Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week, she talks with the two co-pastors at a Lutheran church in California. It's rare in their denomination, they say, to have two pastors instead of one, and rarer still for them both to be young women. What they describe as a “magical” working relationship quickly became a friendship as well. They discuss the complementary gifts that each of them bring to the partnership, the challenges of being a young female pastor, and how ministry is more joyful with a friend by your side.

The Friends

Jennie Chrien, 32, the senior pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Simi Valley, California
Nikki Fielder, 33, the pastor of youth, children, and family at Shepherd of the Valley

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Julie Beck: What were your paths to ministry? Did you both grow up in the Lutheran Church?

Jennie Chrien: I did. My parents took me to church from the time that I was a kid. I actually first felt like I was being called to ministry when I was in high school. I’m from New Mexico, so I went to college in Santa Fe. Then my husband and I moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and that was where we both did our seminary education [in graduate school].

Beck: Nikki, what is your backstory?

Nikki Fielder: It parallels a lot of what Jennie did. I was one of those kids that did everything in church. I was at church four nights a week—whether it was a leadership program, or being in plays, I grew up doing all of those things. I went to a private Lutheran college, and I thought I was going to be a teacher. Instead, I ended up working for a Bible camp, and found this wonderful balance between teaching and Jesus.

I felt this call to ministry and ended up going to seminary in Minnesota. I like to tell people we went to the “frozen chosen.” Then my husband got an opportunity to be ordained in California, and we ended up working at the Bible camp we had met at.

Jennie Chrien (left) and Nikki Fielder (right) on Nikki’s first day as a co-pastor. Courtesy of Jennie Chrien.

Beck: You met your husband at the Bible camp?

Nikki: Yeah, it was pretty pivotal for us!

Jennie: One of the weird parallels about Nikki and I is that we are both in clergy couples. I met my husband at a church event, and felt called to ministry at this same event.

Beck: When did you two first meet?

Nikki: This is up for debate.

Beck: Let’s have that debate.

Jennie: What I recall is that we met at an annual Church meeting known as “synod assembly.” It's basically the business meeting for our geographical part of the Church. I remember meeting Nikki and her husband, Scott, and they were introduced as the new pastors at the Bible camp.

Nikki: My earliest memory of meeting Jennie is—I work on a national event called the Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza. Jennie was one of our preachers one year. That was probably five years ago?

Jennie: Now that you are saying that, I might agree with you, that might have been before synod assembly.

Beck: Whichever time it was, were you just in each other's orbits for a while after that?

Jennie: Yeah, being in the same area, we had lots of occasions to interact with each other. I remember, we got invited to a summer cookout at the home of a mutual friend of ours who's also a pastor. We were all sitting around the table. It was myself, my husband, Nikki, and her husband. I had newly started at Shepherd of the Valley, and Nikki was in kind of a transition period career-wise. I think that was when I was like, “I have a really good idea.” Which was that Nikki should come work with me at the church.

Nikki: That's so funny because you definitely didn't say anything. You were in stealth mode.

Beck: So Jennie, were you machinating behind the scenes to make that happen after that cookout?

Jennie: A little bit. I don't want to overstate it, because the decision to call a pastor is up to the congregation. I had been at the church about eight months, then the youth director left, so we had this gap of about six months where I was kind of it. It was just too much for one pastor. I approached the leadership of the congregation and said, “Listen, I think that we should consider getting a second pastor instead of just a youth director.” Of the candidates we interviewed, any one of them would have been fine, but I was particularly excited about getting to work with Nikki. I was glad that the congregation felt that same energy and enthusiasm.

Beck: You knew each other a bit already, but what were your impressions of each other during the interview?

Jennie: We did know each other and we were friendly, but it's a completely different beast to be working with someone. I knew for this to work it had to be someone that I could communicate with. Our gifts had to complement each other. I definitely felt, doing the interview, I think this could work. I think we can understand each other, we can respect each other. What I was not anticipating was how much fun it would be.

