Carlan Helgeson was a senior at the University of Minnesota in 1973 when he attended an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student missions conference in Urbana, Ill.
More than 14,000 students listened as several renowned speakers encouraged the young Christians to dedicate their lives in service to God.
One of the speakers was the Rev. Billy Graham.
"Billy Graham challenged us to go into the mission field," Helgeson, the new pastor at Spring Hill United Church of Christ, recalled in a recent interview. "That's not exactly where I felt called. But he also challenged us to offer our lives in service to the church. So that was an important meeting place for me with God."
Already a student of the Bible, Helgeson took up the challenge.
"I grew up in the church, so the church and the message of the Gospel has always been a part of my life," he said. "But I think the reality of God's presence in my life became very powerful through Bible study in college."
After completing his education degree, Helgeson went on to receive a master of divinity degree from Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Later, he received his doctorate in ministry from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.
Helgeson's ministry for the past 29 years has included serving as senior pastor at three United Church of Christ congregations in Ohio. While pastoring at the last of those churches, First United Church of Christ in Sugarcreek, he was an adjunct professor of the New Testament at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.
"I think my passion in ministry is teaching," Helgeson said. "That was a good experience for me. I would love the opportunity to do that here in Spring Hill. At any rate, I'll be teaching in the church because that's one of my loves."
In fact, Helgeson said, his gifts for teaching and administration are two of the qualities the Spring Hill church was looking for as it sought a permanent replacement for the Rev. Dwight Wolter, who left in September 2006.
"After spending 15 years in the last church in Ohio, I felt that my job there was done and it was time to go," Helgeson said. "Spring Hill had a position open, and they looked like a congregation that was looking for someone like myself — a teacher, someone who was interested in bringing biblical studies and spiritual growth to the congregation."
Helgeson, 55, moved here last month with Jill, his wife of 31 years, and began his pastoral duties at the church Aug. 18.
The father of four grown children, Helgeson lists travel and foreign language study, ethnic cooking, keyboard instruments and concerts, children's books, and exercise and fitness as hobbies or areas of special interest.
He hopes he can help the church, which has about 150 members, grow both spiritually and numerically.
"My experience of what's in Spring Hill is that there are a lot of people who are spiritual wanderers," he said. "Most of the people I've met since I've been here don't have a church home. That was kind of a surprise to me. I need to make people aware that the church is here and that we are a church that is known to be welcoming to all people."
Helgeson noted that three different congregations use the facilities at Spring Hill United Church of Christ for their services.
"That's part of our openness," he said. "We try not to be exclusive. We try to see all Christian people as part of our common family."
Helgeson said his congregation wants to minister to children in the neighborhood.
"The congregation right now is an older congregation, but they have a heart for children," he said. "We see a lot of children around here, and we want to reach out to them."
Helgeson said he wants the church to be a place of ministry, where people can find wholeness in their spirits.
"I think the most important thing to know about me is that I'm a person who believes in God's grace and that his grace is for all of us," he said. "My goal in ministry is to be open to people of all backgrounds and experiences and to offer them a place to find sanctuary from the world's cruelty and discouragements."
Currently, the church offers a worship service and children's church at 10 a.m. each Sunday. Helgeson hopes to add a midweek Bible study.
"We don't have other services yet," he said. "But since I'm a teacher at heart, that will be added once we get going."