran Confession writings, Christian education, pastoral care, preaching and ministry with aging people.

Others in her cohort—learning group of 15—are from North Carolina, Georgia, California, Ohio. Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas, Minnesota and Montana.  For on-campus classes, they stay in a dorm.  Beyond the preaching, projects and paper writing, there is much sharing of stories of congregations they work with, discussing what applies in their settings.

Meanwhile, Barb keeps her home in Spokane and works in occupational therapy to support herself.

Barb works with the Rev. Erik Samuelson at Bethlehem Lutheran, which is exploring ways to transform the congregation in both local and global mission and ministry.

“We are learning how to bring the richness of word, prayer and sacrament into the community.  It amounts to changing the fabric of the congregation to find new ways to bring hope and truth to others, to meet needs in the community,” Barb said.

“We are exploring how to be part of God’s mission and bring God’s promises to this community,” she said.  “There is tension, an ebb and flow between the comfort of tradition and catching a vision for what God will have us do next.”

Learning about the neighborhood, she is gaining insights into unmet physical needs and spiritual questions, often arising from misperceptions and reinforced by media treatment of churches, she said.

Barb volunteers 10 hours a week at Bethlehem Lutheran, keeping a journal of what she discerns in her ministry serving the community, preaching, assisting with liturgy, leading small groups and engaging people with Scriptures.

On some Wednesdays, she meets with clergy of eight Lutheran churches to reflect on Scriptures and how to make the week’s lessons alive for preaching in Sunday worship.

She also seeks ways to incorporate art and media in her ministry.  Her inspiration comes from summer classes she has taken at the Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth, Wash.

“It’s important for people to learn to listen to God’s spirit speaking to them through creativity and flowing into their lives in new ways,” she said.

Last summer, she spent three months doing clinical pastoral education at the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s surgical intensive care unit.

“I found the ICU an equalizer, as both homeless people and company owners deal with cancer or neurosurgery.  All were humbled in their vulnerability, and it was space to talk about the Spirit. Whether they were Christian, many were thinking about who they are and who God is.”

That experience overlapped with her skills in occupational therapy, knowing what hard work lay ahead for people after surgery and hospitalization.

“What would motivate one person would not motivate another,” she learned.  “In listening and conversations, I found what might give each hope, learning their spiritual language as I came alongside them.”

Catching people earlier in the medical care process than she does in occupational therapy, she found many wondering if they would survive after surgery and wondering about the “bigger picture” of God’s involvement.

“Being missional is about listening to people in the community and bringing hope of the Gospel into everyday, tangible places,” Barb said.

 “The richness of who God is can be lost if people have had a past conflict with people in church dynamics,” she noted.  “We need to look at how we relate on a daily basis, even in how we talk at the grocery store or coffee shop.”

In any setting, she believes people of faith can speak hope into all they do and face in life.

For information, call 928-0353 or 998-6390, or email