WORTHINGTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic is over and people no longer have to wear face masks, the Rev. Anne Hokenstad at American Lutheran Church wants to host a reveal party in which parishioners remove them.
“I only know them by their eyes,” said Hokenstad, who became the church’s lead pastor two months ago. “I know where people park in the parking lot on Sunday mornings and what they look like with their mask on.”
Hokenstad said she feels like she’s trying to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle of the church — trying to connect with members and learn how they interconnect.
“Everyone who participates in American Lutheran holds a piece of the puzzle,” she said. “I’m finding edge pieces, but it’s really lonely putting the puzzle together by myself. I may not know the puzzle until COVID is over.”
Hokenstad comes to American Lutheran Church after a fair amount of transition within the church in the past decade. Pastors have come and gone, and the church completed a major renovation in 2019. Parishioners had five and a half months in their remodeled sanctuary and new gathering space before the global pandemic hit.
“We have transition fatigue,” said Hokenstad, noting that the church sought someone who would put down roots in the community.
Hokenstad said she’s that person.
“They’re looking to be rooted, and I’m hoping to be rooted on the prairie,” she said. “The hope is this will be a long-lasting thing.”
Hokenstad’s prairie roots were sown just down the road, near Brandon, South Dakota. She grew up on a family farm — “smelling sweet grass and listening to the meadowlarks” — and was lonely for those things. Now, she’s within an hour’s drive of most of her family.
The oldest of five siblings, Hokenstad’s parents divorced when she was in seventh grade. Her mom remarried and moved the family to Garretson, South Dakota. Hokenstad graduated from high school there in 1982, and four years later, graduated from then-Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with degrees in English and secondary education with a minor in German.
“I had a vision of marrying a farmer and being a small-town English teacher, but God did not have that vision for me,” said Hokenstad, adding that her first job was as an English and German teacher with the Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wyoming. She taught there for three years before entering Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
The decision stemmed from her childhood years attending Shetek Bible Camp and later the NeSoDak Bible Camp at Waubay, South Dakota, where she spent her summers on the camp staff.
“I really found church to be a good home for me,” Hokenstad said. “I like church. I like what we do; I like how we think. I understand theology is talking about God and making sense of the world. Camp and church were natural places for me to do that.”
In 1989, when mentors suggested she consider becoming a pastor, she didn’t need long to think it through.
Following the seminary, Hokenstad’s dream was to do rural ministry, but God again had other plans for her.
Her first call was as associate pastor of evangelism and pastoral care for Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead. She was one of six pastors in a congregation of about 4,000 members. It wasn’t the best environment to learn how to be a pastor, however, so Hokenstad said she prayed to God to send her to a new place or she’d return to teaching.
Within a month, she had a call to a pair of rural churches near Willow Lake, South Dakota. She led Grace Lutheran and Good Hope Lutheran for two and a half years before moving on to Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, North Dakota, to serve as a traditional campus pastor in the high school.
It was while in Fargo that she met her future husband, Arvid Nielsen, in an online message board hosted by Aid Association for Lutherans (now Thrivent).
“We just started responding to each other in March 2000, and we’ve been responding ever since,” Hokenstad said with a smile.
In 2000, he was living in St. Paul — 250 miles from her home in Moorhead. Hokenstad eventually accepted a call to the University of Minnesota-Mankato to serve in Lutheran Campus Ministry, and be closer to Nielsen. The two married in 2006.
In 2014, Hokenstad completed her doctoral degree in ministry and began teaching and preaching at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. A year later, she started teaching entry-level religious studies at Viterbo, which she continued to do until 2017, when she became a part-time pastor at Bethel Lutheran in LaCrosse.
Then came the opportunity at American Lutheran Church. The couple moved to Worthington in August, and while Hokenstad began leading the church, her husband became a part-time pharmacist at Sterling Drug, having previously been lead pharmacist at Sterling Drug in Caledonia.
Hokenstad said her new role gives her an opportunity to be a lead pastor — something she’s wanted to do for some time.
“There’s not that many women who are lead pastors in the ELCA or other denominations,” she said. “(I’m also) excited about outreach and mission. I wanted to be able to work alongside people that were also interested in that. I began to see that here.”
Working alongside Hokenstad in the church are Stacy Bickett, youth director; Kristin Appel, children and family director; Sylvia Anderson, worship and music director; and Jessica Piel, office manager.
American Lutheran Church, located at 915 Winifred St., Worthington, offers Sunday worship services at 8 a.m. in its south parking lot, and at 10:15 a.m. in the church sanctuary and via livestream.