Feeding the flock: Different pastors, different faiths — but the same love of God and his children

Published: Saturday, Jan. 28 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Father Omar Ontiveros records on the radio.

Brian Nicholson, El Observador

On the surface, it would seem Dave Nelson, Omar Ontiveros and Steve Barsuhn have little in common.

Dave is in his 40s, an articulate, personable father of five. Omar is a handsome, young, single Latino. And Steve is … well … older, an empty-nester with less hair than the other two, but a lifetime of great stories to tell.

But those differences are just superficial. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that these three good men are practically the same person. They are all bright, caring and well-spoken. They are all men of profound and passionate faith. They have all experienced the life-changing "call" to the ministry. And they all devote their lives to the care and keeping of their respective ministerial flocks, feeding them with equal doses of sermonizing, service and the love of God.

"I was taught in the seminary that part of the role of a priest is to be in the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd," said Father Ontiveros, who is two years in to his first pastoral assignment as the pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in West Valley City. "Like a shepherd, it is our job to be there for the flock, to walk with them in the good and the bad times, too."

And that isn't always easy, Pastor Barsuhn said.

"It takes a lot out of you," said the pastor of Rocky Mountain Bible Church, a non-denominational congregation in Brigham City. "You really care about these people, and so when they feel pain and anguish, you feel it, too. You're not going to do much good if you don't really care about people."

Besides, Pastor Barsuhn continued, "there's more to being a shepherd than just feeding. There's leading, there's teaching … and there's also protecting the flock. There are a lot of things going on in the world, and some folks are more vulnerable to that than others. It's all part of being a shepherd."

And for all three of these Christian men, being a shepherd to the flock means one thing: "I try to be the kind of pastor Jesus would be," said Pastor Nelson, the lead pastor at Salt Lake City's K2 the Church.

"I love this about Jesus," Pastor Nelson said, warming to the subject. "He comes as the son of a peasant woman and man, only announced to shepherds, not even known for 30 years, just a teacher. He walked like everyone else walked, wore the clothes everyone wore. He came right to the people and talked to them where they were.

"I think if Jesus was here, he'd try to meet everyone where they are," Pastor Nelson continued. "And so our focus here at K2 is, let's do what Jesus did."

For Pastor Nelson, that focus wasn't always so clear. He started his college career with the intention of becoming a high school teacher and football coach.

"I knew that teachers and coaches have great influence on high school kids, and I wanted to be able to have that kind of influence," he said. "I never really thought about being a minister."

Then one night, during the summer between his junior and senior year of college, the call came.

"I spent the summer driving around in a van and working with youth groups," he said. "I was out by myself taking a walk one night when I felt God saying, 'This is what I created you for.'"

Soon an opportunity presented itself for him to be a youth minister, and the course of his life was set.

Similarly, Father Ontiveros didn't start out wanting to be a priest. In fact, he doesn't remember even going to church as a child or teenager.

"My parents were not very religious," he said. "I was baptized as a baby, but we never went to church. I was studying chemistry in college — the thought of being a priest never entered my mind."

Until his mother, who had since returned to activity in the church, persuaded him at age 20 to participate in a spiritual retreat for Catholic young people.

"I met a young priest there, and it impacted me, the way he helped people," Father Ontiveros said. "I was inspired by the way he treated people, the way he served people."

As he returned to school, he felt himself being drawn toward the ministry.

"It was frightening," he said. "I had never really had the church in my life, and now I was thinking about making the church my life. It seemed like such a change. But the more I thought about it, there was a kind of happiness within me. By responding to the call that I was feeling, I felt I was actually finding my way in life."

Pastor Barsuhn, on the other hand, grew up in a church-going family in Michigan, and "came to know the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior" at an early age. He started feeling drawn to the ministry as a teenager, and enrolled at the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music. He did an internship with a minister in Blackfoot, Idaho, and fell in love with the Intermountain West. He went back to Michigan to graduate from the Bible institute, and then returned to Utah to begin his ministry.

