Ryan Johnson, Published March 28 2014
A different kind of pastor: After returning to Fargo, Schuler building up a new generation of churchgoers
When the 38-year-old pastor ended up in a congregation that wanted a traditional 1950s-style reverend, not a man who believed the church had to modernize its outreach to better suit younger people, he lost his faith in organized religion.
After a few years serving in a few congregations, Schuler said there were too many “bullies” that didn’t want him to pursue the things he needed to do. A funeral became less about celebrating a life and more about power struggles with a longtime church volunteer who decided she was in charge of the kitchen.
“I just reached a point of sort of being done with ministry, actually,” he said. “I thought about quitting altogether.”
Instead, Schuler left for Chicago and eventually found his way back to Fargo with fresh inspiration to start a new kind of church. Last fall, he launched The Gathering, a mission outreach of First United Methodist Church that draws about 50 people to services at 10:30 each Sunday morning at The Stage at Island Park.
Kay Weiss grew up in a religious family, with a Lutheran pastor for a dad, but the 30-year-old said she had mostly stopped going to church other than on Easter and Christmas to make her mother happy.
She didn’t expect it, but she now regularly attends The Gathering and serves on a leadership committee to make it “not your grandma’s church” – and she prefers it that way.
“I don’t like church, but I like The Gathering,” she said.
Another Fargo calling
In 2011, Schuler considered setting aside the education he had received from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., before getting a master’s of divinity from Duke University. He thought he’d be a good barista or bartender, jobs that would still allow him to help people, and the nonprofit world was tempting.
But he stuck with his calling, moving to Chicago to help Urban Village Church launch a new worship site.
There, he was surrounded by hurt people finding healing, especially gay men and women who had grown up in conservative churches and been pushed away from their religion.
“My experience in Chicago really restored my hope or my faith in the church, that a group of people could get together and organize religion and not eat each other alive,” he said.
Schuler was a “church kid,” usually attending service with his family and going to Sunday school in his hometown of Streeter, N.D. When he moved to Bismarck at the age of 13, he got involved in a youth group and started going to Bible camps.
During a youth retreat in his teens, he said he became very aware of God’s love in his life. He can’t remember what exactly provoked it, but he felt it.
Schuler enrolled in college for a communication major, determined to go into journalism and continue the work he had done at his high school newspaper and an internship with a Bismarck TV station.
Different mentors would ask if he thought about pastoral work, but he wasn’t interested, and said he’d find another way to give back to his church.
Eventually, though, Schuler realized he was saying “no” to his true calling and decided to double major in religion.
After graduating from Duke University, he served as an associate pastor at a Sioux Falls, S.D., church, and then returned to Dakota Wesleyan to be the campus minister before he served at his first Fargo church and then spent a year in Chicago.
Schuler once again felt called – to return to Fargo.
“Lots of people are doing church starts in Fargo,” he said. “That’s not a brand new thing to Fargo. But I really think we’re doing something different because not every church is inclusive of all people.”
A leader and a friend
Schuler moved back in 2012, serving at First United Methodist Church as an interim pastor while building a network of like-minded people who wanted a new faith community.
Weiss had met Schuler years before, when a friend invited her to attend Edgewood United Methodist Church, and said she still remembers his message that day as he discussed his own faith journey.
“That just really rang true with me because I was having doubts and questioning and thinking about what is the right path,” she said.
When Schuler moved back to Fargo, he asked if she’d like to get a beer and talk about his next mission. Weiss was “skeptical,” but before she knew it, she was helping him prepare to start The Gathering early last fall.
Jenny Erickson met Schuler while he was working at First United Methodist Church. She didn’t feel hurt from her four years worshipping with that congregation, but she was interested in j the new church that emphasized it was OK to discuss religion without judgment.
“I could tell that he was excited to get something started, and that he was very open and welcoming,” she said.
Erickson, too, is now a part of The Gathering’s leadership team. While it’s clear that Schuler is the trained leader of the church, she said it’s hard to simply call him a pastor.
“In all honesty, I think of him more as a friend,” she said.
While other pastors often seem to be on a “different level,” disconnected from the congregation, Erickson said Schuler really just seems like “one of us.” Maybe it’s because he likes the same beer she does, she said, or his ability to make everyone feel welcome.
She likes The Gathering’s Sunday services, a far cry from the “standing up, sitting down, saying this prayer, doing this” style of worship she had previously experienced. But the congregation’s other activities are just as important, such as monthly beer and hymns nights at local bars and Bible studies.
“Not everyone wants to come to Sunday service,” she said. “So our other mission, our other outreach and our other events are more part of who we are and how we’re touching people.”
Schuler’s ordination and experience in the church are important to who he is today. Still, he said he’d rather have his congregation think of him as Cody, not just a pastor worried about the traditional rank and hierarchy issues that can distract from his real responsibilities.
“I just play a special role in the life of the church, in the way that many people in the church use their gifts to play their role,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587