“Pastor, Present, and Future” with Richard Dahlstrom

Richard Dahlstrom '74 has been the senior pastor at Bethany Community Church for 25 years. Richard talks about his road to becoming a pastor, things he learned in the Alps while on sabbatical, and his advice for pastors.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Today, we sat down with Richard Dahlstrom. Richard Dahlstrom serves as the senior pastor for Bethany Community Church, where he’s been the senior pastor for 25 years.

He shares his wisdom and experience with faith through authoring three books and working with Torchbearer Ministries, teaching in both North America and Europe. An avid outdoorsman and climber, you’ll often find Richard climbing, skiing, or hiking. Richard, thanks for joining us today.

Richard Dahlstrom: It’s great to be with you. Thanks so much for the invitation.

Amanda: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a pastor? This is a very specialized calling and I’m always interested to know, is this something you knew as a young child or was it something that came at you along the way?

Richard: Great question, and the short answer is I like to tell people, God tricked me into becoming a pastor because it was never really a sense of calling or goal of mine. I came at it through the back door.

I originally was intended to be an architect. I was studying architecture in California when I began my college career. Halfway through my college career, I had a pretty profound encounter with God. It’s the only way I could describe it. In the wake of my father’s death, I plunged into depression and anxiety, uncertainty about my future. I went away to a retreat and heard an invitation to make knowing God the main goal of my life. And I responded to that invitation.

As a result of that, I thought maybe God was calling me into ministry, but as a music minister. So I looked for great music programs and changed my major from architecture to music composition, and moved to Seattle. I attended Seattle Pacific University, and then when I finished my university studies, I did work as a music pastor for a little while. And then after that, found that during my time as a music pastor, I actually enjoyed teaching the Bible in the church where I was involved more than I enjoyed the music component. So I decided to go to seminary in order that I might become a Bible teacher, I thought, at a university.

So I went to seminary and at the end of seminary was intending to go teach at a Bible college in Alaska. And in the meantime, between the time of that position opening up and my graduation from seminary, I accepted an interim pastor role on San Juan Island in Washington state. I’d gone to seminary in Los Angeles and was pretty desperate, in a sense, to get out of Los Angeles. I didn’t feel called to that part of the world. Love the Pacific Northwest. This church on this island called me; I came up there. It was supposed to be six months. Long story, but it ended up being six years. That was in 1984, and I’ve been a pastor ever since.

“God tricked me into becoming a pastor because it was never really a sense of calling or goal of mine. I came at it through the back door.”

So I like to tell people, God knows you better than you know yourself. And so it’s fine to have plans, but always hold them with an open hand because when I discovered that I was going to be a pastor and not a Bible professor, at first I was pretty disappointed. But looking back, I can see it was God’s perfect design. I absolutely love what I’m doing, even though it wasn’t something that I planned.

Amanda: It’s funny that you used the word tricked. I think there’s a lot of us who could use that word. And of course, what we mean is God led us to something that we didn’t even realize that we wanted or needed. But I would say my life is similar that way as well.

As a young teenager, going to church three to four days a week, I said, and I said it out loud, “The only person I will never marry is a pastor.” That’s the only thing. I’m open to anything else in my life as long as I don’t marry a pastor. And here I am, 24 years married to a pastor.

Richard: That’s awesome. The same kind of thing. It happens all the time. And I sometimes think people miss God’s best in their lives, if I can say it that way, because we hang on to our own kind of wish dream of what we think life ought to be. And we go at it so loud and hard that we can’t even hear God who’s trying to redirect us saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Over here. You’re actually going to be much more fulfilled over here because over here is more aligned with your gifts.”

So learning to listen to the Holy Spirit and, I use the phrase, read the tea leaves. What is God doing? It’s important to keep asking that question so that we can be guided by God’s Holy Spirit.

Amanda: Absolutely. And a bit of wisdom that I remind myself of so often is that love and hate have a very, very thin wall between them. Indifference is really the opposite of love, not hate. And if we have things that we’re that against, maybe we’re missing something.

