North Presbyterian Church wins prestigious Lilly grant

Members of North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul stand inside a well-manicured labyrinth. (submitted photo)
Members of North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul stand inside a well-manicured labyrinth. (submitted photo)
York recharging on Mount St. Helens. (submitted photo)
York recharging on Mount St. Helens. (submitted photo)
Pastor James York hiking Mount Rainier. (submitted photo)
Pastor James York hiking Mount Rainier. (submitted photo)

Pastor James York to recharge in Hawaii, Niger and California

Pastor James York’s decade at North St. Paul's North Presbyterian Church has been a labor of love, filled with sermons, bedside visits, service work and Bible studies.

Even so, York, 46, is well aware of his human limits. He needs to take a step back every now and then to recharge and recalibrate, he explains.

"It's all wonderful, joyful work, full of blessings. But oftentimes I feel myself giving out a lot," he says. "I'm also a person, so sometimes I can get pulled into the conversation emotionally."

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of his congregation, York and his church will benefit from a $48,285 grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program that will allow them both to revitalize and refocus their vision for the church.

Drawn to outdoor sanctuaries, York's time away from North St. Paul will be spent in Hawaii, Niger and California's redwood forest where he'll hike, bike and reflect.

Meanwhile, his congregation will be taking this time to experiment with some new forms of worship, some of which will parallel York's travels.

"The sabbatical task force team wrote a really strong proposal," York says. "I celebrated when I got it because it's a wonderful gift."

Working toward rest

York's not the only one who celebrated when news came that North Presbyterian had been selected as one of 144 Christian congregations in the nation to be awarded funding this year.

Lonnie Rangel, 39, one of six involved in the grant writing process, voiced the group's sentiments.

"We were excited, elated! I was through the roof, like a cat stuck to the ceiling," he says with a laugh.

The church members had unsuccessfully applied for a Lilly grant a few years ago. But this time around, they sharpened their vision and it paid off.

Lisa Sellie, 49, put in months worth of writing and editing the proposal, which was a collaborative effort on the part of the sabbatical task force team and the rest of the congregation.

"It's, first and foremost, an honor," Sellie says. "But it's also quite exciting because most churches don't have the resources to do this sort of thing for their church and pastor."

Having recently celebrated York's 10-year anniversary at North Presbyterian, the group felt it was an appropriate time to "observe sabbath time."

It's a practice the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic organization, started funding in 2000.

"The program is designed to respect the innate human need for times of service and replenishment," says the Rev. Robert Saler, director of the program at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, in a press statement. "It provides a means for congregations to express appreciation for their leader's service and respect for his or her health and energy for continued ministry."

Back to nature

York grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, where he spent many afternoons exploring the lakes and woods on his family's land. He worked in the agriculture business for seven years before attending Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997.

His career path may not have been very conventional, he says, but nature has always been his go-to place of retreat.

"I recharge in nature and that's where I sense God the most as well," he says. "I continue to tap into nature throughout the years by hiking and biking."

Growing up, he'd go on 16-day trips with family members that would start out with a Habitat for Humanity project and end with a backpacking trip in either the Rocky or Appalachian mountains.

Since then, he's continued to put in the miles, hiking to the crater of Mount St. Helens, climbing Mount Rainier and biking the MS 150 charity ride. Each expedition, he says, is an exercise in practicing the labyrinth — letting go of feelings like guilt and anxiety on the first leg of the journey, then being present in the moment with his faith, and focusing on self-improvement on the final stretch.

He'll be diving deeper into this form of meditation during his upcoming sabbatical. First, he'll spend three weeks in Hawaii with his wife, Leslie. There, he'll hike Waimea Canyon on Kauai, watch the sun rise on top of Mauna Kea, and do some mountain biking as well.

Then he'll travel to Niger, a West Africa nation where his congregation partners with a local evangelical church to support girls' education.

His third renewal period is a trip to California with his wife, son and daughter to explore the outdoors, including the ancient redwood trees that, for him, inspire a sense of awe.

"I'll be thinking about all the things that have happened since those trees were on earth," he says. "And how they nourish and support and provide for one another."

The last month, he'll meet with a spiritual director to reflect on how he's been renewed and what direction his church might take moving forward. Perhaps most importantly, he'll strategize ways to stay energized even when he's not afforded the luxury of going on a week-long hike.  

A parallel journey

While York immerses himself in family time, nature, new cultures and reflection — all the while, sending photos back to the church — his congregation will step off the beaten path as well.

Rather than continue with their traditional service, members will be experimenting with some different forms of worship that will parallel York's travels.

As he hikes mountains in Hawaii, they will discuss their own spiritual mountains and celebrate with a Hawaiian-themed dinner. When he's in Niger, they'll go out into the community to participate in hands-on service projects, like volunteering at the food shelf. This, too, will end in a dinner, inspired by York's time spent in Niger.

And in place of a trip to the redwood forest, members of the congregation will be holding a small group book study to explore the many components of sabbath, which extend beyond rest and relaxation.

"Rest is part of it, but then there's the refreshment part of it and being energized — to enter back into living life abundantly," York says.

Apart from Easter service, things may never look the same at the church. But it's met with more anticipation than apprehension.

"For the majority, we look at it as an opportunity for not just Pastor York, but for the congregation as well," says Mike Gerhardson, 51.

Lynne Beck, 69, adds this period will present members with new opportunities as well.

"It might also bring about new leadership ... within the congregation," she says.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and Follow her at


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