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Zion's Pastor Paul Birkeland set for 'Re-Firement'

Pastor Paul Birkeland of Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet will preach his final sermon this Sunday - and then, he said enthusiastically, he's headed for "re-firement."...

Pastor Paul Birkeland of Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet will preach his final sermon this Sunday - and then, he said enthusiastically, he's headed for "re-firement."

"I'm going to fire up for a different phase of life," he explained.

Birkeland and his wife, Barbara, have been co-pastors at Zion for the past five and a half years, but his career in the ministry has spanned some 39 years in all.

Birkeland, a native of Whitehall, Wis., was the son of a Lutheran minister. Following his father's lead, he decided to go into the ministry as well, attending Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and going on to get a Masters of Divinity degree at Luther College in St. Paul. He served his internship at Lake Oswego, Ore., and married Barbara in 1968, after meeting her when she was working as director of Christian education in a large congregation in Minnesota.

Paul served congregations in Belva, N.D., Beaver Dam, Wis., and Byron, Minn. Perhaps his biggest challenge came when he was asked to help set up a new church in Sartell, one that subsequently underwent "fairly explosive growth," precipitating Barbara's decision to attend Luther Seminary to obtain certification for her associate of ministry.

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The Birkelands later accepted a call to Montana to serve as co-pastors of three struggling congregations in and around Missoula, accomplishing that with the grace and ease that had come to symbolize their service to the church.

Three years later, a desire to move back to Minnesota to be near their new grandchild led the Birkelands to respond to a call from the synod regarding a vacancy at Zion Lutheran Church of Cloquet. The rest, as they say, is history. The two moved to Cloquet in late 2002, where Barbara was later ordained as a full-fledged minister and has served at Paul's side ever since, sharing duties and services.

"Zion had experienced a long interim period when we first came here," said Paul, "and we really wanted to build up the congregation's self esteem as a church and work at being a friendly, open and caring community. I pushed that really hard with the people - reaching out to the stranger to say that we really are a welcoming place. I think that has been one of my personal goals during the time I've been here, one at which I think you have to continue to work. One of the old timers came up to me one day and said, 'Boy, I can really see the change over the past years, just in the narthex of the church when people gather - the friendliness of people talking to one another.' That's very satisfying to me."

Another thing Birkeland saw as part of his role here was to become involved in the community. He has been a Kiwanis member almost from the start and is currently serving as its president because, he said, he wants to help better the community.

"I think the influence we have as a church helps better the community," he reflected. "Ours is a community where there is a fair amount of cooperation among the churches. I think if you have healthy churches, it affects everybody. You don't like to see any church struggling, because we all represent the Christian faith and always share a compassion for the 'unchurched.'"

Birkeland said though the time he's been here has really gone fast, he's come to realize that Cloquet is a place where you can really sit down and visit with people in different facets of the community.

"There are a lot of 'open doors,'" he explained. "If you want to sit down and talk to the police chief, that can be accomplished. If you want to talk with social services, or people in the business world, it's very open. If you want to sit and chat about certain issues, you can, because there's an overall concern for the community. It's a small enough place where there can be good communication and an overall type of support. We're all concerned about our young people, our school system, jobs and safe streets. I think there's an overall commitment to community and we all try to play our role to make it a positive place to live."

Birkeland went on to say the church also tries to keep people tied to worldwide issues, too, since Lutherans are the largest protestant church in the world.

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"Our concern is not just here but worldwide, so we keep up with both," he stated.

Birkeland said he knows Zion will continue to thrive after his retirement because success is less about individual leadership and more about the body united.

"I think they have some good goal setting they're working on at Zion for the future," he related. "They're working on a columbarium, for example, and also working at trying to keep the facilities up. We also have the wetlands area behind the building to consider, and we want it to contribute to the environment of the city in a positive way."

One of the church's accomplishment in recent years, Birkeland related, is starting a radio broadcast of their Sunday morning service, which has been an outreach to shutins as well as an evangelism tool to reach out to the general public as a whole.

"I think today's church has to be involved in media," he stated.

Following Birkeland's final sermon this Sunday, he will be doing things at the church on and off throughout May, and in June he will travel with the New Wine youth drama group to Seattle. After that, he will approach is "re-firement" in earnest.

"I'm excited," he admitted. "I want to go on to work with conservation causes, especially in our state and national parks. I belong to a number of groups such as the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation, and I plan to do some volunteer work along those lines. I think that sort of work is part of the calling of being a Christian, to take care of our soil, water and environment. I'm very concerned about the preservation of our national parks, especially Glacier and Yellowstone, and I'm also a hunter, so I'm working with those organizations to keep the environment in balance.

Barbara will stay on as the church's interim senior pastor at Zion until a new team comes aboard, and the two of them will continue to live in Cloquet and do some traveling, as well spending time with grandchildren. He admits that it will be difficult, however, to say goodbye to the career he's had for nearly four decades.

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"There's all kinds of emotions after you've done this for 39 years," he reflected. "Time goes so fast, however, and we don't know what life is going to bring. I've worked hard all my life, and I want to enjoy life a little more in different ways. We're going to hit the ground running!"

There will be a noon luncheon at Zion for church members and invited guests this Sunday to celebrate Birkeland's time there.

"There are good people at Zion," he concluded, "and it's been very enjoyable to come to work here every day."

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: wjohnson@pinejournal.com .

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