Nikki: Jennie has a no-nonsense reputation. She is much more blunt than I am, and much more direct. I knew that going in, so I was like, How’s this going to go? Because I'm so conscious of what other people think. When I met with her, she was very matter-of-fact about how the system works, and she had so much empathy toward people who were being interviewed. And because we were so close in age and had similar levels of experience, I just felt like, Okay, she gets that this is hard. She gets that it has to be a really magical fit.

Courtesy of Jennie Chrien.

Beck: Jennie, you mentioned that your gifts have to complement each other. What do you think were the different gifts that you brought to this partnership?

Jennie: I will talk about Nikki's gifts. Sometimes it's easier not to talk about yourself. Nikki is incredibly personable. She is great at helping people feel at ease, getting to know them, and hearing their story, which is a wonderful skill in a pastor. She's really good at teaching, making what may be a complicated concept really practical, and figuring out how some story in the Bible really speaks to us today.

Nikki is also very organized. She's often like, "What time are you going to go to that thing on Friday?" And I'm like, "What thing on Friday?" Because of course she's written it down and I haven't. I'm glad that she's watching my back.

Nikki: I'll talk about Jennie. Jennie is incredibly knowledgeable. She describes herself as a “church nerd.” She retains a lot of information about Church history, Bible knowledge, worship practices. She can pull information out of nowhere. I've taken to sending her Jeopardy! questions just to quiz her and keep her on her toes. She also is an incredibly gifted preacher. She has a great way of taking the Bible story and connecting that to whatever concept she's focusing on for the day.

But I would say the hallmark of Jennie is her gear toward social justice. Our congregation will tell you, if something happened in our nation, of course Pastor Jennie would reference it on Sunday morning in her sermon. She has this wonderful ability to be able to connect the questions: What does it mean to be people of faith? And how does that dictate how we should be in the world, and be caring for others?

Jennie: Nikki's preaching is a little bit more casual than mine. I always preach from a manuscript, which means I've written out everything exactly the way I want to say it. Nikki preaches more from an outline. So there's a little more flexibility, and a little more give-and-take, which I really admire. Preaching from an outline terrifies me.

Beck: How is it different leading a congregation with somebody else as opposed to being the only pastor?

Jennie: In our denomination, a lot of congregations are smaller, so it's probably more typical to be a solo pastor. You have to be kind of a lone ranger. It's challenging because no pastor is good at everything. It can be lonely too. We have a great network of colleagues, but when it comes to Sunday morning, your pastor friends are not going to be at your church backing you up, because they are at their churches doing their own things. One of the things that's been really cool about having a co-pastor is having that built-in support network—having someone to bounce ideas off, who not only knows the experience of being a pastor but specifically knows this congregation.

Nikki: Honestly, I didn't want to be on my own. I think I could be a solo pastor, but there's that dynamism that comes with working with someone else. The relationship we have is this magical unicorn. Because young women clergy are a little bit few and far between. Jennie and I are both under 40, and we are both women—it's very unusual that we would be able to work together.

Jennie: Out of all the Lutheran churches in our area that have more than one pastor, we are the only church where both pastors are women.

Beck: Wow.

Jennie: That's a credit to the congregation, because there is still that mind-set of: What does a pastor look like? Like a middle-aged guy. The congregation took a leap when they called me. Then they took a leap again to call another 30-something woman.

Beck: Is that something that has been a benefit to your friendship? Your husbands can listen, but they don't have that same experience of being a young woman pastor.

Nikki: For sure. To be able to talk about some things that only we as young women clergy experience is really comforting.

Beck: What are some of those things?

Nikki’s llama socks and Jennie’s Wonder Woman socks. Courtesy of Jennie Chrien.

