"I went to seminary in my fifties. It was really God's timing. It was perfect." These are the words of Rev. Mark Gronseth, who will retire after 36 years of full-time ministry. He served as a full-time church musician for 22 years and as the pastor of a congregation for 14 years.
He graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and no teaching credentials.
"When I first started college, I thought I was going to be a band director, and that just kind of went sour," said Pastor Mark.
After college, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. With no teaching degree, he instead began working at a number of places in Fargo-Moorhead. He married his wife, CoCo, in 1979, and eventually landed a full-time job at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater (as their casino auditor) and was also organist on Sundays at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Moorhead.
"I would head to the church on Sunday. On Monday, I would count casino money," said Gronseth. 'At one point, my wife and I had, between the two of us, five part-time jobs. My music career wasn't really coming together until 1986 when I began to really listen to God’s call. Then God helped get things organized. He always had a plan. Unfortunately, for too many years, I wasn't listening to His voice.
Gronseth's journey toward ordained ministry began with music. For years, he served as a church musician at churches in Michigan, Kansas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was a vulnerable, full-time position that often falls prey to budget cuts.
"It took me almost ten years to realize that God was calling me into a church music ministry," said Gronseth. "The first music job was at a United Methodist Church in Livonia, Michigan. Finances got tight, so they cut the musician. I spent a year looking for another church music job and ended up in southwest Kansas. After nine years in that position, the same thing happened– money. So I ended up moving to Sioux Falls at First Presbyterian Church."
He was consecrated as a diaconal minister of music. The United Methodist Church used to have a lay office called Diaconal Minister; some are still in active ministry. The UMC no longer consecrates new lay diaconal ministers.
His job at First Presbyterian was cut due to a lack of funding. That was the third occurrence. Pastor Mark knew that God was up to something.
"I had lunch with Greg Kroger. He was the district superintendent in the Sioux Falls area. We talked about pastoral ministry because I've been kind of feeling a little more of a tug toward that area. Greg said, 'Well, we have this situation in DeSmet, South Dakota,'" said Pastor Mark. "It was a combined assignment for someone to serve at the UCC and United Methodist churches. Greg said, 'We don't have anybody in place. So, how about if you give that a try?'"
Three days each week, Gronseth headed to DeSmet. He stayed in the parsonage and served the two churches. The role lasted until the end of the year, and he found himself back in Sioux Falls again, where he served at Wildflower Presbyterian Church.
"They needed a pastor. I needed a job. I served there January through May and got some more hands-on experience," said Gronseth. "Then I went to licensing school in the summer at Dubuque, Iowa, and headed to Sioux Falls Seminary in the fall."
While in seminary, Mark and CoCo served the United Methodist congregations at Wakonda, Irene, and Viborg. Pastor Mark was ordained an elder in the Dakotas Conference in 2013. He was then appointed to serve at Breckenridge, Minnesota, and Fairmount, North Dakota.
He is one of the few individuals consecrated as a diaconal minister, ordained a deacon, licensed as a local pastor, and ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church.
"I have served UCC, Lutheran, and Presbyterian congregations, and I have been consecrated or ordained four times in The United Methodist Church. The UMC is my home," said Pastor Mark.
The relationships, the kindness, and the connections are highlights of ministry that will stay with Gronseth.
"I worked with some wonderful pastors. I had a wonderful mentor when we were in Livonia, Michigan. When we first moved to Michigan, we lived in the parsonage with the family because we didn't have a place to live yet," said Pastor Mark. "In Moorhead, I learned a lot from Pastor Jeff Seaver at Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church. I've just been blessed by working with many great people in the church. There haven't been very many negative situations throughout the years."
His wife, CoCo, has been a ministry partner throughout the years. As a vocal and piano teacher, she would give lessons and lead music at the congregations and communities they served.
"I would usually come home and take care of the boys. Then, she would head to work and teach lessons," said Pastor Mark. "Throughout the years, we would play together. She would play at the church I served or another church in the community. She still plays for the church here. We still minister together."
Over the years, Gronseth's faith has become more orthodox. He has found that it is important to live out your faith by being open to new ideas and different opinions, but to also place those ideas and opinions alongside the Bible for authenticity and truth.
"I've grown a lot in my faith, mostly because I love to read. I've become more orthodox in my faith over the years. It's really important to live out your faith. Somebody said this, and it really stuck with me. I'm not a pastor of a church. I'm pastor of everybody in that church, and not everybody's going to think or necessarily believe exactly as I do, but to know that I'm still their pastor," said Pastor Mark.
In retirement, the couple hopes to find a home in Wahpeton, North Dakota, or Breckenridge, Minnesota. They will spend time with their two sons and daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.
"There have been so many moves. So, CoCo really doesn't want to move another time. Our son Nick and his wife Jess live with our granddaughters in Carrington, North Dakota. Nate and Allison live in West Fargo with our grandson and another granddaughter. So, we want to find a place in the area," said Pastor Mark.
Pastor Mark shares this with others in ministry. "Be prepared to say, 'I don't know the answer to that, but I will certainly search to find it for you.' Just because you go to seminary doesn't necessarily make you the wisest person on the block. Be able to say, 'I'm sorry, I was wrong.' Take time to be with the people you serve. The other day I was talking with a member of the Fairmount Church who said, 'I just have enjoyed getting to know you and talking with you because I've known so many ministers who just don't want to talk to people in their congregation.' I also have to say, don't take yourself too seriously."