Clark Olson-Smith, MDiv ’06 on Faith, Community, and the Path Ahead

Clark Olson-Smith, MDiv ’06 wearing his clerical collar and smiling

For LSTC Alum Clark Olson-Smith MDiv ’06 the call to ministry came unexpectedly, during college. “At the time,” he remembers, “I was struggling with feelings of inadequacy, and not feeling like God was giving this blessed assurance that I had been promised.” During this unsettling time, Olson-Smith turned to his community, dedicated himself to his own devotions, and attended Bible study. Then, one freezing February night walking home from a Bible study on the Gospel of Mark, “it just went through me like lightning,” Olson-Smith remembers. “I realized that God doesn’t demand that I’m perfect before He accepts me. He accepts me as I am in order to perfect me.” The certainty in this truth flooded through him, changing his life forever. 

Soon, Olson-Smith eschewed his plans to major in Engineering and Computer Science at Cornell University and switched his major to History. He knew, too, that his journey would lead him to becoming a Pastor, where he would be able to walk in faith and lead others to do the same. He considered several different options for seminary, but a week-long summer class at LSTC proved to be a pivotal part of his discernment—the content was so rich that Olson-Smith knew he was in the right place. “It was kind of a lonely week,” he remembers, knowing no one in this new city. “But in terms of what we were learning, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’” The experience proved to be pivotal and affirmed his decision to earn his MDiv at LSTC.

In a welcome and perhaps unsurprising reversal of his first week in Chicago, Olson-Smith found community almost immediately after enrolling as a full-time student at LSTC. Recalling his experience, he noted, “My classmates and a couple of key professors were willing to show up for me in really important ways throughout my time at LSTC.” This proved true even during the most challenging times. During a personal crisis in which he almost lost his father, for example, the support from his LSTC community was paramount, assuring him that he “never felt abandoned or alone.” Another remarkable manifestation of community was present in his classmate Kent Narum’s open-hearted hospitality. Olson-Smith vividly remembered how “every Thursday he and his wife just opened their home… and invited people to come over.” Those pot-luck-style gatherings created lifelong friends and yearly reunions that continued a decade after the original members graduated. Even today, Olson-Smith notes, “there’s still dear friends and colleagues that we keep in touch with.”

For Olson-Smith, meeting his wife Sara at LSTC, who formerly sat on the LSTC alumni board, also proved to be transformative and foundational to his later experiences. “She’s kind of led the way everywhere we’ve went after graduation,” Olson-Smith notes good naturedly. “And I’ve been the plus one!” Together, the pair have traversed the country, working with Lutheran congregations from New Jersey to Iowa. 

Today, Olson-Smith is the Pastor of the Zion Lutheran Church in Davenport, IA, joining the fold just as the congregation was coming back to in-person worship and ministry. “There’s a core dedicated group of leaders here who are willing to take on any challenges,” Olson-Smith says of his current position. “It’s just been a lot of fun and a great congregation.” Together, Olson-Smith has led his parishioners towards building an environment of stability and sustainability in an unprecedented historical moment. From creating community-building opportunities through collaborative ventures like vacation bible school to working together with congregational leaders to find new ways to reach congregants, Olson-Smith is at the helm of a truly exciting moment in his community’s history. 

For students considering seminary for the first time, Olson-Smith has some advice: “to the extent that people have the capacity to do so, I’d encourage people to show up in person. LSTC’s commitment to their neighborhood and in-person learning was really valuable for me—all the community I mentioned before would not have been available if I was just showing up on Zoom or watching YouTube.” Being mindful of the opportunities for connection-building that are available when you see other people in person in the real world, he still encourages students to do what is best for them. As he affirms, “LSTC is a great place to be, and it is really just about where God is leading you. God will take you to the right place.”

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