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St. John Lutheran welcomes new pastor

Katie McNeal is the new pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, 420 Beaver St., Mars. She replaces the retired Rev. Robert Zimmerman, who was pastor at St. John for six years. ERIC FREEHLING/BUTLER EAGLE

MARS — Katie McNeal presided over her first Sunday service April 3 as pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, 420 Beaver St.

“It went well. We didn’t burn the church down. That’s always a good thing,” said McNeal.

She replaces the retired Rev. Robert Zimmerman, who was pastor at St. John for six years.

McNeal grew up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh and holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and music from Wittenburg University, Springfield, Ohio.

“It was affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but you don’t have to go to chapel,” she said.

“I initially wanted to be a veterinarian, that’s why the biochemistry, but then I switched to a music major,” she said.

She later earned a master’s degree in divinity and a master’s degree in sacred theology at Yale University, where she was a chapel minister at the school and was able to bring her passion for music to the worship service.

“I’ve always had the call,” said McNeal about her decision to go to divinity school. “I was the last person to notice.”

“I took other classes. I planned to work for a faith-based nonprofit,” said McNeal.

For five years McNeal was director of youth and family ministries at St. James Lutheran Church in Southbury, Conn. She credits her mentor at St. James, the Rev. Scott Nessel, with setting her on the path to ordination.

Most recently she completed an 18-month internship at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in McMurray.

While at Our Redeemer, she preached monthly, visited the sick and shut-ins, and developed a virtual Sunday school program using technology to deliver God’s message to each child’s home during the pandemic. Over the years, she has conducted a wide range of Christian education classes, including prekindergarten Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and confirmation and adult Sunday school classes.

Her teaching experience also includes teaching a science-based program for high school students, conducting kickboxing classes, horse-riding lessons and dog-training classes for both children and adults.

She is scheduled to be ordained at Our Redeemer Sunday.

Kelly Greb of Penn Township, a member of St. John for 21 years and a member of the seven-member call committee, said her committee worked through Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to locate a new pastor to replace Zimmerman.

“He retired last April,” said Greb. “We used supply pastors and church laypeople for our services” until finding McNeal.

Greb said first the call committee created a ministry site profile. “This was a document explaining the church mission and what the church is looking for in a potential pastor.”

The committee submitted the document to the synod in September “and then we waited for potential candidates to review the profile online and (see) if they have an interest in learning more about the church,” said Greb.

McNeal said Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pa. Synod of the ELCA matched church profiles with profiles submitted by potential pastors.

The call committee interviews candidates, then votes to proceed with the process by introducing the candidate to the church council. If the church council approves the candidate by a two-thirds vote, according to Greb, the candidate is invited to meet the entire congregation and preach, after which the congregation takes a vote.

“My audition ceremony was early in the year. The congregation voted on whether or not to call me as pastor. It was a little bit stressful,” McNeal admitted.

Asked what made St. John an attractive destination, McNeal cited “its commitment to being connected and best serve the needs of the congregation.”

For instance, she said the church partners with the Mars United Presbyterian Church for youth group and vacation Bible school as an example of St. John “being nimble enough in the present world.”

She said, “There’s a really great balance here. It’s a multigenerational congregation. A lot of children participate as much as the adults.”

“And there's a third thing that drew me to St. John — it's a community committed to being and growing as a welcoming place for all people to feel and know God's abundant love even in the challenges of daily life,” said McNeal.

“My aim is to really help St. John be the best it can be,” she said.

“I think she will provide a lot of energy,” said Greb. “She was good with youths and children and seemed to develop connections,” said Greb.

Greb said the church listed its priorities as Christian education, preaching and worship, youth and family, senior ministry, and pastoral care. “She showed a strong interest in all these areas,” said Greb.

“Like all churches, we have seen a decrease in attendance. She has new ideas, creative ideas on how to reach out to others who might not be going to church on a regular basis or might not be going at all,” said Greb.

McNeal plans to move to the Mars area along with Kita, her German shepherd; Jasmine, her rescue rabbit; Storm, a parakeet; and Ezekiel, a bearded dragon lizard.