Melanie Greengo is not your grandmother’s pastor.
Reverend Greengo is a relaxed, easy-going woman who, though originally from Minnesota, looks and acts so much like a Southeast Iowan she can pass for a native.
Greengo is known as Pastor Mel at First United Methodist Church at 421 Washington St. in Burlington, where she became the new senior pastor in February.
The local church congregation, organized in 1838, has come down a rocky road in recent years, starting with an arson attack that nearly destroyed the 152-year-old building in 2007.
The most recent tragedy to hit the local congregation was the March death of Greengo’s predecessor, Pastor Melisa Bracht-Wagner.
Bracht-Wagner went on medical disability in November 2021 and Joan Rodgers led services until February 1, when Greengo arrived. She moved to Burlington and took on the work of Bracht-Wagner.
“The week after Melisa died, it was tough,” said a church member who asked not to be identified. “That first Sunday, the choir dedicated a song to him. There was not a dry eye in the church. But Pastor Mel helped us stay together.”
A row difficult to hoe
Reverend is the written title of a pastor; pastor is work, and every time you enter a new job, you have to follow a narrow path of examination.
Greengo had an even harder line to hoe, with his tattoos and laid-back manner. A member of his flock said it was hard enough for the congregation to accept a new pastor after losing the one they loved.
Another local Methodist man recounted how a church member told Pastor Mel after his first sermon that he was going to reserve judgment but was won over after his second sermon.
Greengo’s trip from Spamland to an Iowa pulpit was anything but traditional
John Wesley chartered the First Methodist Church in 1784 to provide church structure for his followers after the Anglican Church abandoned its American believers during the American Revolution.
A church is a spiritual organism, after all, a people gathered together, not a building.
Greengo said growing up in Spamland — she’s from Albert Lea, just down the road from Spam’s Austin headquarters — her family hated spam.
“My dad worked at the Albert Lea meatpacking plant, so it was competition,” Greengo said. “I have never eaten spam.”
Spam, a Hormel product, became part of Hawaiian culture after being introduced during World War II as a snack for soldiers. Fried spam and rice is a popular meal in Hawaii.
“You can get spam at McDonald’s in Hawaii,” Greengo said. “It looks like sushi.”
Greengo grew up on his grandparents’ Minnesota farm, but his family weren’t farmers.
“We had chickens and cows, and I got a horse for my 12th birthday, but we had no farmland. My dad worked most of his life packing meat,” said she declared. “We were pretty isolated. Pretty much all we did was I went to a little Christian school, the Christian Reformed Church, which is very conservative, fire and brimstone.
The Christian Reformed Church is a Protestant denomination with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Greengo’s maiden name, Nienoord, is Scandinavian and means “Not from the North”.
“I argued with the pastor about the women in the pulpit,” Greengo said. “I just thought it was ridiculous, that he could say, ‘No, women aren’t allowed to preach. Never at the time did I think I was going to end up being a pastor.”
Greengo left the church when she was 18. Why become a pastor?
“It’s a complicated question,” Greengo said. “I didn’t know that was what I was going to do.”
Her husband was a marine engineer and Greengo was a nurse. They started a family and moved to Hawaii when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and Greengo stayed home with their sons, Dylan and Oliver, while their father was away for nine months to a year at a time. .
So much time apart does not promote the mutual growth of a couple.
“I was the constant parent at home doing everything,” Greengo said. “I was in seminary full-time with two small children and couldn’t take care of anything else either.”
Greengo took her spiritual journey step by step: teaching children in kindergarten, on her church board, on the staff-parish relations committee, moving to Osage, Iowa, in 2007 after her husband’s retirement .
It was there that Greengo discovered a revival in his faith.
Greengo attended a three-year program school for lay ministry, but switched to seminary after a year. She wanted to be a lay leader to deepen her knowledge.
“I did a year of it and realized it wasn’t close enough. It was only four weekends and I just needed more knowledge. I wanted to know more,” a- she declared.
Midway through his apprenticeship, his pastor at Osage began offering him opportunities to lead worship, helping him lay ashes – a mark on the forehead – on Ash Wednesday.
“It wasn’t until I told her that I had been watching a possible seminar online that she finally admitted that she had helped me from the beginning,” Greengo said. “She said she didn’t want to influence me, but she wanted to give me an opportunity.”
It was his pastor’s master plan to push Greengo.
Then Greengo read “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario.
“I was absolutely moved by the story. It was basically a story of why people immigrate, why people cross the border,” she said. “I said to my pastor, ‘I wrote this thing about this book. I don’t know what to do with it.’ She’s like, ‘You wrote a sermon!’ ‘No, I didn’t!’ ‘Yes you did, now you have to preach it.'”
So Greengo preached her story in sermon form and started talking about seminary, college that would prepare her to be a pastor.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to go see what I learn and see what happens,'” she said. “And I still didn’t think I was going to be a preacher.”
So she packed up with her family and moved to Minneapolis, where she attended the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
After the divorce, Greengo moved the children to Columbus Junction, where she served as a pastor for local United Methodist churches.
Then the pandemic hit.
Preach among chickens and dogs
When the coronavirus arrived in Iowa, Iowa was unprepared.
“I was serving at Columbus Junction, so we closed very quickly,” she recalled. “You think back and everyone was like, ‘Well, you know, it’ll be about a month or whatever’ and then ‘wow! “No one saw it coming.”
His CJ Church had no technological capability and could not livestream the services, so Greengo began recording his message and prayer – presented in poem form.
“You can’t make a call for worship when nobody’s around, so I started reading poetry. Some people loved it…” She laughed at the memory. “They were so happy when I left and they didn’t have to hear any more poetry.”
At first, Greengo recorded her services on her laptop in the church, but felt she needed a livelier background.
“I started recording them in my backyard, with my chickens and the dogs and so on, and it was just kind of one-on-one, it wasn’t full service,” he said. she declared. “It was interesting to learn that way, but it’s a little easier to preach to real people than to a camera.”
His work: “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”
Greengo said she thought she should read more scriptures.
“The scriptures help me connect with God in a different way than a rulebook,” she said. “I grew up with it as a rule book. And it didn’t help my faith, or give life to me.”
The relationship piece also feeds it.
“I find great value in moments of connecting with people and really seeing them, especially those who often feel invisible,” Greengo said. “Martin Buber spoke about the I/Thou relationship – seeing the divine in everyone we interact with. Hearing people tell me their story and helping them know that I see them makes me feel like I maybe- be achieved this goal of seeing the divine in them.
“This morning I spent 45 minutes talking to a gentleman who is at Transitions and just wants to find a church to join,” she said. “He told me his story, and for me, that’s the important part of my day – when someone honors me with their story.”
What does Greengo do to feed his own spirit?
“For me, it’s swimming laps in the morning. That’s when I feel most connected to God,” she said. “I learned why monks do menial jobs like chopping wood or peeling potatoes for long hours. It shuts down my brain enough to allow my heart and soul to engage with God. And this, for me, is a spiritual practice that is at the core of who I am. Five days a week I am in the pool and that is how I should start my day: in the pool. motivates me, but for some people it’s a walk outside.
“For some people, it’s sitting down reading their scriptures and praying traditionally. I grew up having to do all of these things, and they didn’t work, and I never knew why they did. I always felt like, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this. helps me connect with God.”
Greengo said the definition of his job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, paraphrasing New Zealand comedian Peter Dunne, who created this commentary to describe journalism.
“We have to step out of our comfort zone when we get too comfortable,” Greengo said.
A complete history of the First United Methodist Church of Burlington is available at umcburl.org.