The Rev. Dan Watland is the new pastor serving the Elstad and Highland Prairie Lutheran churches.
The Rev. Dan Watland is the new pastor serving the Elstad and Highland Prairie Lutheran churches.
Getting a ministerial position at the church he wanted AND having it be in the area where a couple wanted to live, might seem like a dream to many people. However, to the Rev. Dan Watland, newly-installed as of Dec. 1 at Elstad and Highland Prairie Lutheran churches, and his spouse Gayle, it seemed to be part of his "deal with God."

Pastor Dan, as he prefers to be called, did not take the usual route to becoming a minister. He grew up in the Minot, N.D., area, and early on had "heard the call" to be a pastor. In his family "it was considered heresy" not to go to North Dakota State and he did, for four quarters. But, wanting to be a minister, he was taking a different path and transferred to Concordia College in St. Paul.

It was at Concordia that he met his future wife, Gayle, where she was also a student. She had come to the Midwest from Greenwich, Conn. Even though she had never visited this part of the country, she wanted to go somewhere different, and her dream was to be a parochial school teacher. Concordia was a good choice for that. After school, she planned to return to the East Coast, but fate - or love - intervened.

Plans sometimes need to be changed

It was about that time that Pastor Dan entered into his "deal with God." He said he told God that he still wanted to be a minister and he would go to seminary. But "I need more life experience."

They married at Concordia between his junior and senior college years. He said that while his surname may not sound as if he is Norwegian, he definitely is. When his parents first came to the U.S., their name was Anderson and they lived in Nebraska.

"With five John Andersons on the same mail route" his father "would never get his mail." So they took the name of the farm in Norway for their surname. Translated to English, Watland means "swamp." His mother's surname was also the name of the farm in Norway from which her family came, Thorsbakken, which means "top of the hill" (at Ellis Island, it was shortened to Bakken). So he joked that with his parents' marriage, "the top of the hill married the swamp."

After he graduated from Concordia, Pastor Dan and Gayle decided they would both go to nursing school. They each earned a two-year nursing associate's degree at Inver Hills Community College and worked at various venues, including the University of Minnesota Hospitals and Children's Hospital in St. Paul.

Later, they went back to school and in 2000 both received their Bachelor of Nursing degrees. He described their nursing educations as being "bookended" by their son: he was 6 months old when they began their first medical training and they received their BSNs one month before he graduated from high school.

Route to ministry not a straight line

The Watlands continued their nursing careers, which eventually took them to Ulen, Minn., a small farming community near Detroit Lakes. They purchased a 1904 vintage Victorian house and moved there. He worked for Hospice of the Red River Valley, and she as an emergency room nurse in Fargo.

For economic reasons - including two kids in college - they finally decided they could not stay and, although they kept their home in Ulen, moved back to the Twin Cities. His hospice experience led him to a hospice in Oakdale, a Twin Cities suburb. Eventually he found out that the hospice would pay for him to go to seminary, so he enrolled at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Later he discovered they would pay for only one class at a time. Now he had to make a choice: take 15 years or so to get through seminary, or "leave a job I loved to fulfill that deal with God."

Watland did not entirely give up nursing, however. While in seminary, he worked half-time as a nurse at University of Minnesota Hospitals in the Child Psychiatry unit. Then he worked at Health Partners at corporate headquarters as a telephone triage nurse. He was adding to his life's experiences- his "deal with God" - by gaining an invaluable and varied background.

His broad range of interests also meant that he did not follow the "usual" schedule for seminary students. Most complete their year of internship during their third year at seminary. But because of his job - and again his "deal with God" - he completed all of his academic coursework and then did what is called a "terminal internship" to complete his Master's of Divinity degree.

He landed his one-year internship in Fertile, 30 miles from the house the Watlands own in Ulen. At the end of that year, his supervising minister in that five-point parish (serving five churches) was retiring, so Pastor Dan took a one-year "term call" as associate pastor while the search for a new senior pastor was conducted. And then he was looking for a position.

So full of "coincidences," it must have been meant to be

The process of finding a pastoral job starts with checking the list, coordinated by the ELCA, of churches seeking ministers. Watland did this and saw this position in the Peterson and Lanesboro area. He and Gayle had visited the region about 15 years ago, stayed at Mrs. B's, went to the theater and did all of the things that visitors do.

They also fell in love with the locale. When he saw the listing for a pastor at Highland Prairie and Elstad, he said to Gayle, "Wouldn't it be fun to live down there?"

