Rick Pittenger ‘couldn’t be happier’ in new role at First United Methodist

Rev. Rick Pittenger

A few years ago, the Rev. Rick Pittenger was feeling burned out.

After working as a pastor for 25 years, he left the parish in 2006, moved to Brandon and sold church directories for two years. Then he went to work as chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton.

"I became a chaplain, and at 5:30 I punched out, and I didn't have to worry about being (available)," he said. "I didn't realize how much I worked about the church after hours. Most jobs you have eight to five (shifts) and that's when you're working.

"But, (pastors) work 24/7."

Pittenger now finds himself in that role once more, as pastor of Vermillion's First United Methodist Church. He could not be happier, he said.

"It's been great. We have a lot of things in this church that are unique," he said.

His new position started July 1, about a month after he interviewed for the job.

"In the United Methodist Church, we're appointed," Pittenger said. "The Catholic Church is about the only other church that does it this way, where we have a governing body made up of a bishop and district superintendents. They get together and they say, 'That pastor would be a good match for that church.'"

He said he feels he is a "good match," and enjoys his duties there, which include preaching three Sundays each month, as well as two Sundays per month in Gayville. He also performs weddings, funerals, pre-marital counseling, couples counseling and works with various church groups.

Working with people on a one-on-one basis is Pittenger's favorite part of the job, he said.

"The one thing I learned about the ministry early on is, it's the one profession where people allow you to come into the most intimate times in their lives – the birth of a child, the death of a parent – and you're invited in as if you're family. That's really a sacred trust," he said.

Pittenger is not the first member of his family to work in the church – both his parents were pastors, as well as his grandfather and one of his uncles.

He said that during his childhood, "Brookings was probably home, because I was there from kindergarten through sixth grade. Then (my dad) became a district superintendent in Huron, and we were there from seventh to 10th grade, and then he went to First Methodist in Sioux Falls, and he was there through my high school years and college years."

Although Pittenger said he was not encouraged by his family members to follow in their footsteps, the notion was suggested by several people in his father's congregation.

After earning a degree in religion philosophy and speech communication/theatre from Dakota Wesleyan, he attended seminary in Denver. While there, he encountered someone who had a tendency to make others "feel small in terms of their faith."

Pittenger remembered thinking, "'If that's what it is to be Christian, to make other people feel small, I don't want to be part of that.' But I felt like I did have faith and that my faith was just as valid as his. It was different than his. I'm not saying he wasn't a faithful person in his own right, but I don't want people to feel like they're less than whole. … We're all created in God's image."

This is one of the reasons Pittenger now collects pictures of Jesus laughing, many of which can be seen hanging in and around his office. He said it's a reminder that religion does not always have to be stern in its presentation.

"I know God has a sense of humor because I look in the mirror every morning," he said.

Pittenger said he does what he can to maintain an open-door policy, and to ground himself in a way that he can help everyone who needs help.

"I had a friend tell me once, 'That person's so heavenly-minded they're of no earthly good.' You know what kind I mean, that get so preachy that they're not human," he said. "Their feet don't touch the ground, and neither do their minds. It's like they are so heavenly-involved that they can't come down to earth.

"That was one of the reasons I went into the ministry, is because I thought there is a place for someone to be authentic and make mistakes," he said.

Pittenger moved to town from Yankton July 30 with his wife, Becky, who works at the Yankton Community Library – a job for which she recently was honored with the New Librarian of the Year award by the South Dakota Library Association.

"My wife really is my better half," Pittenger said. "She has a very infectious laugh. She just has a very good spirit, and I think laughter is a good thing."

The couple have three grown children.

Pittenger said he will continue to make First United Methodist a welcome place for all kinds of people.

"We're the first reconciling congregation in North or South Dakota in the United Methodist Church, which means we're open to gays and lesbians and transgendered (people)," he said. "We are not ones to judge people, and welcome all people. So, when we say 'All are welcome' on our banner outside, we practice what we preach. …

"I think this church does a good job of welcoming people. We're still like a lot of churches – we still have room to grow."

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