Jennie: I have a good one. When you are in the church office, you'll often get solicitors calling. I'll pick up the phone and I'll say, “Shepherd of the Valley, this is Pastor Jennie.” They'll say, “Hi, I'm calling from such and such company, may I speak to the pastor?” And I'll say, “I am the pastor.” Then there'll be that hesitation, and then they'll say, “Can I speak to the senior pastor?” Like, please tell me there's a man I can talk to there. It brings me deep joy when I get to say, “I am the senior pastor, and also you are not getting any of my business." It’s really just funny more than anything. Obviously sometimes it cuts deeper.

Nikki: I think a lot of mine have to do with image. I think people have an idea of what a pastor looks like, and it is generally male, and generally older. When I was doing my chaplaincy—you do 400 hours as a chaplain in a hospital—I remember during a visit, when I came in and introduced myself, the person looked at me very seriously and said, “You are too pretty to be a chaplain.”

That comes up a lot because a lot of congregations are aging—we are the age of their children or grandchildren. There is a learning curve coming with that. We don't necessarily look like what they expect. Sometimes that comes out in unhelpful ways, and that’s an opportunity to say, "You know, maybe pastors look a little bit different than you expect." Maybe pastors have pink hair like Jennie. Or maybe they wear funny socks to church.

Beck: After you guys started serving together, how did you get to know each other both as co-pastors and also outside of church, as friends?

Jennie: When we were thinking about this working relationship, it's not like you are interviewing for your new BFF. It was really about, are we going to be able to communicate well? Practical things. It just turned out that we really enjoy each other's company. Particularly for me as an introvert, it's very telling. On Sundays, you get to church at like 7:30 in the morning, you are leading worship, and you are teaching Bible study. Sundays are just really, really full. At the end of the morning last Sunday, Nikki said, “We should go get lunch at this restaurant.” But at the end of a Sunday I'm usually ready to go home and crash. I think it's very telling of how much I like Nikki, that I was like, "Yeah, let's do lunch. I want to spend more time with you."

Nikki: I don't think Jennie and I expected to like each other so much. Jennie and I also have an affinity for sweet treats, particularly ice cream or Froyo.

Jennie: I love ice cream, and I love frozen yogurt, and I will frequently drag my husband, who doesn't really care either way, to get ice cream. After Nikki started working at the church, I stopped asking Steve to get ice cream with me. He finally put it together after like a month, because he realized that Nikki and I were going and getting ice cream like twice a week. He was like, "You don't need me to get ice cream with you anymore because you're going with Nikki."

Jennie (far left) and Nikki (right) with their husbands Steve and Scott (center) Courtesy of Jennie Chrien.

Nikki: I went on vacation during the summer and Steve was like, “Nikki must be somewhere because you want to go get ice cream with me again.” We have been trying to go to Disneyland with our husbands, and we finally figured out our schedules. We mixed three church schedules and four pastor schedules to try to figure this out. I think our congregation really enjoys that we like each other so much. I've had people comment when they see pictures of Jennie and I hanging out socially. They're like, "Oh my gosh, our pastors are hanging out." Imagine us on Splash Mountain—they are going to be really tickled.

Jennie: I am not going on Splash Mountain with you.

Nikki: Come on, it's going to be awesome!

Beck: You guys have a job that comes with some pretty unique responsibilities. Does that make for a different sort of friendship than what you have with your friends who aren’t in ministry?

Jennie: The biggest thing that my friendship with Nikki has brought to my life is more joy, and particularly joy in ministry. Like any job, being a pastor has its ups and downs, but often I find that it's just really stressful, and so it's not always a big source of joy for me. The time that Nikki and I have been working together has been really fun, and really joyful. It’s probably kept me from feeling burnt out.

Nikki: I think we've been able to share not only the joys of ministry; we've been able to shoulder some of the hard parts too. We are serving a congregation that has folks who are dealing with really hard things, and to know that you are not alone in trying to walk alongside people has been really important. Together, Jennie and I can do a lot more.


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