“The religion department, the theology classes, the openness that the teachers allowed for discussions and sharing of opinions were all so valuable, especially because the students in those classes were from every major. It really enhanced the experience and gave a wide breadth of thought.”
It was during winter quarter of Bradley Gienger’s junior year at Pacific Union College that he was struck by a life-changing thought so clear, so powerful, so completely foreign to him that he knew it just had to be a message from God. Gienger was two and half years into college, and a degree in physical education, but up until that point, he felt apathetic towards nearly everything except the power of worship. The moment that would change so much more than his class schedule came during a morning spent driving in his car in the Napa Valley and listening to praise music.
“I was feeling especially down and I pulled over beside a vineyard in disgust with my life,” he recalled.
“I was fed up and in that moment I prayed, ‘God I am doing an awful job of running my life, so from now on I just want whatever you want.’”
When he turned the car engine back on, a song came on the radio by Aaron Shust called “Give Me Words to Speak.” It was in that musical moment that the thought hit Gienger as clear as day:
“‘You need to be a pastor,’” which was nothing I had ever considered seriously before,” he explained, “but I didn’t think twice about it. I drove back to PUC and changed my major that day. Five years later I think God knew what he was doing.”
Today, Pastor Bradley Gienger leads three churches in South Dakota, where he lives with his wife Kristen (née Feldbush, class of 2009), and two children, a two-year old daughter, Peyton, and a four-month old son, Lincoln. The joy and hilarity of having two young children is clearly seen in their church life as well as their home. In Peyton, Brad and Kristen definitely have at least one church attendee willing to challenge the preacher each week.
“One Sabbath,” Gienger began, “I asked from the pulpit, ‘Does Jesus really love sinners?’ In the silence that followed Peyton, who was just over a year old, shouted ‘No!’”
“She also shouts ‘No!’ almost every time someone invites the congregation to pray.”
Their expanding family has brought a lot of happiness, but the cold expanses of farmland and prairie surrounding Pierre, South Dakota, where the Giengers live, is many hundreds from either of the places Kristen or Brad used to call home. Kristen grew up in Colorado, a state that shares the Dakotas’ proclivity for snow, but perhaps little else; whereas Bradley was born and raised in sunny Santa Rosa, California, graduating from Redwood Academy, less than an hour from PUC. Moving to work in the Dakota Conference was a massive shift, culturally and geographically.
“It has been a great experience living in Pierre,” assured Gienger. “It’s safe for the kids, people are kind and generous, but it was a shock moving to South Dakota. The culture, in the church and in the state, is a major shift compared to where I grew up in Northern California.”
In South Dakota, Gienger has faced challenges ministering to especially impoverished Native Americans families, struggled with evangelism and outreach efforts in communities where nearly everyone already belongs to a church, and has encountered low attendance levels unlike anything he has ever seen. Growing up, Gienger attended Santa Rosa Seventh-day Adventist Church where the average attendance was several hundred each week, and he preached during PUC’s graduation weekend as the student pastor to a crowd of a couple thousand. Now, in Mobridge, South Dakota, at the Mobridge SDA Church, he preaches to a group of about five or six.
“It was a big shift,” he said. “You can’t come to church with the same expectations, trying the same strategies when you have five people compared to when you have a thousand. I’ve found it’s best to embrace it. If you have five people you have the opportunity to be so much more about the relationships, it becomes more of a family than a church service.”
Gienger explained that Mobridge is an older church, where even the youngest member, 78 years old, has belonged to the SDA church for twice as long as he and Kristen have been alive. Since he’s been the pastor there he’s already had three funerals. Recently, however, the tiny church near the banks of the Missouri River, has seen an influx of youthful energy, and not just because Gienger drives a 220 mile round trip every other Sabbath to pastor there.
“A family of ten have started showing up,” he explained, “Two parents and eight kids. It’s the craziest thing. God has an immense sense of humor. The average age is now feels like fourteen.”
“This family literally started reading the Bible and decided to keep Sabbath and started attending. We’ve also had a mother and two kids who will come every once in a while and that helped overcome the deaths in the church.”
An ability to laugh at the unusual and bizarre elements of life has been invaluable for Gienger and his family as they seek to make it through the tough winters and long commutes. They’ve come to develop a deep and abiding friendship with Super Walmart, the average Dakotan is unfazed by regular 180 mile trips to buy groceries, and last year, he explained, it snowed on Thanksgiving Day and the drifts didn’t melt until March. There was so much snow that Gienger had to dig a trench around his backyard so that the dogs wouldn’t walk over the fence.
While the snow may seem to be attempting to bury him alive at times, Pastor Bradley Gienger knows that at the moment, rural South Dakota is exactly where God wants him to be. It was a state they moved to because they knew it was what God wanted. The timing of his call to serve in the Dakota Conference is an astounding story in and of itself: During a spring where Gienger had no other job prospects, he received a phone call from a conference elder literally ten minutes before he would walk onto the stage to receive his diploma and graduate from PUC with his bachelor’s degree in religion.
Looking back to his final few months at PUC, Brad praised the PUC’s Religion and Theology Department for having given him the tools he needed for such a demanding, but rewarding profession.
“The religion department, the theology classes, the openness that the teachers allowed for discussions and sharing of opinions were all so valuable,” Gienger said, “especially because the students in those classes were from every major. It really enhanced the experience and gave a wide breadth of thought.”
Being exposed to that breadth of view prepared Gienger for his new life far away from home. He said that if it hadn’t been for those conversations and debates, those moments of growth and intellectual honesty in the classroom, he wouldn’t have made it as a pastor in South Dakota.
“Honestly, if I hadn’t had that experience, I’d be so lost,” he admitted. “When you start doing ministry and talking about God, you have to be prepared for different opinions.”
Gienger confessed that while he may officially be the pastor of the Mobridge SDA Church, in actuality, the elderly, conservative members of the congregation end up teaching him more than he teaches them. He credits PUC for that receptivity to and abiding respect for such a different way of thinking.
“It was those classes at PUC that taught me how to understand that people view things differently and how to express my views to people who think differently.”
Now with those congregation members, a group of five or six seniors, Gienger said excitedly that, “I might be the one preaching, but I can use their stories, because this is about us as a church.”