When seminarians are mid-way through their course work, they participate in serving as a pastor at a local church. Often these are small, rural churches who need a pastor but can’t afford someone on a fulltime basis. Sandy Ward is currently serving such an appointment, but hers is different than most, in that it’s in Alaska.
Ward is a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the Mid-State District. As a student at Illif’s School of Theology in Denver, most of her studies have been online. As she approached her time to do an internship, she saw a posting on Illif’s internship board, looking for someone to come to Alaska. “My kids are in college, and my husband travels extensively for work, so this was a good time to do something like this,” she said.
Ward is in Girdwood, Alaska. Her church has 50 members and averages 28 in attendance. Girdwood is a ski community about 30 miles from Anchorage. The town also gets a tourism bump from being located near a cruise ship port and being a stop on the rail line.
Although she had no preaching experience, Ward found that seminary had prepared her well for that aspect of the job and has had no trouble there. She also was familiar with the administrative functions of the job, from working at the Missouri Conference Center and Missouri UMC. But working solo was something different.
“Serving as the worship leader and being responsible for pulling it all together was new for me, but sometimes you just have to jump in,” she said.
The interim pastor who had served the church for a year and half prior to Ward’s arrival died of a heart attack two weeks after she got there. She did get counsel from another previous pastor who had served the church 12 years. She learned that the Christmas Eve pageant is a big deal, and her responsibility. She organized the service with the local children. About 200 people attended the 5 p.m. service, which was held at the local hotel. She had another 50 people at the 7:30 p.m. service at the church, and another 25 at the 11 p.m. service.
As the only residential pastor in town, Ward has decided to go through training so she can serve as a chaplain for emergency responders and the highway patrol. There are a lot of injury accidents on the highway near Girdwood. The only other church in Girdwood is in a building shared by the Mormons and the Catholics, with the Mormons having a service on Sunday mornings, and the Catholics having a service on Sunday evenings, with rotating priests presiding over the Catholic mass.
The Alaskan weather hasn’t been too big of an adjustment for Ward. There have been several days that Missouri has been colder than Girdwood. And the local ski resort in Girdwood has been having a hard year, because they’ve been getting rain instead of snow. She is far enough north to have her day’s shortened significantly, though. Her shortest day had a 10 a.m. sunrise, and a 3:40 p.m. sunset.
Wildlife has also been different. Ward has seen a black bear and a moose crossing the lawn of her home. She often sees Dahl sheep when she drives to Anchorage, and a pod of Beluga whales were residing in nearby Cook inlet last fall. Ward joined the clean water team from Missouri UMC in Haiti in January. She’ll be returning to Missouri in June for Annual Conference Session.