Answering a second calling, Beth Walch, mother of three, pursues a new life as a Lutheran minister
With her three sons becoming increasingly independent, Beth Walch is on the verge of becoming an empty-nester.
Her eldest son Matthew, 24, works in the biomedical field in Madison; Timothy, 21, is in his senior year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa; and her youngest, Jack, is a senior at Port Washington High School.
Many parents would see that as an ideal invitation to start planning for some long-deferred “me” time.
Instead, Walch, at age 50, sees this as the perfect opportunity to start gearing up for a new life — as a Lutheran minister.
She is midway through work on her master of divinity degree at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., with expectations of graduating in 2017.
The seminary is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a synod of the Lutheran church that has been ordaining women for decades.
Through the seminary’s Distributed Learning program, about two-thirds of Walch’s classroom work is done online and one third is completed during intense two-week sessions on campus.
Once she graduates, Walch will have to serve a one-year internship before accepting a pastoral assignment.
But that is getting ahead of things.
“It all started in 2007, when I was having a medicalprocedure at Froedtert Hospital inMilwaukee,” Walch said.
“The chaplain stopped in to visit, and I decided I would rather be doing what he was doing than being a patient.”
Walch became a pastoral care volunteer at the hospital, and eventually was trained as a near-death doula — someone who sits with and cares for the families and loved ones of patients with life-threatening conditions.
Walch said she found the work especially rewarding, which she took as a sign that God had bigger plans for her. Those plans landed the mother of three in the seminary.
She was well-versed in the ways of academia, having earned a master of labor and industrial relations degree in organizational training from Michigan State University in East Lansing.
“I’ve had jobs ranging from corporate trainer to substitute teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and everything in between,” Walch said.
She has also been active with the worship team at Grace Lutheran Church in Grafton.
It was from that foundation that Walch began to give the seminary some serious thought. The calling was something many fellow congregation members, including her ex-husband, encouraged her to pursue.
“I have had so many people tell me, ‘I’m praying for you,’” Walch said.
She said her boys have also been enthusiastically behind her belated call to ministry.
“They never really seemed surprised by my decision to go to the seminary and they have been supportive all the way,” she said.
“The timing may seem unexpected, but I have learned not to question God’s timing,” Walch said. “It actually works out that Jack will be graduated from high school by the time I am ready for my internship.”
In anticipation of the changes ahead, Walch has sold her home in Port Washington — calling the decision “a leap of faith” — and is now renting in Grafton.
“I know a lot of changes are ahead in the coming years, so I thought why not get ready and be flexible. My internship could be anywhere in the U.S. and my first pastoral assignment cannot be in the same place as my internship,” she said.
Walch said there is no comparison between her previous time in college and the seminary experience.
“Without a doubt the seminary is much more rigorous,” she said. “I have had to study Hebrew, Greek, church history and Scripture. I even had to take statistics as it relates to mission work, and I had just as much trouble with the subject in the seminary as I did at MSU.”
The biggest difference between the two settings, however, is the people she has encountered at the seminary.
“My classmates are from all over the country, and their ages range from their 20s to their 60s,” she said. “We are all so different, but there is such a sense of caring and support between us. There really is a feeling of family.”
The faculty also demonstrates a pastoral sensitivity.
When she first started classes at the seminary, Walch recalled how she was overwhelmed with the workload and chose to drop a course.
“I felt I had to call the professor and explain why I was dropping the class. He said, ‘Make sure you don’t fill that time with something else. You need time to breathe,’” she said.
Walch said she had a similar nurturing experience when talking with a retired pastor prior to answering the call to the seminary.
“I said I was concerned I was coming to the party too late,” Walch said.
“He laughed, and said he entered the seminary at 50 and retired at 72. Then he said, ‘I think I served the Lord pretty well for those years.’”
Walch said she now sees her age as a tool God intends to put to good use.
“I think the call to ministry was always in my heart, but now I bring life experiences that I never would have had if I had entered the seminary in my 20s,” she said.
“The hardest part of going to the seminary, at any age, is knowing you are not in control. You have to step aside and let God lead the way.”