When George Carstensen was making his way through his freshman year of high school in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., the idea of having fun was of paramount importance to him.
That hasn’t changed, but Carstensen certainly wasn’t your typical 15-year-old.
“I can remember considering what it was I wanted to do, and then deciding that I wanted to do something that would be fun,” said Carstensen, now the assistant minister at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Nott Terrace in Schenectady. “I had some other skills, but I thought being a minister would be fun. And after eight years of school and my two years here at Zion, it has been fun. I love everything about this job, except maybe working at my desk. But that’s the only thing I don’t like.”
Carstensen grew up going to a Lutheran church with his parents. While he looked into other faiths, he never seriously considered joining any other denomination. After high school, he went to Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., for four years, majoring in seminary studies and minoring in youth studies, and then it was on to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis for another four years. He spent a good portion of one of those years shadowing a pastor in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“I grew up going to a school that was connected to my church, and theologically I’ve always basically been in agreement with what the Lutheran church had to say,” said Carstensen. “Even at a young age, I agreed that as Lutherans we should be scripture-centric and Christ-centric. Those are qualities I did not see in some other churches, so I always felt comfortable where I was.”
Looking to scripture
The Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church is part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that was so much a part of Carstensen’s life growing up in central Wisconsin. According to its own website, the LCMS is a “mission-oriented, Bible-based, confessional Christian denomination headquartered in St. Louis, founded on the teachings of Martin Luther.”
Generally regarded as conservative, it is the second largest Lutheran body in the country behind the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the eighth largest Protestant denomination. Don’t, however, try to pigeonhole its members as conservative or liberal.
“Theologically we’re conservative, but politically our members run across the board,” said Carstensen. “We have all kinds of folks from different sides of the political spectrum, and that was exacerbated in this past election cycle. Our members had different thoughts along that line and that’s OK. But when it comes to what we believe, we look to scripture.”
According to the LCMS view of scripture, that means women should not be ordained.
“Presently, we don’t ordain females, and that has to do with the scriptural stance based on the ‘order of creation,’ ” said Carstensen. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in female leadership. We have women elders, women who lead different parts of our service, and we have women members who are presidents and vice presidents of companies. God has blessed this church with great female leadership, so to say we don’t believe in female leadership is completely false.”
The church also takes an anti-abortion stance.
“There are people who have different opinions than what the Missouri Synod tells us,” said Carstensen. “Any church is not going to be a completely homogenous group. Some might not agree with the official position, but the basic human right to life is pretty important to us. Being born is a big part of that.”
Ministering to youths
Carstensen’s first job after graduating from Concordia Seminary was his current position here in Schenectady.
“The synod is contacted by churches looking for pastors, and then they work through the seminary to determine which pastors would be a good fit for that church,” said Carstensen. “They try to match you up with the place your skill set would be most effective. In my case my emphasis was on youth ministry, and Zion wanted someone to work with youth. I interviewed with about 12 churches, and then you wait for the call. At that point, it becomes the pastor’s decision to take the call or decline, and it’s a decision that’s very prayerful.”
Along with the youth ministry, Carstensen also shares many of the pastoral duties with the senior minister, Shawn Dugan.
“My main focus is the youth and young adult ministry, along with the discipleship and fellowship, all of that stuff,” explained Carstensen. “When it comes to the preaching duties and worship, Pastor Dugan and I draw a line right down the middle.”
In his two years at Zion Lutheran, Carstensen feels like he has witnessed a small increase in attendance, including young families.
“Lots of times, when people hear young kids during a service they think it’s annoying,” said Carstensen. “But I love that sound. It’s so much fun to have young families showing up. I’m not saying I don’t like the old ones, but watching a young family is like a great oasis from everything else in life.”
Gratifying to help
Being around families during the hard times, however, and helping young and old through them, is extremely gratifying to Carstensen.
“What I really love about my job is working closely along side other people,” said Carstensen. “The one-on-one stuff is very important to me. To help folks through what may be very important and very scary times in their life is a wonderful thing. That is the favorite part of my job.”