It's a year of anniversaries for the Rev. John Bent.
He's marking 20 years as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish and 25 years since he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. And on Sunday, July 10 - a day of celebration planned by his congregation - Bent will turn 60.
In a way, these milestones are his own personal Ebenezer stone, he said, alluding to the Bible passage where Samuel placed a large stone between two towns and named it Ebenezer, "the stone of help," to illustrate to the long-suffering people of Israel how God had restored them as they recommitted themselves to the Lord.
The Ebenezer stone represented a new beginning that said "look at how far God has brought us," Bent said. "That's encouragement to move to the future, and to say, ‘Wow, remember how God led us through those things we never thought we'd get through.'"
There have been many Ebenezer stone moments during the last two decades as Bent shepherded a growing congregation.
Bent accepted the call to Christ Lutheran in 1991 after pastoring a Lutheran church in Nashua for five years. At the time, he and his wife Grace had two young daughters and had settled into life on the prairie. Bent grew up in the Billings area; Eastern Montana suited him.
"I got a call from the bishop, saying, ‘John, you need to move,'" he recalled. "I was reluctant."
Then longtime Christ Lutheran member Lyle Phillips, who was on the search committee, gave him a call, listing 10 priorities the congregation was looking for in a new pastor.
"He got to the third one and I said, ‘Grace, come here.' It was intriguing, so we came for an interview and I felt good about it."
The Bents exchanged the sunny skies of Eastern Montana for the persistent cloudiness and cold of the Flathead that year, kick-started by a Thanksgiving blizzard, as he recalled.
"We quickly found a home here, and the church began to change," he said. "I was pushed to grow in my own skills and faith. We've grown together, and there's always a new challenge."
Growing pains hit Christ Lutheran within the first few years of Bent's tenure. The congregation added a third Sunday morning service and was up to four Christmas Eve services. When an usher came to Bent in tears one Christmas Eve because he had to turn people away, he realized something had to change.
"There was no room in the inn, and when you have a family and can't get them around the table," it's time to take action, he said. "As we looked 20 years ahead, we had to ask, are we going to be responsible for those who aren't here yet, even if it's risky?"
The answer for Bent was yes, so during the church's 75th anniversary in 2000, he told the congregation: "You have to get ready for the future.
"It wasn't for our needs, but for our children's and grandchildren's needs. We were preparing the way," Bent said. "That's what pioneers do. They sacrifice greatly for those who come after."
It was painful for some parishioners to consider the idea of a new church, but with no practical way to expand the facility at the corner of Kalispell Avenue and Second Street, the congregation took steps to buy land near the intersection of Montana 40 and Whitefish Stage Road and broke ground in 2006 on a 43,000-square-foot facility.
Another major change for the church came in March 2010 when Christ Lutheran voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. The final decision, supported by 98 percent of the congregation, followed the ELCA's vote to allow homosexuals in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
"Those things are always painful," Bent said, referring to the choice to switch affiliations. He believes, though, that his leadership helped provide unity.
"The challenge of leadership is you have to choose a path and stay on it," he said. "You have to be faithful where God has called us to be."
The call to be a pastor wasn't exactly what Bent had in mind when he was mapping out his life, even though he'd grown up in a home with strong Christian values.
His parents were planning to be missionaries in the Amazon with Missionary Aviation Fellowship when his father was killed in a plane crash in Wyoming while "flying the pipeline," conducting an aerial inspection for an oil company.
Bent and his twin brother were almost 5 and their sister was 3 when their mother was widowed.
"A few weeks after his death Mom received the acceptance letter in the mail" for their mission trip, Bent said.
His mother later married his father's cousin, "so my uncle became my stepdad. He deeply respected my father's faith and grew in his own faith," he said.
Bent pursued a career in wildlife research, graduating from Montana State University with a degree in fish and wildlife management. He was preparing for graduate school and managing a wildlife refuge near Big Timber when his vocation became clear.
"I realized I hadn't evaluated what the Lord wanted me to do," he said.
Bent switched gears and headed to Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle for what he intended to be a one-quarter stint to get "refounded" in his faith. One quarter turned into three years. He got involved in youth ministry, then joined the staff at the institute doing resource work for youth ministry.
"But I still wasn't going to be a pastor," he said with a smile.
He began dating his wife-to-be, the daughter of an evangelical Lutheran pastor "who had no interest in being a pastor's wife." She was a Lutheran Bible Institute graduate and was traveling with a music team.
It one day became apparent to both of them that God was moving them toward ministry.
"Grace came to me and said, ‘I think it's time to go to seminary," he said. "So with one baby and one on the way we headed to Dubuque, Iowa, to Wartburg Theological Seminary."
Bent worked three part-time jobs while attending seminary classes, and life was a struggle for the young family. But at the same time there was an assurance that "this is where we needed to be."
As Bent looks back on his 20 years at Christ Lutheran Church, grateful is the first word that comes to mind.
"I'm grateful and thankful for the opportunity to serve Him, and that I am able to serve him in this church," he said. "I'm grateful for the faithfulness of this church. They've stood beside me and have been gracious to me."
Ministering to those in the throes of pain or grieving is one of the greatest challenges, Bent said.
"You can stand with them in their suffering, but you can't change it," he acknowledged. "Your job is to stand by them in your powerlessness. That takes tremendous courage."
Another recurring challenge is "the battle against the successism of the world."
"We all fight that, and life as a pastor is no different," he pointed out. "The struggle with the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh remains consistent and the answer remains the same."
Preparing the Sunday sermon takes an incredible amount of time and preparation, he said, upwards of 20 to 25 hours a week for each sermon, plus three or four rewrites.
"When you think how important that is," and the fact that it's disseminated not only to the congregation but also to radio and Internet audiences, "you better be ready," he said.
"It's an incredible responsibility to have people give you their attention," he added. "You have to decide what it is you want your people to know, and it doesn't just fall out of the blue. You sit still and wait on the Lord."
Bent will use one of his favorite Bible verses as the basis for his upcoming anniversary Sunday message - Galations 2:20.
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me..."
It's more than a sermon theme, though, he said.
"I shape my life around that verse."
A celebration to honor the Rev. John Bent's 20 years of service to Christ Lutheran Church, and to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination and 60th birthday, is planned on Sunday, July 10.
A special church service will begin at 10 a.m., followed by a potluck meal. Meat will be provided by the church.
The public is invited to attend.
Christ Lutheran Church is located at 5150 River Lakes Parkway in Whitefish.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.