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Family business

Father, daughter serve as lay leaders in Montana, New York

Neither John nor Gretchen Mundinger started out in the family business.

That “business,” of course, is ministry. The ELCA is filled with family members who are in it — both clergy and lay. This father and daughter evolved into lay ministry positions in completely different venues — John in Montana and Gretchen in New York City.

Gretchen left Helena, Mont., for New York 11 years ago to pursue a career in opera. She didn’t land on the stage, but she did land the soprano soloist position at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in New York City, where she is now minister of music.

Her dad, John, took early retirement from Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. In June, at age 67, he’ll be commissioned into the Montana Synod Lay Professional Associates (LPA) program. His daughter, 34, is part of the Metropolitan New York Synod’s Diakonia program. Both lay ministry programs are variations of the ELCA’s synodically authorized training program.

As one of her projects, Gretchen researched the differences of mission and outreach in urban New York and rural Montana, where she grew up. It was those “growing up” years in the church that shaped her — and her dad. “It was a constant thread in our lives,” she said.

“I still sing the same hymn to my kids that my dad sang to me,” she continued. The hymn is from their German Lutheran heritage: “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.”

But it was the consistency of “church life” that saw her through even the tumultuous teen years: church attendance that didn’t waver, serving as lector, appreciating ritual and the music. Even at age 10 or 11 she loved church music. Like many, “the seeds were planted early on. It was just part of our life,” she said.

Still, no one was as surprised as Gretchen that she landed in a church job. And perhaps it’s just as unusual to have a wildlife biologist preaching and teaching Bible class — even in Montana. 

But dad and daughter are quick to recognize that faith is something experienced and nurtured in community, where spiritual gifts are recognized and called out. It was only recently that Gretchen has come to accept that these gifts are best spent serving the church. The realization has been “eye opening,” she said.

Her dad said something similar: “The change that I have observed in Gretchen along the way can basically be summed up in two conversations I had with the girl.”

The first was in junior high when she was “struggling to get comfortable in her own skin” and declared she didn’t want to be known just for her music, he said. The second was when he was taking her back to college in Missoula and she told him, “Music is who I am.”


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