Parsons to the flock, and a flock of Parsons

By JEFF BRADY
After a two-year search for a minister, Skagway’s oldest church recently welcomed a family of Parsons.
Rev. Karen Parsons’ arrival signifies a change for the First Presbyterian Church – she’s the gold rush church’s first female minister – and a change for the pastor and her family, who moved here from bustling Charlotte, N.C.
More importantly, she arrived just in time for a growing number of people in this community who sought spiritual guidance in dealing with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“To me, that’s what ministry is all about,” she said a week after the tragedy during one of her breakfast meetings at the Sweet Tooth.
Parsons was called with other ministers to lead the community in a prayer service at the Assembly of God three days after the attacks. The service was extremely moving for all involved, including her family. Her husband Steve had worked with some of the victims in the World Trade Center. Her own church was packed on the Sunday following the attacks.
Dealing with tragedy is familiar territory for ministers, who have to be ready for any crisis, Parsons said. She purposely doesn’t overwhelm herself with office work “so you can be available for things that happened like Tuesday morning, or when someone dies or is sick, and you need to be sitting with families.”
Coming to a small town also gives her the opportunity to explore human kindness both inside and outside of the church congregation.
“I like to have people meet with me,” Karen Parsons said, plugging her 7:30 a.m. weekday coffee shop sessions, which are open to anyone in town, not just church members, with or without an appointment.
“We can just sit and talk about theology, the church, the community, or just get to know each other,” she said.
Karen is easy to get to know.
She was born 39 years ago in the small town of North Wilkesboro, N.C., and has been a Presbyterian all her life. Her parents were elders in the town’s only Presbyterian church, and her mother was director of Christian education.
At 19, while still in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, two big things happened in her life: she was called into the ministry and she met her future husband. Steve and Karen Parsons were married just prior to graduation in 1983.
The young couple moved to Blacksburg, Va., where Steve received an MBA from Virginia Tech, and then on to Richmond, where Karen entered Union Theological Seminary. At the end of the four-year program in May 1988, she both graduated and delivered her first child, Anna, in the same week.
Karen decided to stay home, and also delivered a second child, Will, a couple years later. Steve was in the banking business with Sovereign Bank, which was eventually bought by Nations Bank of Charlotte, and they made the move to the bank’s North Carolina headquarters in early 1991. Nations was bought by Bank of America in the late 1990s, and Steve worked his way up to a senior director of securities in the largest skyscraper in the South.

Steve, Karen, Anna and Will Parsons gather on the steps of the First Presbyterian Church after a service in September. –JB

With her children starting school and still a ministerial candidate, Karen started serious pursuit of her ordination. She first became a part-time associate pastor for a church in nearby Fort Mill, S.C., and then became a “supply preacher” for various churches in the area that were either between pastors or whose preachers were on vacation.
“I enjoyed traveling around to different places for three years, and built up my people and preaching skills because I ran into so many people,” she said.
She then took an interim post at another church, and her last job before coming to Skagway was as a “yoke-field preacher” – lingo for serving two small, nearby congregations at once.
“It was my experience there that made me want to go into it full time,” she said.
Steve also was beginning to think about semi-retiring, and Karen admitted to a life-long fascination with Alaska. So they looked up the Alaska jobs available on the Presbyterian Website.
“I had never been here, but I had read and knew a lot about Alaska,” she said. “There was a sense of calling about it, but we didn’t want to go too far north without trees.”
There were two or three jobs in Anchorage, but those would have been too much like being in Charlotte, a city of nearly 600,000 people. “Skagway sounded like a good fit with what I was interested in, being a sole pastor.”
She contacted Jeff Kasler of the local pastor nominating committee, and the interview process began. Karen was invited to come up to preach and meet the congregation last May. Steve came along, and they were made very welcome, Karen said, and the Session voted to offer her the job.
“It took us a week to decide that it was God’s will,” she said. “Everything that could change in our lives was going to change.”
Things fell into place. The children, who had been home-schooled in a metro area with poor schools, were ready for a small public school. And Steve, who had wrestled with what to do about his job, was told by Bank of America that he could stay on and work from home in Skagway.
Now they’re getting used to life away from malls and traffic. The Manse, now located in a new double-wide behind the old house, is much smaller than what they had in Charlotte, Karen said, but they squeezed most of their furniture into it. And they’re adjusting to the weather.
“I’ve never really liked hot weather,” she said. “So far, we’ve really liked it, but we still haven’t lived through a winter.”
After preaching here a month, she has found Skagway to be “a very honest and open place.” She gets more feedback on her sermons than other places she has preached.
And people are getting used to having a woman in the pulpit. Skagway is actually catching up to a nationwide trend, with nearly 50 percent of new preachers being women, Parsons noted.
“I know it (gender) was an issue for some people, but for the most part my experience has been that people are reticent to start with, but once they get to know me, they are perfectly happy with me,” she said. “We look forward to a long and fruitful ministry in Skagway.”