Bernt Hillesland grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the second child in a family of five. It was a musical household; all of the children took piano lessons and learned to play other instruments. On a few occasions, they performed as a singing family. That early training has served Bernt well in his role as a pastor with a good singing voice and the ability to pick up a guitar or mandolin and add strings to the music of worship.
Bernt attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He recalls: “My family was involved in church, but there were no pastors in the family that I knew personally. My great-grandpa Olaf was a pastor at Seamen’s Church in Seattle and at a congregation in Pasadena. I was a religion and English major at St. Olaf, and liked the way the two subjects intersected in story and myth. But I was not involved at all in church.
“Some church people and family encouraged me to become a pastor, but I didn’t really consider this until my senior year in college when I attended a seminar on vocational ethics. I had received a letter of encouragement from my home congregation and shared this with the seminar. From then on, my decision to become a pastor was a gradual experience, a process of ‘trying it out’.
“I went to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Tacoma and worked at Nativity House, a shelter for street people. Nativity House served two meals a day and had a daily chapel service in addition to a Sunday mass. It was here that I had my first preaching experiences during Sunday Mass. Sermons didn’t always go over well and sometimes I’d get interrupted by folks with mental illness.”
Bernt earned his MDiv at Yale Divinity School and fulfilled the requirement of one year at a Lutheran seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, California. His interests included ministry in a variety of different contexts — seafaring, college, social justice. He is curious about the relationship between ministry and the arts such as music and literature. He has also benefited from the help of two different spiritual directors, and he occasionally partakes of a few days of solitude and refreshment at monastic retreats.
“My internship in Hoquiam, Washington, was working with Pr. Jan Ruud – small church, depressed logging town. Jan’s experience was mostly in the mission field as a kid and grownup (Madagascar and Cameroon) and the church was featured in an ELCA video on ministry to the unchurched using catechumenate – a way of introducing the faith using mentors, liturgy and catechesis.”
Bernt met Kate Marshall when both of them were studying at PLTS, and were married in 2001, the same year Bernt was ordained and received his first call.
“Jan Ruud had moved to St. Mark’s by the Narrows in Tacoma and my first call was as an associate pastor there. We had roughly 350 attending on a Sunday in three services with 15 minutes between. The church was next to a Lutheran retirement home, where I actually lived for awhile. As a young guy, I used to get quite the looks going in and out of my room there. I commuted three days a week to Portland where Kate was doing an internship (and was pregnant with twins).
“There were over 20 retired clergy in the congregation at St. Mark’s — interesting how different they were – including the pastor who had started my home congregation, which split off from the other Lutheran congregation in Pasco, Washington – that pastor was present too at St Marks! My areas of responsibility: education, social ministry, young adult group. We had Bible studies in coffee shops. Got a group from the congregation involved with my Jesuit Volunteer Corps street shelter. I was there there from 2001-2007 or so.”
During this time, Kate finished her studies, and their third child was born. Pastor Bernt enjoyed taking his young family on walks and “adventures” in the parks and wooded areas in Tacoma.
“In 2007, I was called to St Luke, Woodland Hills, California, – similar in size to First Lutheran. It had just gone though conflict and was rebuilding. An amusing difference is that St. Luke has a big parking lot – the only lot in the block, so we often had issues with neighboring businesses using it. Towing isn’t fun. One guy would offer to cut my hair in exchange for parking..
“When the recession hit, we started a ministry providing pro-bono legal, counseling, and resumé help for people in crisis. Became a Reconciling In Christ congregation in support of LGTBTQ people. There was lots of worship and music and we went from two services to one. We’d get young people playing oboe, flute, guitars, trumpets in worship. For a while, one musician member would play Uilleann pipes. And we did bluegrass concerts with wine & cheese to support a local food pantry. We shared space for awhile with a Korean church, and had joint Korean-English worship once followed by Korean hosted meal. There were lots of issues with a 1950s building.”
Pastor Kate accepted a call to Chatsworth, California, and the family grew by two more to a total of five children. Since Pastor Bernt had grown up in a family of five, this was not a new experience for him.
“Why did we accept a call to First Lutheran in Palo Alto? Mostly because of where Kate was at: Her congregation ran into some serious conflict with former members and we were at one of those “what now” stages. The twins were ending elementary school. It’s not easy for clergy couples to figure out the best way to go: Having two congregations you can feel too stretched out, but working together has its own challenges. We have lots of admiration for each other as clergy and as spouses, as parents, as people, and First Lutheran seemed a good match for our interests, gifts, family needs.
“So in 2014, we accepted a call to be co-pastors of First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto.”
This is being written in 2022, eight years later. The co-pastorship has worked out well. Pastor Bernt and Pastor Kate take turns preaching and presiding on alternate Sundays. Since the work of a pastor is quite varied, each pastor has taken on the primary responsibility for certain areas of work. Pastor Bernt manages the business of the church; the office, committees, the building and grounds, and adult education. He plans the Sunday worship and engages in the music. He designs and manages an exceptional church website that is always up to date. When the Covid-19 epidemic suddenly shut everything down in March, 2020, he pivoted quickly to internet technology and in two weeks we were worshipping together again, remotely with Zoom.
Covid is still with us and we’re still adapting, not sure what the future will bring. It will probably be different from the time before, but the congregation is strong and with God’s blessing we’ll continue to worship, learn, and sing together in one way or another.