The term “vicar” means different things to different Christian denominations.
What it means to vicar John Werner is that he has two congregations to minister to, Zion Lutheran Church in Hillsboro and Our Savior Lutheran Church in Marion, as he works toward becoming an ordained minister.
“It’s basically an intern pastor; we call it a vicarage year,” Werner said. “Usually you do it your third year, but with past experience and teaching, they allowed me to become a deferred vicar.
“This is still part of seminary, where I’m learning. It will turn into a call, a pastoral position, next year.”
It’s a life path others had seen for Werner, but one he resisted in his youth.
“They’d say, “It’s about time. Wonder what took you so long,’” Werner said. “I always felt called to be in the ministry, but I did not want to be a pastor growing up.”
Born in Chicago to parents who were Lutheran school teachers, Werner was raised in Hamburg, Minnesota, a town of 500 about 50 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
“I lived in town, but a block away from a cornfield,” he said. “Hillsboro and Marion are big cities compared to Hamburg.”
Werner attended Lutheran schools, and in high school had a career in mind.
“I was actually going to be an architectural engineer,” he said. “The last semester of school I had some friends who convinced me to become a teacher.”
Werner attended Concordia University, a Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod private college in Seward, Nebraska. He majored in elementary education with a concentration in music.
As a member of the college choir, he met Sarah, who started as an education major but switched to becoming a physician’s assistant.
Upon graduation in 2000, the Werners headed to Texas, where John worked for six years as an elementary teacher in Amarillo and the Dallas-Ft. Worth area while Sarah completed her medical studies.
They moved back to Minnesota, settling in Richfield, a Minneapolis suburb. John taught fourth grade at Lutheran school, while Sarah worked at Shriners Hospital for Children in Minneapolis.
After two years, two events set the stage for John’s career change. The school was closing, and Sarah was pregnant with their first child.
“I volunteered to be a stay-at-home dad,” Werner said. That lasted another four years, during which the Werners had two more children.
He took on night jobs as a security guard with Target and Marriott hotels, but he also had opportunities to get more involved in church.
Returning home one day from a church activity, John remarked that someone said he would make a good pastor. Sarah responded with a pointed question.
“Are you supposed to be a pastor, John?” he recalled.
A year later, in 2012, the family moved to St. Louis, where John entered Concordia Seminary.
Pastor Clark Davis of Tampa is the pastor of record for the two churches and will do such things as officiate at weddings, hear private confessions, and provide absolutions, Werner said.
But Werner will do most everything else, including fill the pulpit, which he did for the first time Sunday, an act that drew on a family legacy.
“My grandpa on my father’s side was a pastor of a double parish in Nebraska for 40-plus years and retired when he was 70,” Werner said. “I got to wear his robes Sunday for the first time. That was pretty special.”
The Werners also have a family connection to the area. Sarah was born in McPherson and has a grandmother in Lindsborg. It’s now an easy visit for the couple and their children, Ben, 7; Sam, 5; Kate, 3; and James, 1.
“We’ve been able to go over for Sunday dinner and come home, which is surreal, rather than driving eight hours,” Werner said.
As he embarks on his ministry, he believes it important to recognize each individual as “a neighbor that Christ has put there on purpose,” and that relationships are essential to fostering a strong family of faith.
Werner said he missed teaching, and believed elements of those experiences would find their way into his work.
“My favorite thing about teaching in Lutheran settings was being able to share God’s creation and who Jesus is,” he said.
“Being able to share that entire grace with the whole family will be a huge blessing.”