Vicar Shari Schwedhelm was 19 years old when she sensed God’s call to ministry.
She was working with a group of kids at Camp Carol Joy Holling. Schwedhelm was trying to promote unity among the kids, despite divisions among them. At one point, the group was making a big spider web as part of a ropes course.
It had taken much longer than expected, but the group was close to completing the project. That’s when Schwedhelm heard the lunch bell.
“I am an incredible rules follower — and probably for the first time in my life I made the decision that it was more important to those kids to finish that project than to be on time to lunch,” she said.
The kids finished the project, climbed on the ropes, sat on the web and talked to each other. They went to lunch with more unity than they’d had all week long and Schwedhelm noticed something about herself.
“I realized I had gifts for helping people form relationships,” she said.
Today, Schwedhelm is using her gifts to serve parishioners at Salem and St. Timothy’s Lutheran churches in Fremont. She was appointed by Bishop Brian Maas of the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to serve as a transitional leader, while the two congregations work out a shared ministry agreement.
The congregations are determining which ministries they can do jointly while still maintaining their own identities and worship services at their own locations.
It’s a chance for the churches to do more together than they could alone. And while those details are being worked out, Schwedhelm is their leader.
After six months, the churches will go into a process of calling a pastor. They could call Schwedhelm or someone else.
Schwedhelm talked about her role as vicar.
In most cases vicars are students who haven’t completed their degrees and are serving under another pastor. They’ve not yet been called or ordained.
Schwedhelm, however, has completed her master of divinity degree. The churches haven’t extended a call so she can’t go through ordination, but she’s eligible.
She’s able to serve the congregations for communion, baptisms, funerals and leading worship.
As of Oct. 7, worship services will be at 8:30 a.m. at Salem and 10:30 a.m. at St. Timothy. Those times work best for the radio ministry at Salem and the special classes at St. Timothy, she said.
Schwedhelm will teach confirmation and lead Wednesday evening programming. Salem has the GIFT (Growing In Faith Together) program, an inter-generational ministry.
The public is invited to participate in the inter-congregational program, which begins at 5 p.m. Wednesdays with the Table food distribution in the Common Ground building on the church campus; A Feast for All — a free meal open to the community — starts at 5:30 p.m. in the church fellowship hall. That is followed by GIFT, which has a different set of activities each week of the month. From 6:30-7 p.m., participants gather in the fellowship hall, lounge and/or sanctuary for those activities.
Those, who attend services and activities at Salem and St. Timothy, will have opportunities to meet the vicar.
Schwedhelm, who grew up south of Lincoln, came to Midland University in 1989.
After spending the summer as a staffer at Camp Carol Joy Holling, she returned to Midland that fall and added a religion and philosophy major to her education plan besides majors in psychology and sociology.
“I had every intention of going to seminary as soon as I graduated,” she said.
She met her first husband and married at the end of her sophomore year. She graduated with a major in human services in 1992.
She’d have three children in three years and “continue to plant seeds of faith where I could.”
Schwedhelm opened and operated Little Angels Childcare Center in Fremont, which she sold in 2007. She worked for Omaha Public Schools and her jobs included serving as an accountant for the nutrition services program.
She later became director of faith formation at Bethany Lutheran Church in Elkhorn.
Schwedhelm then went to seminary. She was involved in the distributive learning program through which she took one-third of her classes in two-week blocks on campus at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. She completed the other two-thirds of her classes on-line.
She completed that program with a full-year internship, where she served two rural Iowa congregations: Faith Lutheran in Onawa and Soldier Lutheran in Soldier, Iowa.
After that, the bishop of the Western Iowa Synod appointed her to stay on as transitional leader of those churches while they sought their permanent pastor.
Her time was divided between serving the Iowa congregations and her Nebraska home.
She served in that capacity until her appointment in Fremont. She graduated from seminary in December 2017.
Schwedhelm and her husband, Alan, a registered nurse, have been married for five years and have a blended family of eight children who range in age from 13 to 26 and a grandson. They live on an acreage outside Kennard.
The vicar has been enjoying her service at the Fremont churches.
“I have loved getting to know the unique parts of both of these congregations,” she said.
Some of the funniest moments have occurred when she’s led chapel services for preschool children at Salem Little Saints.
“There is one little boy who is completely sure my name is Victor Shari,” she said, smiling.
She notes that both congregations each previously were served by a full-time pastor. Both have thriving programs that easily could keep a full-time pastor busy.
“And the people-pleaser in me is such dying inside, realizing I cannot be what they are used to,” she said.
“The joy that comes out of that is that I am getting to watch each of these congregations find new ways to do all of those things through volunteers and they are growing closer and stronger as a congregation through this process,” she said.
She hopes the congregations will decide to have her continue to serve them after the sixth-month period has concluded.
Schwedhelm describes her upbeat attitude as “contagious enthusiasm — which comes from “my faith in God and my belief that I am 100 percent exactly where I am meant to be.”