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Sandpoint pastor begins ministry of retreats and spiritual direction

During her nine-year ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Sandpoint, Idaho, the Rev. Nancy Copeland-Payton found a call to retreat ministry, spiritual direction and writing emerging out of the congregation’s hunger for retreats.

Now she helps people find sacred spaces to go to take time out of their busy lives to listen intentionally to themselves.  She guides them to become aware of their gifts and to hear God’s unique call for them to be “part of God’s sacred presence in the world”—whatever their vocation is.

Nancy Copeland-Payton

Nancy Copeland-Payton

She believes people need to be grounded in their traditions as a source of strength and nourishment:  “God’s call and presence were there before us and will be there after us.  We are invited to be part of it.”

Through the years, Nancy’s encounters with and study of other faiths have provided a source for gaining wisdom of their teachings and seeing common ground.  That also led to her involvements in efforts to challenge hate and fear.

As a pastor, the former physician did the day-to-day work of walking with people, being present with them through their lives and serving as a guide to help them see how Scripture intersects with their daily lives to bring comfort or challenge.

Her ministry means she travels to lead retreats and workshops with various churches—Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic—as well as Presbyterian.  She leads and has led programs at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, St. Joseph’s Family Center and with Hospice of Spokane.  In addition, she is director of the two-year Spiritual Training Program at Gonzaga University, and does one-to-one and group spiritual direction.

 “What I do was birthed through my growing years, studies, work as a physician and in the congregations I served,” said Nancy, who earned a certificate in spiritual direction in 2004 at Gonzaga and completed a two-year program on contemplative prayer at Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C.

Having wandered from her active childhood/youth involvement with church in Independence, Mo., she left the institutional church in the 1960s.  However, she found her study of zoology and medicine maintained her awe about creation from the microscopic to the stars.

Nancy earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1972 at the University of Missouri and went on to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore in 1976.  After her residency in internal medicine at Georgetown University, she practiced internal medicine and worked in emergency rooms in Germany, Hawaii, Alabama, Kansas City, England, Austin, Louisville and Dayton (Ohio), moving with her husband, Gary, who was in the Air Force.

In Cambridge, England, she met an American hospital chaplain who dealt with issues patients faced that Nancy couldn’t address as a doctor.  That led her to take a course, which led to a year of studies at Westminster Seminary.

“Reading the mystics brought me back into the church, introducing me to parts of Christian tradition I couldn’t understand as a child,” she said.

As she worked with people in difficult times as a doctor, her questions about gift and loss led her to finish seminary.  Nancy graduated from United Seminary in Dayton in 1986.  Then she gave up medicine, and Gary decided to leave the Air Force.

Nancy served a church in Lexington, Ky., while Gary worked in Louisville with the national Presbyterian Church USA as coordinator of the denomination’s peacemaking program.

In 1989, she came to First Presbyterian Church in Sandpoint, where Gary continues to work with the national church.

“Ways keep evolving for me to come alongside people and listen to what is sacred in their lives.  It’s remarkable to witness how people change,” she said.

An internship teaching at a Tehran, Iran, medical school for four months in 1975 introduced her to Muslim traditions of prayer and ingrained an appreciation for prayer integral to life—beyond grace before meals and the bedtime prayers of her childhood.  She also learned about Sufi and Baha’i faiths while in Iran.

Nancy has also studied Buddhist scriptures and learned about doing yoga with a Hindu religious understanding rather than just as physical exercise.

Nurtured by the spiritual insights of many faiths, she is sad when she encounters the hate and fear of religions or races. 

“Often hate and fear are learned in childhood, taught to adults and reinforced on talk radio,” said Nancy, who with Gary was involved in the Bonner County Task Force on Human Relations in the 1990s to challenge the Aryan Nations in Hayden and the 11th Hour Messenger, a Sandpoint group that mailed hate literature.

Part of walking with people is to ask them where their ideas came from, she said. 

“We need to take time to talk with people who hate, encouraging them to befriend their fears and listening to what they have to say,” Nancy said.  “Often in giving them a chance to talk, they learn about themselves, rather than focusing on those they hate.  I encourage people to look at their fears and see what those fears can teach them about themselves.

“Where is the fear of Muslims from?” she asked, encouraging people to look to the foundational level of the fear, not just the reaction.  “People fear for their safety and security.”

She encourages people to learn about the tradition they fear—to visit a mosque, read the Koran and learn about what they hate.

“Often it’s not about the other group,” she said, noting that the key is for a person to want to be in a different place. 

Hate can be encountered in secular or church groups or events, or at the checkout stand, she said, adding that media tend to encourage fears.

“When we first came to Sandpoint, the Aryan Nations was a vocal, visible presence, giving North Idaho the reputation of being a safe haven for hate groups,” she said.

The Bonner County Task Force on Human Relations has educated people on ways to respond, she said, embracing the example of Libby, Mont., standing in solidarity with a Jewish family and declaring, “Not in My Town!”

Nancy said public, institutional response to hatred through peaceful resistance and education usually makes a hate group back down.  As pastor, she preached about how to respond and supported education in the schools on hate, fear and respect. 

Although hate groups are not as active now, she said there are always “people here and everywhere” who hate.

Along with writing columns and articles, Nancy has written a book at the invitation of her publisher, Skylight Paths.  The book, published in October 2009 is Losses of Our Lives, The Sacred Gifts of Renewal in Everyday Lives.

“We live through the arc of life from birth to death, experiencing a flow of gifts and losses,” said Nancy.  “Gifts are not ours to keep.  Fear of dying and aging are part of our longing for the sacred.    We need to let our little losses go, and go with the flow.  How we mourn and honor our larger losses through ‘good grieving’ helps us reweave our hearts.

“I hope to convey the need for people to walk through their losses, using their traditions in an intentional way,” she said.

Nancy explained that the book started with her life—the loss of a pet, her grandfather’s death and moving. Her understandings of gift and loss in life flowed through her work as a physician and then as a pastor, as well as in her relationships with family and friends.

For information, call 208-255-7545 or email