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A Lifelong Journey From A Quiet Rural Setting To An Urban Oceanfront

By Susan Jakubowski-Weiner, Connecting Voices Editor

     The journey between a rural American Indian reservation in South Dakota and Manhattan Beach, California is great in so many ways.

     “Born into UCC” is the way that Rev. Michael Obenauer, Interim Minister at Manhattan Beach Community Church best describes himself.   Michael has had a lifelong connection with the UCC, starting with the influence of his parents, both education professionals.  He describes church as having been “the centerpiece of life” for his family, which also included an older sister and younger brother. 

     With a dad who was superintendent of a small town school system, Michael remembers education being an integral and ongoing part of family life.  His mom went back to school to get certification for any subject matter where there was a district vacancy, be it librarian, home ec teacher or whatever.  Talk about a dedicated couple!  As a result, Michael spent many summers on college campuses while both of his parents attended classes. 

      Michael didn’t have an “urban experience” until right after graduating from high school, but the need to reach out to others lead this now-minister to the most formative period in his early life.  That summer, Michael participated in his local UCC Conference’s “work camp”.  He joined 24 other UCC teens from South Dakota and their advisor in journeying to the inner city area of St. Louis.  While living in a church building for one month they hung out with local teens in the evening, and during the day taught arts and crafts and Bible study and provided local trips to provide elementary school children a full and busy summer.  Michael found that experience life-changing, and now states that he learned so much more than he gave.  Although he had never lived in a city before, the experience opened his eyes to the rich diversity in his world.  It also gave him a bird’s eye view of poverty, racism and the day-to-day difficulties in the lives of minority persons. 

     Life marched on, and an undergraduate experience at South Dakota State University at Brookings awaited Michael.  He jumped into his education, and finished with a degree in English, which we quickly applied to a job in teaching high school English.  That worked for a year, then restlessness set in:  Michael knew his God not as the obvious but rather a nudger, a pusher, a puller and an enticer!  God’s profound presence was presented to him in diverse relationships and experiences.

     Being the Watergate years and time of loud political upheaval, Michael thought he could leave his mark through a career in law and began law school.  He loved the academic work, but began to question whether it was a good vocational fit.  God was at work within him.  The need to consider seminary became clear to Michael and the application was submitted.  Hmm….it was approved with lightening speed!  Belongings were packed, and off to United Seminary in Minneapolis/St. Paul went Michael!  The greatest learning and growing experience of his life awaited him.  It wasn’t just the meaningful academic classes; the value of questioning was highly honored.  Michael was onto the challenge of life!  While an intern, he was given the opportunity to be an assistant pastor at an Illinois church.  An exciting hospital chaplaincy followed.  He was on to something!  After graduation a first call came from a “United parish” in northwest Kansas.  This small area provided three congregations, one non-denominational, one UCC and one United Methodist that had been placed in a financial situation that led to a forced merger.  Wow!  The challenge was how to bring everyone together under one roof!  Through four and one half years a gracious and caring congregation taught Michael how to be a minister.  The members taught him patience and how to tie the theory of seminary into the needs of a local parish.  They let him know that for them, it was crucial that their minister be part of the larger community; to have the pulse of what was going on and to proudly offer their face to those entities around them.  There was no interest in an isolated pastor or parish!  It was made clear that Michael was to be a significant influence to the people he served.  He loved this calling.

     With his car gassed up. Michael left for Medford, Minnesota and put down roots for the next six and one half years.  At both this church and at his next four and one half year calling in south-central Kansas, Michael assisted parishes in moving from being self-focused to being a vital part of the wider United Church of Christ.   The challenge to step up and step out was a daunting one for parishioners, but the rewards of this effort was felt by both minister and congregation.  One more opportunity presented itself with a church in geographical crisis in Topeka.  After local roads were rerouted and the church became “invisible”, door knocking by the minster and congregants alike was needed.  Visitors were welcomed to a variety of evenings and experiences at a church they didn’t even know existed!  Michael realized he might have had a special skill in assisting congregations to not only better identify for themselves who they were but he could offer great tools in helping them get to where they wanted to be.  After much consideration Michael began the path to where he is today; he pursued intentional interim minister training and provided leadership by undertaking a two year intentional interim ministry call with a congregation in Elgin, Illinois.  Among the valuable nuggets he picked up along the way, a few still form his framework:

     Allow people to grieve the loss of the previous minister, regardless of how they departed.

      Allow the church to have many varied new experiences, in case there might be a more exciting way of doing things.  Include new hymns, new styles of worship, new Christian ed opportunities and new mission outreach ideas.  It’s all worth a try!
Since Michael was now equipped with a well-filled tool box, he was called to be the Associate Conference Minister for the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference.  He was told that he was selected because he had a long history of being active in the wider church.  Program development, Still Speaking Training, Outdoor Ministry and working on Church and Ministry Committee matters became part of his day-to-day work.  Like all previous positions, this was no in-and-out role for Michael.  He stayed eight and one half years, “loving every minute of it”!  Then the ocean breezes called.  Michael arrived ready to BE the Manhattan Beach Community Church’s Interim Minister on March 25 of this year.  The move was not without its sacrifices.  Due to the economic climate, Michael left his significant other, Bobbie and his two beagles Winnie and Katie with a home to sell in Billings.  Ongoing communication helps fill the void, but it is not the same as having those three faces there each day!

      Michael has been touched by how warmly accepted he has been received in his new ministry setting.  A recent weekend leadership retreat has helped all participants to continue planning, and provide new energy and clearer focus to their strategic planning process.   The eagerness of church members to begin this process, independent of Michael’s role, has impressed him most!  As part of the decision to come to southern California Michael saw a congregation that was forward-looking and ready to take on their challenges.  Following a pastor of long-term service Michael wants to meet the church members where they are, not where he thinks they should be.   He is pleased that they are addressing their grief, and wants this congregation to feel what they have to without justification.  Michael has felt enfolded, but acknowledges that he doesn’t have to be liked.  He is not here to guarantee a future.  “I can bring them perceptions of their life together that are new and exciting and fresh to them”

      Is it any surprise that Michael’s favorite word is vision?

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