During Kristin Austew’s search for a new position as a Presbyterian pastor, the first thing she noticed about the First Presbyterian Church of Bordentown was its Sunday school curriculum, which was based on Dr. Seuss. She was hooked.
“The more I looked at the ministry they had been doing, the ways they felt called to shine God’s light on the world, I thought, ‘This seems like good fit,’” she says. “One of the big reasons I’m here is because this church has a sense of warmth and welcome to it that is not something you can teach.”
And even though the church, like most faith communities these days, has been struggling to make ends meet, and people may disagree about the next step, Austew says, “They love each other through all of it. My goal is to show them they deserve to be loved, are loved, and to bring some renewal and new life and reenergize them.”
Before looking to any future changes, Austew says, the church must explore “what’s really important to us and what are the key pieces of who we are as a church, and how do we continue to grow into that and grow through that.” The next step is to prioritize and try out new things. “If you really care about something and it’s not working anymore, you find a new way,” she says.
She recalls that upon her arrival in February 2019 people kept telling her, “We are lot of older people, we need younger people.” Turns out there were “youngish adults” in the congregation, so Austew started a group specifically for the 20s, 30s, and 40s crowd.
“It brought new life and energy and ways to connect and get to know each other outside of worship and meetings,” she says, which aligns with her biggest goal: building community and deepening “that feeling of family.”
In a similar vein she is trying to connect generations. For Ash Wednesday, she held an intergenerational dinner with a worship service whose participants ranged in age from a year and a half to ninety. People sat around tables, and to ensure that people didn’t sit with people they already knew, she had them number off. She also structured the evening so that participants at each table would have to interact.
Austew’s path to becoming the pastor of a small church in Bordentown twisted and turned as she gained experience in different ways of serving other people.
Austew grew up near Dallas-Fort Worth. After her parents split up, she and her sister lived with her father.
Although from small-town Texas in the Bible Belt, she says, “I’m not your typical Bible Belt Christian,” and she describes her family back then as “cultural Christians” when she was young. But at age 13 Austew started to feel like something was missing and pressed her father and sister to try out some churches with her.
They tried out a bunch of different churches but at first were disappointed. But then they found a tiny Presbyterian Church that was very welcoming and helped them find their way. “They showed us how to go through the service, where the prayers were that weren’t in the bulletin and everybody knew by heart, and how to use the hymnal,” Austew said.
The three of them started attending church regularly, and eventually her father was elected as a church elder, and she and her sister were involved in the youth group. Austew also participated in youth events organized by the presbytery. She spent her summers on mission trips around the country.
During her first mission trip, reflections on her own misbehavior and how others responded to it, taught her an important life lesson. “Girls that age can be pretty rotten, and I was one of those kids,” she recalls. “But the people on that trip and the leader on the trip loved me in spite of that, and maybe because of that. I kind of experienced that unconditional love that I was hearing preached about and taught in my tiny little church.”
“That was kind of the turning point: it doesn’t matter how I act, I’m worthy of the love, and maybe I can show that to other people. That was the first little inkling of maybe I feel called to the ministry,” Austew says.
Because she had always felt called to be a nurse, she was part of the health science technology program in high school. During her senior year, she did an internship at a hospice house and loved it. “It wasn’t so much the medical side,” she recalls. “It was more sitting down with people and hearing their stories, helping patients and family process through what they were experiencing and their grief, praying with them if they wanted to, and providing spiritual care.”
Austew continued her religious involvement at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. But it was also important to her that her campus had students from many faith traditions, and the director of religious life made sure they had the resources they needed.
“While my faith is important to me, I don’t think it’s the only way; I think the interfaith dialogues that are starting to become a little more frequent are really important and really enriching to our society,” she says.
The summer after her freshman year in college, Austew went on a six-week mission trip to Uganda, where she lived and worked in an orphanage. Her team spent their days in the baby house with the infants and toddlers. Then in the evening, they would visit different groups, where a few children lived with an auntie and an uncle, sleeping in the same house, having all their meals together, and doing everything a family would do.