“What is God doing? It’s important to keep asking that question so that we can be guided by God’s Holy Spirit.”

Richard: That’s right.

Amanda: Maybe there’s some love in there somewhere that we haven’t recognized yet, for sure.

So Richard, let’s talk about Bethany Community Church and how you got involved with that community. I know there are so many SPU alums and current students and faculty and staff that have sat under your teaching and been through that community at one point or another.

Richard: It’s a really interesting story. I attended Bethany while I attended Seattle Pacific. When I started at Seattle Pacific, it was Seattle Pacific College. And when I finished, it with Seattle Pacific University. And during that period in the ’70s, I attended and just loved Bethany. It was a great church. There’s a little saying on the wall, “In essentials is unity, in non-essentials is liberty, in all things is charity.” Very theologically eclectic, very grace-oriented, very authentic.

The pastor at the time, who was my predecessor, he just spoke from his heart so powerfully. So I went there and then in 1990, my wife and I started a Wilderness Ministry in the North Cascades, and my work with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship expanded. I ended up going to India to teach in 1993. And while I was there, I ended up staying with a pastor in Delhi for two nights prior to flying out on a Saturday morning. And so I got in on a Thursday night and on the Friday morning, this pastor, we’re eating breakfast together.

And he says, “Hey, have you heard of Bethany Community Church, since you’re from Washington state?” And I told them I had. I told him I went there when I was in college, and then he said, “Oh, did you know that the pastor is retiring?” I said, “I’d heard that.” I asked him how he knew of Bethany. And he said, “Well, I was a missionary supported by Bethany all through the ’70s and early ’80s.” And I said, “Yeah, in the ’70s, the pastor went to India, came back, read from his diary of his time in India.” I said, “It’s still the most powerful sermon I’ve ever heard.” And it was. It was an amazing … his heart had been pretty transformed while he was in India, this pastor, John, the pastor of Bethany.

So anyway, we’re sitting there talking and then this guy stops. He just stops eating and points at me. He said, “God just spoke to me and told me you’re supposed to be the pastor of Bethany Community Church.” I totally laughed out loud. I said, “There’s no way that’s ever going to happen.” At the time I was running this wilderness ministry that I loved. I was pastoring a house church, which was like 20 people in our living room. I love the intimacy, I love the small, I love the rural. I said, “This is never going to happen.”

“He said, ‘God just spoke to me and told me you’re supposed to be the pastor of Bethany Community Church.'”

Well, it’s a long, long story, but about a year later, I was asked to go speak at Bethany because someone had heard me speak at a conference. So I wasn’t candidating, I was just speaking. And in fact, the search committee had approached me and said, “If you come speak, you can’t apply to be the pastor.” I said, “That’s fine. I’m a speaker, I don’t want to be the pastor.” So I went and spoke for a week. This would have been in the spring of 1995. And then a week later, my wife and I, we’re cleaning backpacking stoves. We’re getting ready for a spring season in the mountains. The phone rings and this, I’ll never forget.

“This is Dave from Bethany Community Church.” And he used exactly the words of the guy in India, two years earlier. He says, “We think God wants you to be the pastor of Bethany. Would you fill out an application?” And because of that guy in India, I thought, “Well, maybe God is in this. Who knows?” I didn’t want to move to the city, but I thought, “Okay, I’ll apply.” You and I were talking just beforehand, before the podcast here about how liberating it is to be brutally honest in an interview. And that was exactly the situation where I wasn’t even sure I wanted this job, so I went in saying, “If you want me as your pastor, my heart is passing on the torch of leadership to the next generation. There’s 40,000 college students within three miles of you guys, but we have to change the way we do church almost entirely. And if you want me, that’s what you want.”

