By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A key word for Hope Lutheran‘s new pastor Peter Mueller is “connection.”
He’s thrilled to discover West Seattle’s community connections, including the new neighbors who have welcomed him and his family – he got to meet even more of them at a Night Out block party on Tuesday.
But he’s also clearly no stranger to online connection. Though his office at the church is still full of storage boxes that just arrived from his previous home in Southern California, it’s topped with one essential element – a laptop. And when we ask for specifics on a Biblical verse he paraphrases during our conversation, he pulls out not a well-worn leather-bound book, but … his iPod.
He’s even enthusiastic about the church’s website address.
That address is hopeseattle.org. “I love the fact our website domain is hopeseattle, because in a sense, that is what this place needs to be about – provide hope for Seattle,” Mueller said, in a conversation at the church this morning.
But more about his thoughts in a moment. First, a little background. Mueller arrives less than two months after the retirement of Pastor Keith Eilers, who had served Hope Lutheran for a decade. You can read his background in detail on the Hope website, but the key points: He’s 39 years old, married to Patra, father to 4-year-old Hannah and 6-year-old John.
Pastor Mueller is not new to the Northwest – he grew up in Vancouver, B.C. after living a few years in the city of his birth, Calgary. He spent three years of his undergraduate college studies in Issaquah, at what was the time a small Lutheran college (Lutheran Bible Institute of Seattle) that since, he says, has moved to Everett. His master’s of divinity is from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., which he describes as “one of the best theological schools in the world,” an interdenominational, international institution where he felt free to question the Lutheran faith in which he had been raised, ultimately coming full circle to realize it was right for him, not just because he had grown up in it.
His previous role was as associate pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Orange, California, a town he describes is a hotbed of the Lutheran faith – including some of the most populous schools in the denomination, he says. He was there for more than seven years.
Now, he’s here. The Mueller family arrived in West Seattle fairly late last Sunday night, after taking four days to drive north. He remarks on the beauty they saw during a stretch of driving the California coast – Santa Barbara, Monterey, and what sounds like, from his narration of the harrowing “James Bond-like” curves, the Big Sur area. Since they had season passes to Disneyland in their former home, the kids had seen the fake Golden Gate bridge at California Adventure many times, and wanted to see the real one. “So we sat in San Francisco traffic a long time,” he recalls with a smile, saw the bridge, then cut over to Interstate 5 for the rest of the trip up through northern California and Oregon en route to Washington.
He is already extremely enthusiastic about West Seattle. His family is living just blocks from Hope (which is at 42nd/Oregon in The Junction), renting until their Southern California home sells in what continues to be a challenging real-estate market. He is already on the job at Hope, even though his first Sunday sermon is more than two weeks away: “Getting a lot of stuff set up, meeting lots of people.” And unpacking – the office is quite a scene, including, along with the boxes, his well-worn, sticker-covered guitar case.
Why come here? He notes that while the Southern California sun is beautiful in its own way, most of the year, the landscape is dry and brown. So as a former Northwesterner, “I missed the green, missed the mountains, missed the water of all kinds, missed canoeing, hiking in a forest or on top of some beautiful mountain, and I’m thankful to be back in the area where I can pursue that lifestyle, and teach my kids to love that lifestyle.”
He had moved to California to be with (then-future) wife Patra; as also described on the Hope webpage welcoming the Mueller family, she is a veteran Lutheran college educator. It goes way back in both their families; he is a fourth-generation Lutheran pastor, while Patra “is like Lutheran royalty,” he smiles, with “pastors on her dad’s side of the family going back 14 generations, all the way back to the Reformation. Her great-grandfather was president of the denomination in the early 20th century.”
Their children will attend Hope Lutheran School in the fall, Hannah in preschool, John in first grade.
Pastor Mueller says they did a lot of research online – there’s that connection again – and heard about the “Seattle Freeze,” so they were a little apprehensive about what they might find. But people “have been coming over out of the blue – a young mom brought flowers, Rainier cherries, and a card, with her daughter.”
Now, as for his new church. Why come here?
“Hope is at a really exciting crossroads,” he explains, talking about the “S curve” that businesses/organizations are said to follow – an incline, and then perhaps a plateau, and maybe a downward slide unless something new gets it back on the upward swing. “Hope is at a place right now where a new upward, uphill ‘S curve’ is beginning even before I got here. It’s exciting to come in and be a part of that.”
Part of it, he says, is other new additions to an excellent existing team, like Hope Lutheran School principal Kristen Okabayashi (profiled here last December). He is excited about the school, as well, observing that it is “doing really well” – it’s expecting to hit 200 enrollment sometime in the coming school year, and is just beneath that at this point in the summer.
The church has an estimated 325 regular attendees, he says, and “a lot of good things going on – a real desire for (growth), a lot of very sharp and smart leaders here.” One thing that’s impressed him i particular – Hope hired a consultant to help examine demographics, not just of the existing church community, “but within Seattle in general. They know who’s here, and what some of the needs are. (Hope has) done a lot of thinking about where they want to go.” His hiring, he said, was preceded by a planning retreat that among other things focused on what kind of pastor they needed to find.
Now that he’s been called as that pastor: “It’s really important for a new pastor coming into a church to listen well. I want to figure out and understand the story of Hope, the story of the community of West Seattle, based on the story that has happened, and where is God calling us into the chapter of the next story.”
One thing he intends to build on – the classic mission for a church, “to try to meet the needs of the community, particularly those who are struggling in life … that’s near and dear to my heart. If you look at a lot of the great leaders in the world that have made a difference … (they are) very clear, you cannot say you love God, if you are not willing to love people. It is important to me that Hope will grasp (that) and make (it) reality, grow in that … how do we love West Seattle and the people who live here, both those who are struggling and those who are just your average family, trying to raise their kids, pay their bills, keep their marriage happy … to not be a place of pat answers, but of answers that make sense for real life, provide” – again – “hope for Seattle. … Jesus said, if you want to find your life, you gotta lose it; if you want to find true happiness, true meaning in life, you gotta give yourself up in service for other people. As you give yourself away, you get yourself back.”
That’s where we ask for the specific citation. Mark 8, is the quick answer, but the specific verse requires a little bit of looking up. Patra is in the next room and fishes out a hard-copy Bible while the pastor looks in his iPod: 34 through 37. He muses on the example that Christians believe Jesus set: “We are called as Christians to transform the world around us by exhibiting that same kind of sacrificial love, whatever forms that takes, whatever relationships.”
And he’s looking forward to building many new ones as he leads the Hope flock, and explores the West Seattle community.
WHAT’S NEXT: Mueller’s formal installation as Hope’s pastor is scheduled for 3 pm Sunday, August 14th, with a reception following at nearby Seattle Lutheran High School. His first sermon will be the Sunday after that.