The Rev. Rikki Sorensen is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Carroll, serving a congregation of about 100 members.
The Rev. Rikki Sorensen is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Carroll, serving a congregation of about 100 members.
September 23, 2013

Thank heaven the Rev. Rikki Sorensen's ministry in the Presbyterian Church has been much more peaceful than those calamitous first moments.

For the Sorensen, who's this spring became new pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Carroll, it was an ordination ceremony to remember.

During the ceremony this February at Sorensen's home church in Havre, Mont., first, her mentor toward ministry who was participating in the ordination missed a step descending from the pulpit and fell, breaking a leg. A 911 call was made in the middle of the service to come to the aid of the 80-year-old Jane Mills-Morrison.

At the same time, the church's pastor, who'd been experiencing heart problems, had to take a seat.

He said, "Rikki, you do the rest."

"The first thing was to say a prayer, to calm myself down and a healing prayer for my dear mentor and friend and a healing prayer for the people who'd witnessed this," Sorensen says. "Then I did communion and sent people out with a blessing. That's probably the most-difficult thing I've had to do in my ministry so far. I'm so thankful everybody's well and mended now. It will be an ordination ceremony for everyone to talk about for years to come."

Sorensen's ministry has gone a lot smoother since then, bringing her to First Presbyterian Church in Carroll. She arrived in March and was installed as new pastor in April. She succeeds the Rev. Dr. Michael Fitzsimmons, who left the Carroll position about three years ago.

Sorensen became a candidate for the Carroll position in a process she says with a laugh is Presbyterian Church USA's "online dating game." Clergy members' resumes, references, location preferences and statements of faith are matched with churches' applications for a pastor.

A pastor nominating committee from First Presbyterian in Carroll arranged to see Sorensen preach in a neutral pulpit in Manning in December and then invited her to preach here. The congregation eventually voted to offer her the pastor's position.

A native of New York state who's lived in Ohio, California and Montana, Sorensen says she's immediately felt at home in Carroll.

"It's a very warm congregation," she says. "I really do love these people. They are so loving and kind."

She's particularly impressed by how the congregation, which numbers about 100, reaches out to members who are homebound or in nursing homes.

The congregation keeps those members in their prayers, Sorensen says, adding, "I love visiting people in those settings. I feel very comfortable visiting nursing homes, and I really love taking communion to shut-ins. I remind them they're still part of the Body of Christ even though they haven't been able to attend church. I remind them that they're remembered and loved. I've had some very moving experiences with people. I've seen the power of prayer. It's just amazing God's presence in the world."

For the 59-year-old Sorensen, her own path to ministry has been remarkable. The older of two children of Thomas and Rosemary Pitt, she grew up in a home where church attendance was not part of weekly life. The family lived just outside Elmira in upstate New York, south of the Finger Lakes area. The family lived in dairy-farm area.

"Many of our neighbors were farmers, so I've always felt at home in farming communities," she says.

Her mom was a homemaker and then took factory jobs, including welding for a glider manufacturer. Her dad was a tool-and-die maker.

"My parents weren't churchgoing people," she says, "but I always knew that God existed, and I always had questions about God."

Sorensen recalls in elementary school one day a teacher asked the class how many students went to church. Rikki was the only one who didn't raise a hand.

"I asked my father when I got home why we didn't go to church," she says. "He said, 'I've had enough church for the whole family. Nobody needs to go to church. And if a teacher ever asks a question like that again, I will have her fired.'"

After working in a factory all week, her father preferred to spend his weekends outdoors, Sorensen says.

"Nothing could come between him and his hunting and fishing," she says. "He told me later that he felt closer to God out on the fishing stream than he did in church. That saddens me, but that was the way my father was, and I have to accept that."

Calling herself a "rebellish" child, Sorensen says she sneaked her way to church anyway by arranging weekend sleepovers with friends whose families attended services.

"I got exposed to a lot of denominations," she says. "One week it could have been Methodist, another week it could have been Baptist, or it could have been a nondenominational church. I had an aunt who became a Catholic, and sometimes I would go to Mass with her."

Sorensen's maternal grandparents were Seventh-day Adventists and paternal grandparents Methodists.

Sorensen says, "I always heard God calling me, even as a small child. ... When I was a teenager I really felt God pulling on my heart."

But when she expressed thoughts about pursuing the ministry, she initially met discouragement.

When she was 17 she visited with the minister of a church she'd been attending about her possible calling.

She recalls: "He just clucked his tongue, shook his head and said, 'No, no, no, but you would make a minister a fine wife.'"

She received a similar reaction from a great-uncle who was a Seventh-day Adventist circuit minister.