Evenings after the family visits the students had a lot of time to themselves.
“Most of the time the electricity was out, and I would just sit outside with a candle or flashlight and journal and read Scripture and pray,” she said. “I remember one evening sitting outside and hearing this voice tell me, ‘You’re going to seminary. Stop fighting it.’ I thought, no, why would I do that?” But she quickly realized she needed to stop kidding herself.
To train to be a pastor, Austew went to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she received a master of divinity degree in 2011.
In the summer after her first year in the seminary she served as assistant director of programs for camps. The second summer she worked and then went on a backpacking trip in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness led by one of her professors. Focusing on wilderness spirituality, they read the works of spiritualists and theologians connected with the desert. All electronics, clocks, and music were banned.
After seminary, Austew decided she wanted to do a full-time, year-long internship that would focus on vulnerable people in an urban setting.
As an urban ministry intern at Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama, she hosted week-long urban mission camps during the summer. “They would go with me to be able to see that these people who live in our backyards are just like us—they are people too,” she says. Her goal was to help young people see beyond oft-repeated questions—Why are these people are homeless and why they won’t they get a job?—to see the complexity of a system that is hard to maneuver.
When her year in Mobile was done, she moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she became a chaplain resident at Saint Luke’s Health System. Chaplain residencies are very intense; you eat, breathe, and sleep in that hospital for that year,” she says.
Her call to the chaplaincy grew in part out of her own experience when her grandmother was dying in a hospital. “Human beings have a really hard time facing the fact that we are mortal, and the role of the chaplain is to rest into that space with patients and their families and help them recognize the sacredness of that space and find the ability to process through what it means to be in that space,” she says.
As a chaplain, Austew says, she learned a lot about herself and her relationship with God. “I did a lot of wrestling with my faith and really refining my own theology and my own understanding of who God is and how God is in this world, and I loved on as many people as I could by helping them process the struggles they were going through.”
When her residency ended, Austew had fallen in love with Kansas City and also realized that she felt called to the chaplaincy, so she took a job for the next five years as chaplain for Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, where patients mostly received care in their homes.
Austew says she actually found hospice work to be easier on some level than being a hospital chaplain, Austew says, “because they know they are on hospice.”
When she visited people, she says, “they were inviting me into their space and telling me the stories of their lives—what brings them the most meaning in their lives and where they have regrets.” By processing through those memories, some found the strength “to be able, in some situations, to make amends and reconcile things that have been going on for years or decades.”
Austew has come to believe that people who are dying have some degree of choice about when it will happen, depending on their diagnosis and what they are processing. Often a person would die not long after a visit from a significant other, but others, she says, would stick around because they were afraid to die. In all cases, though, spiritual care is important at this life stage. “It’s not just about the medication you take; our spirits and minds have a lot of control over what happens to us physically too.”
While she was at the hospice, Austew also had a very part-time gig as parish associate at the Central Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. At this church, where half the members are LBGTQ, she developed a young adult ministry program, led bible study, and revived fellowship opportunities.
“They all loved each other,” she says, adding that she feels a strong pull toward small churches because “there is more of that family feel.”
Despite all the pluses of being a hospice chaplain, after five years and one month Austew had had enough. “I couldn’t do it anymore; it was wearing me out,” she says.
She and her spouse, Matthew Austew, a software engineer, decided that she would just quit, which she did. But at exactly that moment their landlady put up for sale the house they were renting, and after it sold in 24 hours, she told them they had to be out in three weeks. They moved in with Austew’s father and stepmother for two months, but at that point Austew was already in conversation with First Presbyterian Church in Bordentown.After leaving the hospice, she had quickly logged on to the Presbyterian Church’s online database that matched up what churches were looking for with the skills of potential pastors. “I am a more progressive pastor, a little more liberal, and I started learning the language used in these different profiles so I would know what kind of church would fit with me,” she says.
Although she ended up finding a position without the help of the database, she found her match in Bordentown.