Big Waters District welcomes new superintendent

February 06, 2020

By: Christa Meland

Ask Rev. Susan Nienaber about the past six years, and she’ll tell you about the relationships she’s formed with church leaders, the holy moments she’s experienced within congregations of all sizes, and what a privilege it’s been to see congregations claim and embrace what God has called them to do.

“I love sharing the joys and the successes and watching churches accomplish so much,” she said. “There are many signs of spiritual fruitfulness, and I’m so proud of how far we’ve come.”

Nienaber, who has served as Big Waters District Superintendent since 2014, will leave the role this summer to become director of connectional ministries for the Dakotas Conference. Rev. Brenda North, who serves Detroit Lakes UMC, will succeed Nienaber. The transition will occur July 1.

Nienaber steps into new role

Rev. Susan Nienaber takes the stage at Annual Conference.

Nienaber, who spent many years as a church consultant and has published numerous articles on congregational vitality and conflict resolution, said it’s been a privilege serving as district superintendent because it’s given her the opportunity to be a steward of the Holy Spirit breakthroughs happening within the 58 churches she’s worked with.

But as someone who likes newness and challenges, she’s also excited about stepping into her new role and learning the culture of a new annual conference.

“As I say goodbye, my hope and prayer for the Minnesota Conference is that no matter what happens with the denomination, we can continue to be fruitful and keep ourselves focused on fulfilling the mission,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of how much turnaround work we’ve done and the progress we’ve made on our Journey Toward Vitality.”

Nienaber will succeed Rev. Rebecca Trefz in her new role, which was announced in December. Trefz, meanwhile, will become superintendent of the Dakotas Conference’s Southeast District.

“I am delighted Susan is willing to invest her many leadership gifts, conflict transformation skills, and passion for the mission of the church in the Dakotas Conference at this critical season within the life of our denomination,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, who will leave his role later this year after reaching the mandatory retirement age for bishops. “Rev. Nienaber will be a great asset to a new bishop as he or she comes to lead the Dakotas-Minnesota Area.”

North brings passion for reaching new people

Last week, Ough announced that North would become the next Big Waters District superintendent. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota and a master of divinity from North American Baptist Seminary. While initially part of the American Baptist Church, North said she was drawn to United Methodism as she was exploring big questions of faith, and eventually discerned that The United Methodist Church was where she was called to serve.

North, who was ordained in 2000, served congregations in Owatonna and Marshall before being appointed to Detroit Lakes UMC in 2007. After going through the Healthy Church Initiative several years ago, Detroit Lakes introduced a Wednesday evening worship service, meal, and small group time for all ages that’s been known to draw more than 100 people, many of whom were previously unchurched. Under North’s leadership, Detroit Lakes UMC has become the largest worshiping congregation in the North Star District—and in 2016, North received the Denman Evangelism Award for her efforts to reach new people.

“Rev. North is a bold spiritual leader, with a deep, personal faith in Christ and a passion for every congregation to realize its full potential to change lives and their communities,” said Ough. “She has successfully led the Detroit Lakes congregation through deep change and helped it develop a culture of growth, vitality, and openness to all people. She also has a demonstrated commitment to raising up and coaching the next generation of pastoral leaders…Her gifts and graces will truly be an asset to the Minnesota Conference during this season of birthing something new.”
Rev. Brenda North visits with Rev. Gary Taylor at Hubbard UMC's Breakthrough Renewal Institute.

When North was growing up, her family did not attend church. In fact, in her early years, her only exposure to organized religion was attending her grandmother’s ultra conservative church two or three times. Yet in third grade, she had her first spiritual crisis that planted the seeds for her call to ministry. After being sent to her room for something she didn’t think was fair and hearing her parents argue in the next room, she felt sad, misunderstood, and alone. As she looked at a solar system replica she had created, she thought about how small the earth was and how minuscule she was in the vast universe, and she wondered: What if it’s true what my grandma believes and there is a God out there who loves me?

“I felt this overwhelming peace, and this sense that yes, there’s a God who knows me and sees me and loves me, and everything is going to be okay,” North said. But while the experience was profoundly comforting, it was also deeply confusing. It wasn’t until years later, when she accepted a friend’s invitation to attend church, that she found a joyful and loving community and decided to give her life to Christ. She was baptized, and a couple of years later, her sister and parents were too. Faith quite literally transformed North’s life and her family.

Those early experiences fueled North’s passion for sharing the gospel and reaching new people, and she looks forward to bringing that energy to her role as district superintendent. “I want to help the church understand that it has a gift that is so needed—that gift of God’s grace, of joyful and beloved community,” she said. “I want to help churches figure out how it is they can share that treasure with the large community they’re part of.”

In this challenging season within The United Methodist Church, North—who will relocate to the Big Waters District—said she is deeply committed to protecting the “big tent.”

“I think that God is bigger than all of our boxes,” she said. “We need each other and we need to be confronted by ideas that astound us from other believers.”

At a time when our world is continually changing, we need to give each other permission to be the churches needed in each of our particular contexts, she said.

“I want to embody gracefulness that is big enough to trust what the Holy Spirit is doing in each community of believers and really empower people to share the love and goodness of God in a way that best helps them reach the people who need to hear it the most in their communities.”

Here are some fun facts about the incoming Big Waters District superintendent:
• Family: Husband, Tom, and cat, Coco
• Favorite scripture: Isaiah 55
• Gifts cited by colleagues: “All in,” enthusiastic, playful, thoughtful, hard-working
• Favorite food: Watermelon (in season)
• Books she’s recently enjoyed:  “Unbroken” and “A Tale for the Time Being”
• Favorite TV show: “Parks and Recreation”
• Favorite activities: Spending time with friends and family, going for walks in the woods, watercolor painting, reading books, sister weekends
• People she admires: Maya Angelou, Ellen DeGeneres, and Oprah Winfrey
• Something on her bucket list: Visiting New Zealand

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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