I was trying to talk them out of inviting me in. And they said, “No, that’s exactly what we want.” Then when the congregation voted, even the vote was unanimous, and my wife and I knew. We were like this, “Oh man, God. We may fight this, but actually, we now know, with a big, capital K, the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing us to move out of the mountains, into the city. And so that’s what we did in 1995. It was very difficult to leave the previous work because I’d started it, and we loved it. But looking back, it was like this, God knew, and it was an amazing experience.

And then very quickly, I joined Stone Gardens, a climbing gym right down there by Seattle Pacific, and I started befriending a few university students who started attending Bethany. And then we grew a college ministry and God’s just been doing good things there ever since. I can only give thanks to God for God’s goodness in bringing us to that community that we now love so deeply.

Amanda: So I’m wondering, having looked at this, God’s plan for your life from the 10,000 foot level, do you think coming from where you came from, from the wilderness, the small group, the overtime, the build small communities, do you think coming from that background changed how you dealt with a larger church when you got there?

Richard: Oh, I think so. Very much. Yes, very much. And during that six-year period prior to coming to Bethany, I was speaking about 20 to 25 weeks on the road every year at these Bible schools in Europe and North America, and at conferences. And so I was getting to know this huge cross-section culturally, of people from many parts of the world and many, many university students, because the Torchbearer community is filled with this 18- to 25 year-old demographic. So I think all of that shaped me for coming to Bethany.

“Oh man, God. We may fight this, but actually, we now know, with a big, capital K, the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing us to move out of the mountains, into the city.”

And Bethany, when I arrived, it was a church of about 300, and within a year it was a church of 200. So the beginning was not very pleasant at all. It wasn’t large by today’s standard of what Bethany has become, and yet to us, it felt really large. But I think the small-group experience and particularly, even the creation theology stuff that we did recreationally and taking people outdoors all the time, it feels like such a fit, Amanda, for the stuff that we’re doing in Seattle. People resonated.

In fact, a couple of friends have said, “We feel like you’re the REI church,” because we have a wilderness ministry and people are going outdoors all the time with us. And so I think there’s some truth in that. One of the books that I hope to write in the future is a book entitled, Reading God’s First Book. It’s about the importance of learning what God has to say to us through creation, because that book existed long before the Bible. So anyway, all that prepared us, I think. In a way we could never have prepared ourselves, God prepared us.

Amanda: Well, let’s back up just for a second to Torchbearer Ministries, for those who haven’t heard of that and what that is. Just talk about that for a second.

Richard: Sure. When I was 12 years old, I was at a camp down in California where my grandmother was a cook. It’s a camp called Mount Hermon in the Santa Cruz Mountains. So I went up one night from my grandma’s house to buy beef jerky in the snack shop right next to the big, main conference hall. The guy speaking had a British accent, so I went up there to listen to him. I liked what he had to say so much, even as a 12 year-old kid, that I took my beef jerky money, I went over to the bookshop and bought his book called Limiting God. And so I bought this book.

Amanda: That’s something for a 12 year-old.

Richard: Still, to this day, it was like, that was amazing to me that that resonated with me. And I wanted to read his book. So I bought it and read it. And now if you fast forward 20 years to when I’m 32 years old, I’m pastoring this church in the San Juans and I was like, “This, man, I want people to hear about the truth that when we come to Christ, Jesus gives us everything we need.” The risen Jesus is living in us, so it’s not my joy and strength and wisdom that I need to drum up, or through self-discipline create. It’s all already there. And I just need to learn how to live out from the power that is Christ.

Well, this is the central message of Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship. It’s 27 gap-year Bible college experiences located around the world, and the guy who spoke when I was 12, had flown over from the main campus of Torchbearers in England to speak. So when I wanted somebody to bring that message to the little church on the island, I called England and said, “Hey, can you send a speaker over? This guy that I heard 20 years ago, could he come speak?” “Oh no, he’s retired, and we’re not going to fly from England to the Pacific Northwest. But there’s now a Torchbearers Bible School in the Gulf Islands, just north of you.”