Then they did what he described as some "undercover work." Incognito, they visited Elstad on a Sunday morning in July. He said that the first thing that impressed him was the friendliness, which was exhibited after the service concluded. "The members descended on us, making us strangers feel welcome," he said.

When asked that day how they happened to be at Elstad, they told about visiting parishioners hospitalized in Rochester - a true story - and they were even asked by the choir director to come back on Thanksgiving weekend and sing in the cantata!

The Watlands were impressed enough that they sent in the paperwork to the synod office, and were asked to bring in a photo also, which Pastor Dan did. That next week, Elstad parishioner Robert Knutson was at the office and saw the paperwork and photo. "They were in church at Elstad last Sunday," he exclaimed.

There were more coincidences. Pastor Dan found out that the then-current minister, Wade Davik, who was about to retire for the second time, had been called to the parish for a three-month interim stay, and ended up staying more than 10 years. Davik had a long time ago been at First Lutheran in Minot and had baptized Watland's nephew, for whom he, Pastor Dan, was a baptismal sponsor. He even has a photo from the occasion!

Every new adventure brings challenges

The first - or maybe the most immediate - challenge facing the Watlands on coming to this area has been housing. They have chosen to live in the parsonage located very close to Highland Prairie church, which has not been occupied for many years. For four days after they moved in, there was no running water, but "people here are so good," and they soon had water and a toilet. He said that people were concerned that they would be unhappy with the time it is taking to complete the rehab of the house, but as Pastor Dan explained, "we've been homeowners," and cited their experience with their 1904 house, "We've moved up: this one was built in 1916!"

The bigger challenges Watland faces are more job-related, such as "the shadow of Wade Davik, and I am going into that with my eyes wide open. I can't be him, but I think that in the interviews (during the selection/approval process) people got the sense that they liked my openness and laid-back style."

Pastor Dan feels he has "some of his (Davik's) qualities - we're both from Minot" - and having been a nurse for 25 years has given him insight into hospitals and hospices and child psychology. He said that nursing is, after all, a ministry

"Healing is who I am as a pastor," he added. "Growing up on a farm helps me know who I am, and moving to Ulen rekindled who I am."

After all, he continued, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."

He feels strongly that all of his life experiences are contributing to fulfilling his "deal with God." Because of spending most of his nursing career in pediatrics, he feels very comfortable with kids and teenagers. Those years were sometimes painful for him: he related that one time he had gone to three funerals in three weeks, all for kids - patients - he had known for 10 years, all of them in their late teens.

He has ideas for the churches' future

Not surprisingly, Pastor Dan has ideas he'd like to implement at his two new churches. The most immediate are the youth confirmation program and hopefully an increased use of the parsonage.

He said it is "a breathtakingly beautiful eight-bedroom house," and he "hopes to invite people in to enjoy it as much as we do." And that desire extends to the beautiful grounds surrounding the church with its park, ball field and natural amphitheater.

He mused, it could perhaps be "a destination for weddings and other events." He added that when his daughter and son-in-law visited for the first time at Christmas, they loved the amphitheater. "If we had known about this place, we would have been married here! What a hidden gem!"

What's rewarding about being here

Pastor Dan had only one response when asked what has been most rewarding so far in his adventure in southeast Minnesota. "The people! I am sold on the friendly people."

He added that everyone is being so helpful, making a transition to the area "feel like coming home."

He said he is "grateful that Pastor Wade laid the groundwork for a rich and rewarding ministry in this place."

There are other advantages, of course. The Watlands have two children, both in the Twin Cities area, which is comfortably close. Daughter Megan is a veterinarian and son Bjorn is a computer systems administrator. Both are married; there are no grandchildren.

Gayle is still working at St. Paul Children's Hospital; the plan is that she will continue there until May 2014 when she can retire after 30 years in nursing. Then she'd like to find a job here, or something else to do.

She has a longtime dream of opening a yarn shop, and they think both Rushford and Lanesboro might be ideal locations for that. At this point, the Watlands think they'd like to retire here when that time comes.

Watland said he feels "blessed in my deal with God." He was able to gain valuable experiences in life - and will get more, he is sure - and he "finally" made it through seminary.

Finally, he's living and working in a place he likes with very friendly and helpful people. He feels "blessed to be sharing ministry (with them), and God's blessings continue."

It's a great step in his second career.