Even as a child, growing up in the Detroit suburb of Warren, MI, Dave Kersten had a profound sense of the holy, and of God.
“My mom was a deeply spiritual woman,” Kersten said, “almost mystical. When I was in high school, we read Confessions of St. Augustine together. My whole life, I had people telling me, ‘You are going to be a pastor.’ ”
Those people were right.
But Rev. Dr. David Kersten himself wasn’t entirely sure until years later, in 1981, when he completed an internship at Greenwood Community Covenant Church in rural Summerdale, AL. The internship was a one-year requirement of the Master of Divinity degree he was pursuing at the North Park Theological Seminary—and he liked his work at that church so much he stayed an extra year.
“We survived a hurricane, got a relief grant, put roofs on homes,” Kersten said. “We built an outdoor lighted sports court for basketball and volleyball in the church yard—had it up and going in two weeks—and it’s still there. I fell in love with preaching. I fell in love with pastoral care. I just got immersed in it.
“I had a deep sense of call coming out of that experience.”
Kersten’s sense of call stayed deep. It led to more than 20 years as a Covenant pastor—with congregations in Alabama, Florida, Washington, and Minnesota. It led to 11 years as executive minister of the Department of the Ordered Ministry in the ECC, the pastor to pastors. And it led to a decade as Vice President for Church Relations at North Park University and Dean of the North Park Theological Seminary.
Now, after 40 plus years devoted to the Evangelical Covenant Church—and to God’s mission on Earth—Rev. Dr. David Kersten, C’77 S’82 DMin’97, has decided to retire, effective August 1, 2022.
In announcing Kersten’s retirement to the campus community, North Park University President Mary K. Surridge wrote: “We heartily congratulate Dave on this well-earned milestone, his thoughtful planning for this important transition—and profoundly thank him for a long and valued career of service that has brought so much to the Evangelical Covenant Church, to our seminary, and to North Park University.”
A Through Line to North Park
Kersten began attending Bethany Covenant Church at age 12, and met his future bride, Sandi, in junior high Sunday school there.
“She is a fourth generation Swedish Covenanter,” Kersten said. “She knew she was going to North Park since birth. I found out about North Park from her, and got recruited to play basketball.”
An “honest” six feet seven inches tall, Kersten was a starting center for the Vikings (off and on), and he recalls “a great experience playing at North Park. We had a good blend of city kids and Covenant kids playing together on the team. It was one of my deep immersions in race.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree from North Park in psychology and human services in 1977, (he and Sandi were married the August after graduation); he earned his Master of Divinity from North Park in 1982; and, already a Covenant pastor, he earned his Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from North Park in 1997.
Preaching and Posting Up
The newly ordained Covenant pastor served at Bethany Covenant Church in Miami for three years during a turbulent time in South Florida. Racial tensions remained high after the May 1980 riots in Overton and Liberty City. (The riots—which occurred after an all-white jury acquitted four police officers of beating a black insurance salesman to death after a traffic stop—had resulted in 18 deaths and an estimated $100 million in property damage.)
And there were other challenges. As Time Magazine wrote in November 1981:
”South Florida—that postcard corner of the Sunshine State, that lush strip of hibiscus and condominiums stretching roughly from Palm Beach south to Key West—is a region in trouble. An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane.”
At Bethany Covenant Church, Kersten helped launch an Hispanic ministry. It was the beginning of a cross-cultural ethos woven early and throughout his journey.
Kersten then pastored at Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, WA, just outside Seattle, for 11 years, and again took his enthusiasm for basketball with him.
“We built a lovely indoor gym,” he said, “still in great use to this day.”
But it wasn’t all preaching and posting up in the paint for Pastor Dave. In 1994, his ninth year at Highland, Kersten and another church employee were stabbed by a mentally ill parishioner. Both men recovered, but an artery in Kersten’s right shoulder was severed and he underwent emergency surgery.
“I received more than 500 cards and notes from all over the Covenant,” he said. “Addressing my own PTSD issues related to that incident made me a better pastor.”
News reports at the time said that Kersten was in critical condition—and that he forgave his attacker, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“He is remorseful and motivated for treatment,” Kersten said then. “We knew he wasn’t in his right mind when we went there.”
Highland helped launch a Spanish church, and also helped settle 20 Russian refugee families.
Next Kersten pastored at First Covenant Church in St. Paul, MN, founded in 1874—“an urban church looking for some new energy and life.” Kersten did not build a basketball court this time, “but we did establish a 3 on 3 tourney in the church parking lot!”
They also renovated the church, which Kersten describes as “a gorgeous old sanctuary with exquisite acoustics.”
At First Covenant, where the church had previously settled 100 Hmong families, Kersten helped start a Haitian congregation, “and many are in the church still to this day.”
The Pastors’ Pastor
After six years in St. Paul, Kersten accepted the position of executive minister of the Department of the Ordered Ministry in the ECC, and served for 11 years. The denomination’s executive minister is in charge of credentialing and endorsement of the ministry, continuing education for the denomination’s some 2,000 pastors, as well as care and crisis intervention. He is the pastors’ pastor.
During Kersten’s time as executive minister, the department developed the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program with a $1.67 million grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2003—the first Lilly grant won by any ECC entity.
“The grant funded tremendous resources for pastors,” Kersten said, “in spiritual direction, vocational counseling, leadership development and preaching. These were all programs developed by pastors for pastors, with the intent of placing agency for vocational development directly in their hands. The programs still continue to this day.”
Since that first Lilly grant, ECC institutions including North Park, have won an additional $13 million for various programs funded by Lilly.
Innovation at the Seminary
As dean of the North Park Theological Seminary for the past 10 years, Kersten has helped shape a generation of vocational leaders for the whole church—and a generation of people answering God’s call to ECC ministry in particular. Think of the ripple effect: in all, more than 400 Christian leaders “called, equipped, and sent” to serve God’s global mission.
“Innovation has been the hallmark of Dave’s decade as seminary dean,” President Surridge said. Under his leadership the seminary partnered with the ECC and several ECC regional conferences to create the convenient and affordable Ignite program of cohort distance learning. North Park’s Master of Arts in Christian Formation equips youth pastors, camp directors, adult educators and others to invite the Holy Spirit into the lives of the people and communities they serve. Dual degrees are available in partnership with the School of Business and Nonprofit Management.
And the renowned School of Restorative Arts (SRA) at Stateville Correctional Center, and at Logan Correctional Center for women, offers a master’s degree in Christian Ministry to free and incarcerated students who study together on the inside.
“SRA is a model of innovation that exemplifies North Park’s mission,” Surridge said, “and beautifully realizes all three of the University’s distinctives—Christian, city-centered, and intercultural.”
Kersten said his vocational arc—“pastor for over 20 years, a pastors’ pastor for 11 years, and a decade of forming new pastors—I guess it’s a unique portfolio. I have always been in love with preaching, and in love with pastoral care.”
As a pastoral presence in all his roles, Kersten has demonstrated an exceptional ability to bring scripture into the present moment with vital relevance for the community he serves.
“It begins with a deep listening to the text,” he said, “then commentary and looking at the scholarly interpretation of the text, and then I go back to the context I’m preaching in—what is happening in that community?—and I look for connection points.”
A sustaining verse for Kersten for the past 25 years—and still today as he stands at the threshold of retirement—is John 16:12. Jesus says: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
“That has been a North Star for me,” Kersten said.
“It opens us up to where is the trail of grace in any crisis or in any inflection point—what is God going to reveal to us in this moment, that allows for optimism and a sense of anticipation?”