So I called this new Torchbearers Bible School and the director came down. We became fast friends. When I left the church on the island to start working in the mountains, I began teaching regularly at the school in Canada. And then one time, while I was there, the founder of Torchbearers from England heard me speak, invited me to come speak in England. When I went to England, I met other directors from Austria and Germany, and then I just started speaking at all these different places around the world. What ties this whole fellowship together is the simple message that when you receive Christ, you receive everything you need to live the Christian life.

“I want people to hear about the truth that when we come to Christ, Jesus gives us everything we need.”

So the goal is not to drum up spirituality somehow through self-discipline and hard work, but to tap into the resource of the risen Jesus, who will be for us all that we can never be on our own. And that’s become for me, the foundation life message of what I … I want people to hear that because I’m afraid so many Christians are trying to do for God, what God wants to do through them, if that makes sense.

Amanda: That’s very profound. I think that’s something we could meditate on for quite some time. Also, the fact that it’s funny, because we started with talking about God tricking us in a way. And here is someone, yourself, who has spent his entire life trying to get outside and out of the city. And yet everywhere you go, it feels like God makes a new connection for you with people, and new communities.

Richard: Yes. Yeah, that’s been totally true. I’m certainly by nature an introvert and so I enjoy people, but I enjoy time apart from people also. And yet, even I’ve written this book entitled The Map is Not The Journey. When I took a sabbatical in 2014, the goal really for me was solitude. Initially, I was just going to go hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. And then a buddy of mine who ran the Torchbearers school in Austria, died in a paragliding accident. And so the new director said, “Hey, Richard, that summer you’re on sabbatical, could you come teach a little bit over here in Europe?” So I said, I would. And as a result of that, instead of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, my wife and I hiked through the Alps and I wrote a book about this.

What I found so interesting is I thought what I needed in sabbatical was solitude, but the richest encounters, the most memorable encounters in the sabbatical journey of hiking through the Alps were the people we met. We met amazing people. I wish I had time to tell you all the stories, but I remember one night in particular, we had arrived at a hut. We had booked a reservation in advance, we were told that we had to be in this big room, like a bunkhouse with a lot of other people. When we got there, our hostess said, “Oh, really good news, you have your own room.” So we went to our own room, put our stuff down on the full-sized bed.

There was a bunk bed over in the corner that we presumed wasn’t going to be used. We went to dinner and when we came back, there was a couple on the full-sized bed and they’d moved our stuff over to the bunk beds. They said, “Hey, hello, we are your roommates.” And we were like, “Really? We thought we’d have a room alone, and now this.” Now we’re with another married couple, and yet we spent later that night and the next day talking about Jesus. These were spiritual seekers essentially. His dad had died, and my dad had died, and it was just remarkable how … we hiked there the whole next day. The whole next day we were on the trail together.

I just love stories like that because it’s like, wow, if we can live with open hands, the things that God brings into our lives are so much better than the things we try to create on our own.

Amanda: Absolutely. That just is a recurring theme, I think, in most of our lives, if we’re open to it.

Richard: Yes.

Amanda: If we’re open to it. Segue just a little bit, because I feel like we could talk about your trip to the Alps for the rest of our time, so I’m going to stop myself there. Although, if there is a 12 year-old out there somewhere that is listening and runs out and buys that book, please let us know about it, because I want to hear about that.

Richard: Me too.

Amanda: But let’s talk about what pastoring is like today. You took over with Bethany in the mid ’90s, and here we are now in what feels like a completely different world, especially in the church world. Can you talk about how things have adjusted over that time?

Richard: That’s a great question. I think when I interviewed 25 years ago, the search committee of Bethany said, “We’ll be honest with you, other candidates have come first. They’ve come here before you and they’ve turned it down because they said you guys don’t have adequate parking and you’re in this dense neighborhood. You can never grow. And we just think the facilities are subpar.” So they asked me about that and I said, “Well, I’ll give you my nutshell philosophy of ministry.”

