The Rev. Stephanie Gottschalk, pastor of Emanuel UMC in Pittsburgh’s West End and associate director of United Methodist Church Union, has been selected to serve as the Conference Volunteers in Mission coordinator. She’ll succeed Diane Miller, who officially retired last month after seven years in the post.
“She has a strong theology of mission and will be able to bring others along as we reach out through mission and service,” he added.
Mission, Gottschalk said, “is a part of my faith experience, it is a part of my call and it is a part of my passion. I believe that mission is a key to revitalizing the local church.
“I grew up in a church that was mission-oriented (First UMC in Waynesburg, PA),” she said. “I remember (as a youth) sitting next to our missions chair helping to put together UMCOR birthing kits and school kits. They sent me on my first mission trip –to Russia—when I was 15. I think I was the first person from there to go on an international mission trip.”
She went to the Komi Republic with a team of Western PA youth with the Russia Initiative. The trip was arranged by the Komi Peace Fund.
“That trip had a very profound impact on my life -- and on the church that sent me,” Gottschalk said. “They continued to go in mission; they sent me back again and they sent other youth. They also started doing mission in prisons.
“They continue to be a supportive congregation of the Russia Intiative partnership—18 years after they first sent me!” she added.
That first trip to Russia was in 1996, after Gottschalk had finished her first year studying Russian in high school. She continued to learn the language throughout high school and while studying for her bachelor’s degree at George Washington University. “I was so excited and studied international affairs, peace and cross-cultural work. I caught that passion, but still was not thinking of vocation in the church.”
Gottschalk has since been to Russia six times and served as a leader for three trips. One was with the Rev. Joe Stains on the first “tri-national” trip sponsored by the East German-Western PA Partnership. Volunteers from both conferences worked with Russian United Methodists to rehabilitate a camp south of Moscow. Gottschalk was working as a mission intern for the Conference that year.
“It was a very powerful experience,” she said. The group included veterans from all three nations who had been involved in World War II. They were all living and working and eating together.When that finished, I met a Russian initiative group at airport and went to Komi."
In 2007, she led a seminary group to Russia at Easter. Over Christmas and New Year in 2008-09, she and Miller co-lead a team traveling to Moscow and Komi, where they led a VBS-type Chrismas program.
As a pastor, Gottschalk said, she’s learned that it is not always as much about her going, as sending others. “While I love helping to facilitate the experience and developing relationships, I also am very passionate about the importance of sending, helping others develop skills and creating opportunities for everybody.
“Sometimes we come back with stories from the trips that are so wonderful that we are not always invitational,” she said. “Part of the way that mission revitalizes the church is by inviting other people into the mission so that more people experience God in their life.
Emaunel UMC, where Gottschalk serves as pastor, not surprisingly is involved in mission. The church sent one of its youth on a mission trip with the East German Parnership. After three such experiences, he now serves on the group’s board.
Through The Nyadire Connection (TNC), the congregation supports a child living at the Nyadire mission orphanage in Zimbabwe, a school student and a pastor. Gottschalk traveled to Nyadire with a TNC group a few years ago. “I met our orphan and our school student and preached at the church of the pastor we were supporting,” she said. “Mission is always about relationships as much as it is money and work.”
“The (mission) experiences of being focused on a purpose with brothers and sisters in Christ and confronted with the needs of the world -- whether that’s local, national or international -- really helps us to realize the truth that we need God and that God wants to use us. In a way, that’s what church is all about,” she explained.
Many people live their lives in bits and pieces, and the church becomes just one of the pieces, she added.
“For some people it might be the first time they are experiencing their Christian journey where it is 24-hours with brothers and sisters with a Christian purpose, where they are not dividing themselves up. That helps us to realize in a new and different way what it means to be church and what it means to be a disciple. Coming back with that realization is what brings revitalization to someone’s faith walk and to the local church,” she explained.
Mission work can be evangelism because it brings many people into the mission of God, Gottschalk said. “Often, it is when we Christians are at our best, and that’s a really good time to meet and build relationships with others.”
Gottschalk, who earned masters degrees from Wesley Theological Seminary and was ordained an elder in 2010, served four years on the Conference Global Ministries committee, two as chair. She currently serves as associate director of United Methodist Church Union, part of the Pittsburgh Parish that includes Emanuel UMC. She will continue to be involved with Church Union.
She was elected a member of the 2012 General and Jurisdictional Conference delegation and is a member of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Rules Committee and the NEJ Young Adult Council, which designed the recent Oasis event in Washington, DC.
“I have hopes of bringing all those things together,” she said, “encouraging young adults to use their gifts and find their place. There are a lot of different age-level opportunities for young adults – and older adults.”
October and November will be transition months for Gottschalk. Not only will she join the Conference staff, but she’ll join with John Headley, a Waynesburg attorney, in holy matrimony.
Miller will be around to help her through one of the transitions.
Diane and I have worked closely both on mission trips and the Global Ministries committee, so I am grateful to be following her,” Gottschalk said. “She has just done an amazing job creating the position and laying a foundation. I can see many possibliities because the beginning has been so solid and has given Western Pennsylvania such a fantastic reputation for our commitment to mission.
“Diane has built a team up that I am excited to work with and I am excited to see where God can take us because we have so many creative and passionate people in Western PA.”