Formation of faith; St. Olaf brings in new pastor with an eye to the future

Published 10:50 am Friday, March 11, 2016

Pastor Mark Niethammer has been installed as St. Olaf Lutheran Church’s new pastor. -- Photos by Eric Johnson/

Pastor Mark Niethammer has been installed as St. Olaf Lutheran Church’s new pastor. — Photos by Eric Johnson/

Mark Niethammer walked through the St. Olaf Lutheran Church narthex wearing his clerical collar, a black shirt, grey pants and bright green belt.

Niethammer, 33, started as the pastor of faith formation at St. Olaf on Monday and is excited to make a difference in Austin. As the pastor of faith formation, Niethammer will focus on educational programs for all ages to help people learn from each other as well as from God.

“I want to be able to open the eyes of the congregation as a whole to see that God is still very active in our world, in our lives and in our community,” he said. “But sometimes we have to change how we’re looking for that.”

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While working in Albert Lea, Niethammer created intergenerational programs with young kids, parents, grandparents and other members of the community.

Pastor Mark Niethammer

Pastor Mark Niethammer

“I would bring people of all these different generations into one room and we would learn with each other and from each other,” he explained.

“For the kids, they weren’t hearing these stories and lessons about faith just from their parents, it was from, you know, little old ladies who sit on an opposite end of the church and other kids they may not know, and other kids’ parents,” he continued. “I tried to broaden out the perspectives they were all getting.”

Niethammer hopes to develop similar programs at St. Olaf. He noted while the programs currently in place worked great in the past, they may need a bit of tweaking.

“I realized this opportunity to be a pastor of faith formation was going to allow me more time to put into developing programs like that, so I really have an opportunity to focus on some of those endeavors,” he said.

Niethammer, originally from Wyoming, came to Minnesota to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield. He attended seminary at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. His first call was to a church in Houston County, Minnesota, and he spent the last five years in Albert Lea.

Niethammer got the desire to become a pastor in college, where a curious group of friends got him to think deeper about his faith and why it was important to him. With several beliefs represented, including Lutheranism, atheism, agnostic, Evangelical Christians and others, Niethammer described the group as very diverse.

“Theologically and philosophically we were just very, very diverse, and I loved that because we never agreed on a thing, which is fun to me,” he said. “It allowed really good and productive conversation — knowing that we’re not going to convince the other of our positions, but also challenging each other, making us defend what it is that we believe and why it is that we believe that, and more importantly why it even matters to who we are as individuals.”

Niethammer is excited to move his family to Austin, which will happen as soon as they sell their home in Albert Lea. His wife, Amalie “Molly,” is the Southland School District band director, and the couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Julia, and an 8-month-old son, Miles.

Niethammer and his wife were involved in many things in Albert Lea, including the Human and Rights Commission, Choose Civility of Freeborn County, they helped in food pantries or packed meals for people overseas, they helped with a program to promote higher education for women, and more.

“One thing my wife and I said when we moved to Albert Lea was we wanted to leave the community better than when we got there,” Niethammer said. “And we were able to do that even if on a small scale in five years, so I’m excited to see what we can do in Austin. It’s really a good opportunity to learn how a new community works and see what we can do to help make it a great place for everybody.”

As for that bright green belt that he wears with his black shirt and clerical collar? Niethammer explained he wears the clerical collar most of the time, because to him it is a uniform. He wants to be identified as a pastor. But there are downfalls to uniforms, especially one where the clothing is either black or gray.

“It really hampers one’s sense of style,” he laughed. “So I have to push the boundaries a little where I can.”

Niethammer also has a white belt he changes out, and has earrings in both ears.

“I do get a lot of really strange looks though wearing the white belt, wearing the green belt, I have earrings, people do not know what to do with me and I like that,” he said. “I don’t want to be put in a box.”

“Because why should my neck have all the fun?” he added with a laugh.