Jesus says in John 15, “Abide in me and you’ll bear fruit.” Now the timing and scope of that fruit are entirely of God’s providence. A church can get giant or it can just grow really slowly, or maybe the growth isn’t even numerical, but just profound transformation in a few people in the house church. But you can expect growth. I feel like if I do my job of abiding and pointing people to Jesus, I expect Jesus to do good things, right?

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Richard: But then, I’ve got to address system problems that may occur, because if there’s a system problem, the system can become a barrier to the growing that God wants to do. So if a church is wanting to grow, say, but there is no parking or there is no nursery or whatever, then you got to fix the system problems. So of course, in this moment with the coronavirus plaguing the whole planet and issues of race rise to the forefront, we have to address systems in a way we’ve never had to address before.

So now, we’ve had to go online and what I’ve tried to say to our team is, “Let’s not view this as a liability. Let’s view it as an opportunity.” And in fact, though I don’t know our most recent statistics, our participation as an online community compared to our overall participation with in-person and online prior to COVID, our participation is up pretty dramatically. We were twice as large this year online as we were last year at Easter in person and online.

“So now, we’ve had to go online and what I’ve tried to say to our team is, ‘Let’s not view this as a liability. Let’s view it as an opportunity.'”

Amanda: Wow.

Richard: So I go, wow. My theory is there’s this sweet spot right now of a couple of things that have happened. Number one, the whole world is on fire. Between race, economic uncertainty, health crises and all the cracks in our own American culture that this stuff has exposed, not to mention politics, we all feel like we’re walking on very thin ice right now. And I think when people feel like they’re walking on thin ice, they have these strong desires for meaning and an anchor.

So people are hungry for meaning, that’s good news. And here’s the other good news, at least until this week basically, there was nothing else on TV. So I think it about, our viewership was just through the roof in March and there was no March Madness. There was no preseason baseball, and there was no Kentucky Derby, and there was no Masters Golf Tournament. So I think when the world shuts down and the world is on fire, if there’s an online community talking about things that matter, even without trying too hard, I think some people are going to tune in.

And so that’s been happening, and now we’re trying to build systems to help people who are listening, who’ve never walked through our door, get involved both now and someday when they walk through our door. So you can pray for us about that because that’s our current systems challenge, but there’s always been a systems challenge. And I think you have to pay attention to those. They’re not unspiritual, but systems don’t create healthy churches. Only God can do that, and that’s where that John 15 foundation is so important of abiding in Christ and pointing people to Jesus.

Amanda: Well, that is so good for all of us to remember, that the systems can’t cause the growth and the change. That’s God.

Richard: Right.

Amanda: But systems can absolutely stop the growth and the church.

Richard: Yep, yep.

Amanda: And that’s on us.

Richard: Yeah. And I often think that one of the reasons that pastors struggle is when they go to leadership conferences, they hear about systems that are broken. Here’s how you manage better, here’s how you fix your parking problem, here’s how you can have the best killer worship. Here’s the newest strategy to motivate and manage your staff. And I go, “Whatever. It’s fine.” You can do these things, but unless at the core crisis there, energizing and leading and doing the work, it’s all like scaffolding, but there’s no building.

So I really, as I get older and developing a passion to help pastors grow into health, where like as I someday look toward retirement, I’d love to see pastors work on their own spiritual health and bodily health. Because if they can be healthy and rooted and abiding in Christ, they can go somewhere else and give management tools. But I can give them the confidence that, “Hey, good things will happen as long as you’re abiding in Christ.” And then you go learn how to develop the systems with somebody else.

“I’d love to see pastors work on their own spiritual health and bodily health. Because if they can be healthy and rooted and abiding in Christ, they can go somewhere else and give management tools.”

Amanda: Yes, yes. There’s so, so much truth there. Do you have another book coming out, perhaps?

