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Fargo Methodist congregation has its first mother-daughter pastors

Marilyn Spurrell and her daughter, Amy Atkins, are pastors at Faith United Methodist Church in Fargo. David Samson/Forum News Service

FARGO -- As church leaders developed the job description for the pastor of discipleship position at Fargo's First United Methodist Church, Senior Pastor Marilyn Spurrell knew she had a match.

After considering other contenders, she told the leadership board her daughter, Amy Atkins, a small-town pastor in South Dakota, would be the best fit. She wasn't sure how they'd respond, but they said, "Let's meet her."

Spurrell recused herself from the interview process, but the board came to the same conclusion. Atkins, 33, is approaching the end of her first year as pastor of discipleship and associate pastor working with her 65-year-old mother, who's nearing the end of her second year at the downtown Methodist church.

"It was really important that Amy had proven herself in those first churches, that she had done it all, that she had achieved ordination, after three years, and full membership in the conference, outside on her own. All of those credentialing pieces were done," Spurrell says.

Spurrell and Atkins don't "publicize" that they're mother and daughter, but they don't hide it, either. Occasionally, someone who's been out of town or just didn't make the connection approaches them and exclaims, "I didn't know you're mother and daughter!"

The women say they've known of fathers and sons working together in church leadership, but they're not aware of other mothers and daughters like themselves.

When Atkins received her new appointment in Fargo, some of her friends expressed concern. "Really? Are you sure you want to work with your mom? I couldn't do that." But she says their close personal relationship has actually made the transition easier.

They had already worked together, in a sense, by sharing their ministry experiences at their respective churches before joining forces at First United. They were familiar with each other's ministry styles, and they'd long established trust. They also aren't afraid to be honest with each other.

"We know each other and we trust each other enough that we can be pretty honest with each other, and do it in a spirit of helping. If I get overly enthusiastic or pushy, she knows me well enough to say, 'You gotta save it for later. Not now,' " says Atkins, who calls herself more vision-oriented than her more practical mom.

Sure, they disagree on Scripture, each occasionally interpreting a passage differently, but they're able to discuss it constructively, without heated debate. Besides, Atkins thinks their differences in perspective are due to their generational difference, not their mother-daughter relationship.

"Those conversations are actually helpful," Atkins says. "We're not necessarily completely changing or altering where we're at or the point we're trying to make, but, in seeing that the other is maybe confused or not sure about the line of thought, that helps us do some deeper development."

Although their paths to ministry were different, it took both Spurrell and Atkins a while to realize it was their calling.

Spurrell started seminary on a dare. She took the challenge from pastors who thought she had potential and completed her first semester, then her second, exceeding expectations along the way. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her training. She considered doing Christian education or chaplaincy work.

"It was really my fourth year before I finally said 'yes' to pastoral ministry," she says. Now almost 40 years have passed since the West Fargo woman, who was one of the first female pastors in the Dakotas, was ordained.

When she started working in churches, she didn't have many female role models in church leadership, and congregations were still getting used to the idea of having a female pastor.

"I was probably 30 years into ministry before I had a wedding or a funeral where someone didn't say to me, 'I've never seen a woman do this,' " she says.

Atkins had a female church leader in her own home, but she did not want to be a pastor at first.

"I was always fascinated by religion and philosophy, but also didn't necessarily find the day-to-day of church leadership all that appealing then," she says.

The Fargo woman chose a dual major of religion and philosophy and theater in college, and when she graduated, she expected to go to graduate school for theater, either directing or design. But when she started exploring her options, "nothing was clicking quite right."

She worked a couple odd jobs before taking a position at the church in Madison, S.D., where her mother was serving at the time. There she did a little bit of everything and started to feel the "tug" to attend seminary.

"I got increasingly excited as she was doing seminary," mom Spurrell says, "as she was in those first churches, learning from what she was discovering. 'So what's sticking? What are you using? What's working?' "

The learning goes both ways. Atkins says she learns a lot from her mom, too.

"I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to learn from her in this way," she says. "I'm very grateful that it worked out that way."

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representation. She was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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