When it came time for the Rev. John Sievering to record a welcome video for his new congregation at Omaha St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, he had to postpone.
He had a black eye.
“We had to sort of push that off a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “Got some good pictures out of it.”
Sievering, who began at St. Andrew’s in July as executive pastor of discipleship and congregational care, finds a sideline from his work by playing rugby.
The 38-year-old plays for the Lincoln Wolves after recently moving from the Omaha Goats.
He wakes up on Sunday mornings after Saturday rugby matches sore, bruised and scarred — he recently broke three fingers — but ready to lead worship.
But he doesn’t give up right away to his teammates that he’s a minister.
“If I tell folks ‘I’m a pastor,’ before they know anything else about me, my experience has been there’s a lot of assumptions,” he said. “That the thing I’m most concerned about is the language they’re using and that maybe I have judgmental thoughts and feelings toward them.
“I try to be a good teammate and a good Jesus follower first, and then further on down the line when they ask, I’ll tell them,” he added.
Sievering said he’s served as an unofficial team chaplain on a few occasions and took delight that one of his teammates was in the St. Andrew’s congregation and is due to be married to a female rugby player.
“Three-fourths of their wedding party are rugby friends,” Sievering said. “He was pretty excited that all of a sudden his pastor doing the ceremony was also a rugby friend.”
Sievering’s switch from the Omaha to the Lincoln squad was not the only team he’s changed this year.
His appointment in July marked his beginnings as a United Methodist.
Sievering’s father was a student pastor serving a four-point Methodist charge while in college earning a degree in education. As he moved from one school to another in Nebraska and Missouri, the family would adapt for church.
“We were at whatever church there was,” Sievering recalled. “I tell people I have an eclectic background churchwise.”
The family attended American Baptist, Disciples of Christ and Missionary Holiness churches, among others.
“My read on it was — we love Jesus, they love Jesus. Isn’t it basically all the same?” he said.
He graduated from Nebraska Christian College and his first church was in Beaver City, Nebraska, where the attendance averaged 19 people — “Really good group of people, really patient with me.”
After 2½ years in Logan, Iowa, as worship and youth minister, he and his wife, Steph, moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church for two years.
“We loved being there, but we were looking for something closer to home,” he said.
That’s what brought he and Steph back to Omaha, where he became pastor at Benson Baptist Church, an American Baptist Church congregation in north central Omaha. Sievering said the denomination was “a real big-tent movement” church where he felt comfortable, as he does with United Methodists.
“I know the term ‘Baptist’ can scare a lot of people off and make a lot of folks really nervous,” he said in his introductory sermon. “We’re not that kind of Baptists.”
The most common response he got after the sermon, he said, was “Oh, not that kind, I know what you mean.”
“I felt like it was important to share my story with folks early on. I knew there were some born-and-raised Methodists who heard the term Baptist and might get all kinds of nervous,” Sievering said.
The Rev. Chris Jorgensen, who was appointed as senior pastor at St. Andrew’s in July, knew Sievering from clergy covenant groups and other projects, and convinced him he would be a good fit in the United Methodist Church and at St. Andrew’s.
“He has about the most integrity of any person I’ve possibly ever met, which says a lot considering the people I know and the pastors I know,” she said. “I just knew that, first and foremost, he was grounded in his faith and made decisions from a place of what his faith was calling him to do. And he was someone I could trust. I knew I could trust him to be an amazing colleague.”
Jorgensen calls Sievering “really smart, strategic and super thoughtful,” and said that their personalities mesh. While she might be more impulsive and willing to run with an idea, he is more analytical and ready to step back and look at the big picture.
“We balance each other out,” she said.
She said Sievering has adapted well to United Methodist life.
“He’s very flexible, and it’s easy for us to sit down and have a conversation if there’s any translating that needs to go on between why Methodists do something and his American Baptist. It actually makes for some robust theological conversations,” she said. “Almost always it ends in ‘Oh, that makes sense — I can totally get behind that.’”
The Rev. Dr. Chad Anglemyer, Missouri River District superintendent, said that pastors switching denominations “happens from time to time,” usually beginning with entry through a portal on the Great Plains Conference website.
Anglemyer said he agreed to Sievering after a rousing endorsement from Jorgensen.
“She said he had high credibility and great skills to offer and would be a good fit,” he said.
Anglemyer said that once Sievering completes District Committee on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry processes, he will become a full elder in The United Methodist Church following the approval of Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
Sievering said he knew the Rev. Mandy Barkhaus, his predecessor at St. Andrew’s, and had talked to her to get familiar with the church.
“I have a deep appreciation for a lot of things about American Baptists, their gifts and the things they brought to the big-C church. But I admired a lot of United Methodist Churches and pastors and theologians for a long time,” he said. “I love that they’re both big-tent movements, this broad umbrella. I like the emphasis that different individual congregations will have. It’s not just big tent nationally, but from congregation to congregation they’re going to have churches that do things in very different ways, and I appreciate that.”
He was also moved by the baptism of infants and confirmation of students during their early teen years.
“I really appreciate the symbolism of baptism by immersion, but man, the fact that we are welcoming people into the family as soon as they get here, and we make sure when folks are going through confirmation we give them a good grounding,” he said. “I appreciate that way of doing things.”
Sievering feels like he hit the ground running in a new position with a new denomination and that his wife, Steph (who recently became a school librarian), and their children Jack, 14; Jo, 12; and Corbin, 10, feel acclimated as well.
“I love it here,” he said. “It would probably sound disingenuous to tell you how much fun I was having.”
It was the stress of previous church work and the need for self-care that caused Sievering to find an outlet in 2012 while in Texas.
“I knew I needed to be working out more, taking better care of myself,” he said. “I was looking for some kind of team sport to give me some kind of accountability outside myself — a YMCA basketball league or something low-key.”
He had no luck until he spotted an ad for the Corpus Christi Crabs — “You can’t be too old, too small or too slow.”
“I thought that’s a pretty low bar,” Sievering recalled. “They do want just anyone.”
He and other rookies learned the basics, a rugby ball, that teams are 15 players (or seven in smaller matches) and the rules of the game.
“It took some learning,” he said. “I had a lot going on workwise and it was a busy time. To be able to get out for a couple of days a week and run around was really good.”
Sievering was a high school athlete, playing eight- and even six-man football in Arthur and Franklin, Nebraska, as an option quarterback.
“I couldn’t throw to save my life,” he says, “but I could run, and I could pitch, and that’s what rugby is.”
His sister-in-law, Sievering said, calls rugby “high-stakes mindfulness.”
“You can’t think about what’s bothering you at work when you need to be focused on what’s going on around you,” he said.
Sievering said he likes rugby because it’s an equal-opportunity sport.
“I like the fact that everybody does a little bit of everything,” he said. “If you look at professional sports, people are so specialized — there’s only one job you can do. In rugby, everybody gets to run the ball, everybody gets to tackle, everybody gets to pitch it to someone else.”
He said that although it’s a violent sport, it’s also very respectful. The referees are referred to as “sir,” and on the teams he’s played with there’s been a barbecue with the opponents following the game.
“You’re going to hit the guy on the other side hard, but you’re going to help him back up because you’ll have to see him afterward and buy him a drink,” Sievering said.
Jorgensen said she knew that Sievering played rugby before she suggested him coming to her church, but didn’t realize his devotion to the sport.
“I didn’t know how much of his identity it was,” she said. “He doesn’t strike me as someone you would think would be a rugby player. He’s soft-spoken and isn’t this big guy. I think it of being an interesting quirk of his personality that makes him an interesting person to be in ministry with.”
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