"I loved it here," he said. "I loved living among the people here."

The only problem, he said, was finding a wife.

"There weren't a lot of women in Tremonton interested in being a pastor's wife," he quipped.

So he went back to Michigan long enough to meet and marry his wife, Laurie.

"I told her when we were dating that I was planning to go back to Utah," he said. "That didn't scare her away."

The couple came to Utah in 1983, where he worked with two churches in Payson and Nephi in a sort of circuit ministry. For 20 years he ran the Christian radio station KEYY in Provo as a ministerial outreach associated with Biblical Ministries Worldwide, and then in his mid-50s decided it was time to get back into the pulpit.

"You reach a point in your life when you want to spend the rest of your years doing what you really love," he said. "I enjoyed the radio ministry, but I really missed the regular contact with people, to be able to consistently have a ministry to them, one-on-one."

So when the pulpit opened up in Brigham City, he took it.

"It's been exciting to see God at work in people's lives, to see people transformed by the power of God's word," he said. "I'm very grateful I have that opportunity."

As joyful as it is to watch people change and transform, Pastor Nelson said, it's not something that can be manipulated.

"I can't make that happen," he said. "I'm struggling to learn and to grow and to love and to sacrifice just like everybody else is. Nobody has the same journey. Everyone comes to God in their own way. And when they do, it's always a great story."

Pastor Nelson says on an average Sunday there are some 1,400 worshippers at K2 the Church services. "I don't really know how many people call K2 their home," he said. "We've tried to reach people who don't normally come to church. Our arms are open. We're here for you. But we're not going to track you down. Come as you want, come as you are — it's up to you."

Still, there are unfamiliar faces in the congregation every week, so a big part of Pastor Nelson's personal ministry is "equipping everyone to do the works of the ministry."

"You don't GO to church, you ARE the church," he said. "You are the body of Christ. You can only reach the full measure of the fullness of Christ when each part of the body does its work."

To that end he and his associate pastors have divided the congregation into small communities that interact with each other and watch over each other.

"There's no way I could minister to 1,400 people by myself," he said. "But if we've got smaller groups of people who love Jesus and want to serve him by serving each other, there's a lot of effective ministering that is taking place."

Still, all three pastors spend a lot of one-on-one time with people themselves.

"Being a Latino priest, I spend a lot of time with people who are struggling with very specific needs — immigration issues," Father Ontiveros said. "I have been with families in the community that have been divided. When you see a child crying for his dad and there is nothing you can do about it — it touches your heart. Sometimes, all I can do is be present for them, and listen.

"At the end of the day," he added, "you can feel overwhelmed by those experiences."

Overwhelmed or not, none of them regrets the decision to accept the call and enter the ministry.

"It's a good life," Pastor Barsuhn said. "I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to do it all over again.

"Being a minister here in Utah, you're not going to have a mega-ministry," he continued. "But that's not what it's all about anyway. It's about being what God wants you to be, and doing what he wants you to be doing.

"I could not do it without the Lord's help," he said. "I'm not perfect. I make mistakes. I could not do it without his grace and patience. We have a great God. The emphasis is that HE is doing this work in people's lives. I'm just enjoying being along for the ride."

Pastor Nelson agrees.

"The only guarantee I give you as your pastor is that I'm going to let you down," he said. "And here's the other thing I know: If I get to know you, you're going to let me down, too. The only person we can rely on is Jesus. This is where grace comes in. We're all sinners. Jesus looks at us and says, 'Come as you are.' You are saved by grace through faith, not by works.

"So the glory in this church isn't me, it's him," Pastor Nelson concluded. "I'm the screw up. My life is one big pile of mercy. So how can I not give that to somebody else when that's all I have received?"

"I have found in this call deep meaning beyond anything I ever knew by serving the way God has called me to do," Father Ontiveros said. "By serving as a priest I found my way in life, my meaning in life. Knowing I can make a difference in other people's lives, it gives me the greatest joy I have ever known."

Which is one more thing the three men have in common.

EmaiL: jwalker@desnews.com

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