WEST FARGO — Nicole Kippen, 23, chuckles over the role reversals that have begun happening with her and her mother, Amy Kippen, 51.
Around the time the recent Concordia College graduate begins graduate school and settling into an apartment in Illinois, her mother will be moving into a college dormitory in Saint Paul, studying to be a pastor.
“In high school, she helped me with my homework,” Nicole says. “Now, it’s going to flip-flop, with me being the expert in the academic world — the daughter helping the mother.”
Amy giggles about the switch, too. “I told her, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have Thanksgiving at your house,’ ” and maybe even Christmas.
The two have always been close; Amy and Nicole’s father divorced when Nicole was only 3, and they’ve spent every holiday and break together.
But as much as they both lament the loss of their grounding place, Nicole says, it’s been coming for some time.
“Around my junior year, she started taking over my college textbooks,” Nicole recalls, noting that her mother was particularly interested in her world religion books. “That’s also about the time she started searching for what else she could be doing. She was trying to decipher what her calling would be now.”
Amy’s faith journey began in Bottineau, where she grew up the youngest daughter of eight children in family of Norwegian immigrants, all very connected to their faith. Their mother died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage when Amy was only 11, but she stayed tethered to church, singing in the choir and serving as a natural leader.
But eventually, Amy entered a co-dependent relationship and marriage, which claimed all her focus, she says. “During that 15-year span, I really never went to church, not even at Easter or Christmas.”
As a young adult, she recalls during a visit home watching her sisters get ready and leave for church while she stayed behind, and how “crappy” it made her feel inside.
“I never lost my faith, but I lost the practice of my faith,” Amy says. “I always had a sense that God was waiting; not angry but just waiting.”
Nine years into the marriage, Amy learned she was pregnant. Immediately, she sensed that “the most important thing I could do in (my baby’s) life was raise her in the faith.”
Living in Arizona at the time, Amy walked into a Lutheran church one Sunday, nervous and scared with her newborn daughter in tow.
“I sat in the way back,” she says. “It had been so long since I’d been to church, I didn’t know how I was going to feel.”
But when the hymns began, all the old feelings promptly returned. “I sat through the whole service weeping,” Amy says. “From that point on, I never left church again.”
The family relocated to Fargo, and within a few months, the marriage dissolved. With the help of her new church family, Peace Lutheran, Amy and Nicole moved into an apartment, furnished by their new church community. “It was the most beautiful picture of what the church is supposed to be … I felt so unworthy but so grateful; it was amazing.”
Along with a new appreciation of belonging, she says, the time away from her faith gave her an important perspective.
“People freak out about teenagers leaving the faith, but I just believe the verse that says ‘Train them up when they’re young and they will return,’ ” she says, adding that for her, “the gift of an early faith and a faith practice” were instrumental.
Amy started work at Sunmart in food service, but soon was pulled into ministry at her church, leading a new evangelism team and singing in several music groups.
She also became involved in Faith Inkubators, a teaching curriculum one of her sisters and brothers-in-law founded, initially as a cook for retreats, but eventually, as a contributor and even speaker.
“Over a two-year period, I found I had something valuable to say — something people really responded to,” Amy says, noting that her lack of a college degree had made her feel inadequate previously. “I started to see myself in a different way.”
In 2005, a position opened at Faith Lutheran Church calling for someone versed in the Faith Inkubators philosophy, which merges youth groups and instruction with parental involvement. Amy applied, and was hired almost immediately.
During her decade with Faith Lutheran, the church has become a national model for modern-day catechesis, Amy says.
Now, being called further out into the deep, she’ll begin at Luther Seminary in August, after saying goodbye to her congregation at a July 31 service and reception.
“It’s been really beautiful and really painful (to leave),” Amy says, “but I wanted to teach my kids at church that while leaving is hard, it doesn’t mean you don’t do it, and that love is always worth it.”
Amy sees her primary gift as walking alongside believers, “people who have already said yes to this faith thing,” to build them up “to become the people that feed the hungry.”
Her co-worker, Katie Burington, finds Amy’s willingness to challenge herself in this way at 51 “inspiring.”
“Amy is one of the hardest working people I’ve met … and one of the most compassionate,” Katie says. “She’s really good at helping people process through their problems, and besides that, she’s super fun and hilarious.”
Calling Amy “high on life,” she recounts how, during a recent mission trip with 36 youth, a student asked where Amy was, then said, “Oh, I just heard her laugh. I’ll just follow the noise.”
Katie also admires how Amy thinks outside of the box to help others connect to God. “If that means stopping her sermon to do an arts and crafts project to better demonstrate God’s love, she’ll do it,” she says. “She brings compassion and love and understanding, but she isn’t afraid to challenge people, either.”
Nicole says she’s eager for her mom to take all of her life experiences, apply them to the theories and theologies that exist, and bring her gifts to a wider audience. “I’m excited for her to soak it in and make those connections and have those conversations.”
She also loves the thought of having a pastor in the family. “I think she’ll be a guiding person in our family to have conversations about faith … to bring faith back into the center of our lives.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on July 23, 2016.]