Lutheran pastor chooses ministry over military service

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Faith Free Lutheran Church Pastor Steve Snipstead stands in the foyer of the church in Kalispell on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Steve Snipstead didn’t want to be a pastor. A career in the U.S. Navy sounded like a better idea.

Snipstead was enrolled in the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island, and had been there about a year when at age 20 he was struck by the realization that it would not be military armor he’d be donning, but “the armor of God.”

He turned to those Bible verses that would prompt him to change course on his life’s journey. Ephesians 6:10-13 — to this day posted on his office wall — starts out this way: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…”

Snipstead withdrew from the naval academy and went to inactive military status, and then set about the business of becoming a pastor, completing college and then graduating from the Free Lutheran seminary in Minneapolis.

He was familiar with the Free Lutheran denomination. His father was a Free Lutheran minister who had “moved around a lot.” Snipstead was 1 when his family moved from Canada to the Minneapolis area and later to Washington state.

The Free Lutheran denomination dates back to the 1890s when Scandinavian immigrants wanted a church “led by the spirit and directed by the congregation,” Snipstead said. With no bishop, president or other head of the church, each congregation is independent, or free.

Snipstead recently celebrated his 30th year as pastor of Faith Free Lutheran Church. The Kalispell congregation was his first call, and so far his only call.

After spending a year as an intern in Washington, he and his wife, Tracy, settled in the Flathead Valley. They’d been to Glacier Park on their honeymoon, and it seemed like a good place to settle down. The two met at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where Tracy was a music major — and a Presbyterian, she adds — and Snipstead was a philosophy student.

“I like the area and I love the people,” Snipstead said, adding that the friendships he’s developed here through the years also have kept him anchored to the Flathead.

He feels he’s grown into his job in a profound way.

“I’ve come to understand we need to rely on the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith,” he said. “It’s more about making who Jesus was and what he’s done the core message.”

Snipstead has seen significant growth of the Faith Free congregation. The church was built on Liberty Street in Kalispell in 1971 and has undergone two major building additions, both of which Snipstead has helped guide.

In 1992 a gymnasium was added, and from 2012 to 2016 a sanctuary was added and the site was restructured. The “old” church now houses the offices and chapel.

“The congregation was very unified,” he recalled about the building projects. “We took our time and talked it through. You have to build before you can grow. It’s a real faith step.”

Tracy, the choir director at Kalispell Middle School and a longtime music teacher, is actively involved with the music ministry at the church. Their three daughters, now all married, also were involved in the church when they were growing up. Mary is now a pharmacist in Bozeman; Amy is a nurse; and Jenny is a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles.

Snipstead said his daughters have made him the “most proud” of any accomplishment in his life. And in addition to raising his children, he has raised good leaders within the congregation. He said he’s proud of the leaders that have developed during his ministry.

“It’s seeing people grow. Some have become missionaries and pastors,” he noted. “It takes patience and consistency, and a vision of where we need to go.”

Tracy said her husband “leads by example.

“I think he’s a humble person, a servant leader,” she said.

Snipstead has taken his leadership skills outside the church, too. He’s active with the Kalispell Ministerial Association and is a chaplain for the Kalispell Police and Fire departments. An avid skier who likes to skin up the mountains whenever he gets a chance, he serves on the board of the Kalispell Ski Club.

He has honed his martial arts skills for 30 years after being introduced to the practice during a recreation class in college. When his parishioners asked him to teach them karate, Snipstead obliged and teaches classes twice a week.

Snipstead currently is on a two-month sabbatical leave from his pastoral duties and is using the time to restore body and soul. To that end, he and his wife are in Germany right now, walking where Martin Luther once walked. It’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a movement that began when Luther nailed his 95 theses to a castle door in Wittenberg.

The Snipsteads will have another opportunity to walk in faith next summer. As a gift for serving Faith Free Lutheran for 30 years, the congregation gave the couple a trip to Israel.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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