"I had to listen to a two-hour lecture on a woman's place in the church," Sorensen says. "I didn't have support from people at that time to go into the ministry."

After graduation from Elmira Free Academy in 1972, Sorensen worked several factory jobs and assisted nine months with Teen Challenge in Ithaca, N.Y. Teen Challenge provided a home environment for teens trying to turn their lives around from drugs and other problems.

She later became a secretary with National Cash Register in Ithaca, and it was there that she met her husband-to-be.

Peter Sorensen, who'd grown up on Long Island, N.Y., had just returned from Navy service in the Vietnam War, and he and Rikki met at a time when both were struggling with their faith.

Peter, who was a perfect-attendance Sunday school student as a youth, couldn't understand why a God of love would have him loading guns on a ship and killing people whose faces he couldn't see.

"He came back very upset with God," Rikki says.

"But we were young and in love," she adds. They married Aug. 28, 1976, at Centenary Methodist Church in Elmira, the same church where Rikki's parents had wed.

Peter's career as a metallurgical engineer took the family, which includes two daughters, from New York to Ohio to California to Montana. Industry changes and job losses to foreign countries eventually cost Peter his engineer's career. His last full-time position was in Montana.

The Sorensens dealt with some hard times, going months without paychecks.

At that time, their older daughter faced Rikki with the challenging question, "Mom, what have you wanted to be?"

Rikki answered that she'd felt the calling to the clergy but things hadn't worked out.

"Sometimes our children are wiser than we are," Sorensen says. "She said, 'Mom, let's work this out.' So we sat down, and she helped come up with a plan of action."

Sorensen earned a bachelor's degree in community service from Montana State University-Northern in Havre.

"I thought (a community service degree) would complement going on to seminary," she says. "It taught me how to work with nonprofit organizations, how to write grants, how to work with a lot of nonprofits in the community."

For a year before entering seminary, she worked as a team leader with the AmeriCorps community-service program. And while working on her bachelor's degree she also served a couple of years as the pulpit supply for Chinook (Mont.) Presbyterian Church.

A year after receiving her degree, Sorensen got onto a fast-track, three-year program at Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary. Then, while working toward her ordination exams, she served as student pastor at First Presbyterian Church at Rowley, south of Independence in eastern Iowa.

"It was right in the middle of soybean and corn fields, a church that had not had an ordained pastor for 20 years," Sorensen says. "But they opened their doors to University of Dubuque for students to come and work in that church."

Working as a solo pastor, Sorensen led services (however, she couldn't perform communion or baptism), was secretary and answered the phone, since she lived in the manse.

She returned to her Montana home church - First Presbyterian in Havre - for the ordination, "because they'd been so supportive of me and my husband when I was in seminary. I felt it was a way of putting closure to the process I went through."

Sorensen says of the opportunity to serve in ministry, "I've been blessed. You know it's taken me so long to get here. The interesting thing about God's call is that it's all on God's timing. You can't make that call. When it came time for me to be answering the call, doors opened up."

Overcoming discouraging messages - "You can't do this" or "You're not fit for this" - eventually everything fell into place.

"So I'm so thankful I can serve God. My husband and I have been blessed so many times," Sorensen says.

Rikki and Peter, 64, recently celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary, and they have two daughters: Sarah Sorensen and her husband, Douglas Melnick, live in Albany, N.Y., with their daughter, Bella Sorensen-Melnick. Sarah is a legislative aide a state assemblywoman, and Douglas is a city planner for Albany. Rachel Sorensen and her husband, Ruben Lopez, live in Rota, Spain. Both are Naval officers and nurses. Rachel is a non-active-duty lieutenant, and Ruben is a lieutenant commander serving in Rota.

Rikki says Peter is her bookkeeper, making sure the bills are paid on time. And he also enjoys cooking. "He really enjoys Chinese food," she says, "so much so, I don't like going to Chines restaurants because his cooking is so much better. He also likes to cook vegetarian. He sees cooking as being back as an engineer in the lab and measuring and seeing what you can create with all these ingredients."

Rikki and Peter enjoy walks together at Swan Lake State Park. Peter also plays hockey in a program in Ames, and Rikki likes to garden.

At First Presbyterian, Sorensen recently began a program opening the church to just prayer from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesdays.

Sorensen offers to teach types of prayers, noting, "For some people prayer is difficult, trying to feel comfortable and say the right words."

She's also considering a family movie night at the church, using the screen in the sanctuary.

And she recently helped launch a women's ministerial group, made up of members from various faiths in the Carroll area. They will meet for lunch monthly for camaraderie and to share experiences. "Those are now six of my new best friends," Sorensen says.