Steve Ziebarth has spent time ignoring God's call to ministry and pushed it off for a long time. Many people throughout his life encouraged him to be a pastor. He grew up in Stranton, North Dakota, moved to Madison, South Dakota, when he was in high school.
"I come from a long line of Lutheran pastors in my family. My grandmother saw me as the successor in the linage. She started encouraging me when I was in third grade to think about being a minister," says Reverend Steve Ziebarth, a member of the 2020 Dakotas Conference class of retirees.
When Ziebarth was in high school, he was very active in the youth program at the church. He took on various leadership roles. He recalls preaching his first sermon, as a senior in high school, on Easter Sunday morning.
After graduating from high school in Madison, South Dakota, Ziebarth headed to Madison's Dakota State University. Like many other young adults, he ignored his faith. One day he got a call from his pastor at his home church in Madison.
"My pastor called me one day and said, 'Steven, I want you to think about teaching confirmation,'" says Ziebarth. "I said to him, what, me? So, I started teaching a confirmation class with him. That was a move in the right direction."
He also met a girl while in college and made a marriage proposal before heading off to the military.
"I met Kathy, and we had been dating for a year. I asked her to marry me before going off into the army. She said no. I said, why? She told me that until I decided to be a person that practices their faith regularly, I can't spend my life with you," said Ziebarth. "I did some reconsidering in a hurry."
He grew up with three brothers. The family adopted a couple from Cambodia who have been a constant part of his family. His dad was a model for Steve. When Ziebarth announced that he was headed to seminary, his dad commented, "Go, go in peace and serve the Lord." Part of his family life was devotional time, usually in the evening, spending time in prayer. "If I tried to get out of it, or if I didn't show up. I was in trouble," says Steve.
College grades were not good. He needed to get better grades to graduate but went to the military before completing his degree. In the army, Ziebarth was part of a group called the Government Issue, a vocal singing and jazz band group. The group traveled the western United States giving concerts. He also spent a few months as a recruiter for the band.
During the times away from school, the couple headed to Roswell, South Dakota, and helped on Kathy's family farm. The pastor Rev. Ken Hairgrove got Steve involved in the church, especially leading youth activities.
After serving in the army, he returned to DSU to complete his degree in music education. He taught for five years in Canova, South Dakota, Tri-Valley School District in Colton, South Dakota, and then in Dell Rapids, South Dakota.
While teaching in Dell Rapids, South Dakota, Kathy and Steve became very involved with the United Methodist Church. Revs. Penny and Emil Eberhart were serving the congregation and guided Steve into many leadership roles. He found himself trying to balance teaching music, church, and family life.
"We just had a baby boy. I got home on Wednesday night, after going to school early in the morning to teach music lessons. Staying late at school for meetings and practices, I did not go home before heading over to church for youth ministry activities," says Steve." I got home at 10 p.m., and Kathy was standing at the door and did not look happy. She said, 'you have got to decide. You need to be a minister or teacher. We cannot survive to have you do both.' That moment was pivotal."
The next fall, the family—Kathy, Steve, a daughter, and son, packed up and headed to Iliff Seminary in Denver, Colorado. "We got married on a Saturday. We moved to Colorado on Tuesday,' says Steve.
The family found a home at a United Methodist Church while living in Colorado. The first Sunday, right after they moved, they attended a United Methodist Church six blocks away. Kathy had grown up in the United Methodist Church, so they thought they would give the church a try.
Steve says, "There was an older woman named Tutt Berquist, who welcomed us. She was a co-worker of Kathy's. The people in that church wrapped their arms around us, and we were involved. It was natural, and they loved us."
The family returned to the Dakotas Conference and served the congregations of Gregory UMC, First UMC in Mitchell, South Dakota, School of Mines Campus Ministry, Southern Hills UMC in Sioux Falls, and the United Methodist Church in Canton, South Dakota.
"We were blessed to be connected with wonderful people," says Pastor Steve. "As clergy, we are really blessed to share the best message in the world. I can't imagine having done anything else. It has been a blessing for the past 40 years. That is why I waited until I was 71 years of age to retire. I enjoy what I do."
In life there are all struggles," says Ziebarth. "The support of the church and God helped us through the struggles in ways we could not imagine."
When serving at Southern Hills, the congregation decided to build a new church. "They made a decision that we needed to grow. So, we built a building that would make it happen," says Ziebarth.
Southern Hills UMC is across the street from John Harris Elementary School. So, the congregation started an afterschool ministry for the children. The program started with eight children; it grew to more than 100 participants while Pastor Ziebarth was there. Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota now operate the program.
Other ministries that were launched while Ziebarth was at Southern Hills were a community garden and a living nativity. The live nativity is still happening today.
"You need to listen to those around you. God uses other people to guide and communicate. I never had God light up a neon sign and say, 'Steve do this.' It was by listening to other people around me that God guided me to my call," says Ziebarth.
Music was a huge part of his ministry. For decades he directed church choirs. "I was able to share my love of music and God's love. I really enjoyed that," says Pastor Steve. He sang in a quartet in the Sioux Falls area, The Masters' Five.
"Our task is not to be United Methodist first, or any denomination first. It is not Republicans or Democrats. Our task is to be Christians—to be disciples of the one who calls us every day. When we live faithfully, God uses us to make a difference in the world around us. I believe, if we live the way that Jesus calls us to live, issues and differences disappear. Live the teachings of Christ in our life."
In retirement, Kathy and Steve will live in Canton, South Dakota but plan to do a lot of camping and visit their children and three grandchildren as much as possible.
"It has been a privilege to be a part of the Lord's work for more than 40 years. It has been a wonderful privilege."