MDiv Student Leah Berdahl on Opportunity, Social Connections, and the Fund for Leaders
Community building and relationships have always been important to rising first year MDiv student Leah Berdahl, as has her interest in Lutheranism. From the time that she gave a presentation for her confirmation at her home congregation, Spirit of Joy in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she experienced the certainty that maintaining a close connection to faith-based environments would be crucial for her life path. “Ministry was always something I was interested in, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a call to leadership in ministry or just simply something that I knew was going to be very valuable to me for the rest of my life that fit between vocation and personal fulfillment,” Berdahl says.
The certainty came later, after several summers between semesters studying religion and sociology/anthropology at St. Olaf college when she worked in various roles at Shetek Lutheran Ministries, which offers faith-forming summer camps in Slayton, Minnesota. Her third summer, when Berdahl got to experience the full impact of cross-generational ministry, things changed. Her work felt right. “That’s where I was able to actually spend some real time considering ways to merge leadership skills and vocation with faith in ministry,” Berdahl says. After that, she began researching different ELCA seminaries to find the best MDiv program to fit her interests.
For Berdahl, who had seen firsthand the power of cross-generational work, LSTC’s commitment to the whole person regardless of their stage of life was a crucial component in her decision to apply. “The [school’s] focus on recognizing people in all different walks of life and the [commitment to] acceptance [of that was important to me],” Berdahl says. There were other elements, too, of the LSTC experience that promised a good fit: Berdahl is quick to point to the values in the institutional mission statement that emphasize the focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice for all members of the LSTC community. Finally, she recalled a trip to Holden Village, a remote wilderness community in the North Cascade Mountains rooted in the Lutheran tradition during which she met LSTC students on a class trip. She found them easy to talk to, grounded, and kind.
After participating in an online Seminary Sampler hosted by the LSTC admissions office and completing an unofficial in-person visit with her partner, Berdahl knew that LSTC was the place for her. Though she felt enthusiasm about her decision, there was some trepidation, too. “I was worried that being young and queer and female, that my voice would not necessarily be well supported,” she remembers. “I was nervous about lending myself to authority or putting myself in that space.” In response to these concerns, Berdahl’s synod Bishop suggested that she apply for the ELCA Fund for Leaders full-tuition scholarship that supports students attending ELCA seminaries with the intent of becoming a rostered minister of either word and sacrament or word and service. She applied and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to attend LSTC.
The marriage of community support and financial support proved to be transformative for Berdahl. “That’s what really drew me to the Fund for Leaders and really pushed me to get involved with it, because it did provide an affirming community and was willing to give me spaces to talk through and give me support through the transitions between college and seminary,” she says. She hopes, too, that in the face of what can be a daunting application process for prospective students, that others will follow in her footsteps and, in the process, honor both the physical and emotional aspects of making a change in their lives. “I think to be successful you need to give yourself that space and that time and compassion to do that emotional labor,” Berdahl says. As her journey shows, in the asking for support, it can appear. And after that—the future is wide open.