Richard: I’ve got these two, three. I’ve got The Colors of Hope and The Map is Not The Journey and Breathing New Life Into Faith. I’ve finished Breathing New Life Into Faith and there’s a couple of books I want to write. One is about spirit, soul, body wholeness called Wholly Holy, W-H-O-L-L-Y H-O-L-Y, and then another one, Reading God’s First Book.

I think those are two that are in the works, but right now, honestly, in this time of COVID, life is so much busier than it was before that I don’t actually have time to write. That’s a little bit unfortunate, but that’s where things stand in the moment.

Amanda: Well, I do know you do have something new that you and the ministry are working on, and that’s your podcast.

Richard: Yes. We have a podcast entitled Toward Wholeness, and it’s at spiritsoulbody.org. Our desire in that podcast being to help people who really believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life and that there is a Creator out there, but who’s maybe been burned or disillusioned by the institutional church. We’d love to have conversations about how people can move toward faith and move toward wholeness in spite of the failures of the church.

And I run a church, so I know that there are failures, but I know that God isn’t limited by those failures so that we can all be on the journey toward wholeness. So we want to help people take those steps.

Amanda: And that is a much-needed place to occupy right now, I believe. So go to spiritsoulbody.org, and check out all the things that Richard is working on.

So Richard, thank you so much for joining us today. I just feel like I have so much that I’m going to go home and marinate on and think about, but I want to end with our final question that we always like to end with.

If we all could wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently to make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?

Richard: This is such a great question, and I think about this a lot actually. I think it’s almost a tie, I’m going to say two things, but I’m going to tell you one thing edges out. The two things would be I do think that the environmental crisis, when the day is done is going to trump all other crises. If we don’t change the way we live collectively as a species, the environmental issues are going to spawn a bunch of other justice issues, public health crises, economic issues. And we’re such short-term thinkers, not just as Americans, but as humans that we’re not doing a very good job addressing that crisis. So I think that’s a big deal.

However, having said that, I think the even bigger deal, if I could fix one thing, it would be this: Empower women. We have to empower women. If you look at developing nations right now, when parliaments in developing nations get over a certain percentage of women in position of authority, they move toward democracy. The economy of the nation is often turned around. Women become educated and empowered. And so I just think there’s this flow in history toward empowering women, because women are gifted in a different way than men. Women have this capacity for compassion and holistic thinking, and solidarity with those who are suffering that men often in our competitive nature, it’s not that we don’t have those things, but we bring other things to the table.

But we really need the female voice, not just at the table, but at the table in a profound and empowered ways. So I feel like history is moving that way, and I think much of the church is moving that way, for which I’m grateful. But I see a better future for the world to the extent that women can find their voice as leaders.

Amanda: Well, as a woman, I say amen.

Richard: My wife probably says amen too, I think.

Amanda: No, but it is amazing how quickly those things come to light in every aspect. I know having worked with Landesa, that gives land rights to indigenous peoples, that when they make sure that the land is purchased, not just by the man and the family, but it’s owned equally between the man and the woman, that not only is the land more productive, but it decreases things like teenage pregnancy and …

Richard: Totally.

Amanda: … violence, which those things don’t seem to be connected. And yet, there it is.

Richard: It’s amazing. It’s amazing. It’s an important issue, and we’ve got to keep bringing it up wherever we can.

Amanda: Well, thank you, Richard. This has been such a fun half hour for me, and I hope it was for you, too. And I hope the teenager that runs and gets your book to read with their pocket money lets us know that they did.

Richard: Well, thanks so much. It’s been a joy to be with you guys. And I will just say in closing that Seattle Pacific was formative in my own experience, and I look forward to subsequent generations of leaders coming forth and doing great things in the world, men and women. Thanks so much.

Amanda: Thank you.


Related articles

Remembering Earl F. Palmer

Drovdahl leaves the classroom, but not his lifelong calling

The President’s View
Certain of an uncertain future

Photo Ops in Fremont